How in the world did this game come down to a failed, last-second Bucs Hail Mary, though?
Consider these facts:
- Four minutes and 20 seconds into the third quarter, the Bills held a 24-10 lead over Tampa Bay, and had scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives to close out the first half and begin the second (discounting a late-first half kneel down).
- The Buccaneers’ next three possessions would all end in punts, with the last of those concluding with 12:58 remaining in regulation.
- Bills quarterback Josh Allen had an objectively excellent game, completing 31-of-40 passes for 324 yards with two touchdowns and one interception, while adding 41 yards and a third score on the ground. (The interception was a deflected pass on a good Bucs defensive call.)
And yet, despite everything seemingly going their way, the Bills had to clench on the final snap of the game. Mercifully, the final Baker Mayfield midfield heave fell to the turf near an unsuspecting and slightly-penalized Chris Godwin to preserve Buffalo’s win.
We can pretty safely point to one man as the driving force for the way the game ended: Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who is definitively attempting to steer his sputtering team through a mid-season identity crisis. One could easily argue that he’s doing a poor job of it, despite the team’s not-so-terrible 2-2 record over the past month.
There were some feathers in McDermott’s cap to consider in this game, to be certain, as he embarked on his ultra-conservative second half shenanigans:
- Buffalo’s offense once again started slowly, failing to secure a first quarter touchdown for a fourth straight game; Amazon’s broadcast pointed out that this was the first time that’s happened since 2019.
- Part of that slow start was a failed 4th & Goal from the Tampa Bay one-yard line on the first play of the second quarter, in which the Bucs adeptly swapped coverage assignments mid-play, allowing Jamel Dean to harmlessly swat away a pass attempt for Dalton Kincaid and thwart an early scoring opportunity.
- Allen was once again not playing at 100 percent, having spent time in the blue medical tent to address a shoulder concern following a hard fall on a sack.
- Sandwiched around the Buccaneers’ three consecutive drives ending in a punt were three Bills drives that ended in a punt. They’d add a fourth after the Bucs cut the lead to 24-18 with just under three minutes remaining. On those four Bills drives, the offense didn’t have any three-and-outs, but also only accumulated 109 total yards while using up 10:33 of game clock.
McDermott is conservative by nature, despite his strong track record with coaching decisions in go-for-it situations. With the offense still only executing well in fits and spurts, his true nature once again revealed itself, and he put the onus on the other two phases of the team to close out the game.
The wisdom of that decision, in this particular season and circumstance, is questionable. Buffalo’s defense is banged up, with three prominent starters lost to season-ending injury (defensive tackle Da’Quan Jones, linebacker Matt Milano, and cornerback Tre’Davious White), two more playing at less than full health (edge rusher Von Miller and defensive tackle Ed Oliver), and the team relying on multiple inexperienced players at linebacker and cornerback.
All four of those aforementioned Bills drives that ended in a punt were situations where previous iterations of this team would have put pedal to the metal and tried to close out the game themselves.
- 4th & 5 from the Buffalo 49 with 5:07 left in the third quarter, leading 24-10
- 4th & 4 from the Tampa Bay 42 with 14:12 left in the game, leading 24-10
- 4th & 2 from the Tampa Bay 44 with 10:14 left in the game, leading 24-10
- 4th & 1 from the Tampa Bay 48 with 31 seconds left in the game, leading 24-18
Certainly, we shouldn’t expect Buffalo to try to ice the game on all four of those plays. But with the offense performing generally well on the evening, and still widely regarded as one of the most explosive offenses in the league, picking one or two to try to convert and ease the pressure on your underutilized special teams and undermanned defense makes sense. Instead, the Bills dialed up the old try-to-draw-them-offsides play call each time, to no effect, and the rest is history. For a coach as obsessed with complementary football as McDermott is, punting four times was not the play.
And no, McDermott likely did not expect his defense to commit penalties on two separate fourth down stops on Tampa Bay’s penultimate possession, twice extending the drive that ended with Mayfield finding Mike Evans for a 24-yard score to cap off a 17-play, 92-yard drive. Nor did he count on defensive tackle Jordan Phillips graciously deflecting Mayfield’s two-point conversion attempt into the arms of tight end Cade Otton.
What he might have considered, having watched those breaks go against his defense just one possession earlier, was that giving Tampa the ball back with any time on the clock might yield a similar result on, say, a Hail Mary. It has happened before — to a McDermott Bills team. With a painful result.
I don’t consider this a can’t-fault-the-end-result situation, either. Despite their continued stop-and-start success offensively, Buffalo was firmly in control of this game for three-plus quarters. Consciously or not, and certainly unluckily, McDermott yielded that control to an inferior opponent, and it very nearly cost the team a win.
So yes, the Bills are 5-3, which is where they needed to be heading into a huge Week 9 road tilt against the Cincinnati Bengals. But if there’s one thing we learned from this win, it’s this: the Bills are very much in a mid-season identity crisis, and McDermott’s game management actions tonight are the tip of that proverbial spear.
With a mini-bye week ahead, McDermott and the Bills must continue to self-examine, to determine what kind of team they want to be. I can’t imagine that they’ll emerge from the weekend wanting to win games the way they won this one, where trust was not equally placed in all three phases.