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Bills 24, Chargers 22: Three things we learned

Buffalo’s playoff hopes remain alive after escaping Los Angeles with a narrow victory

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills escaped SoFi Stadium with a nail-biting, 24-22 win over a undermanned but plucky Los Angeles Chargers outfit on Saturday night. The win moves the Bills to 9-6 on the regular season, preserves their control over their own postseason destiny, and puts the team on a three-game winning streak at a critical point in the season.

It was not a pretty win. The Bills made a lot of mistakes at key junctures to keep the Chargers in the game, particularly in the first and fourth quarters, and nearly paid the price with a loss. Unlike losses in close contests from earlier this season, however, the Bills were able to make the timely plays needed to emerge victorious, and everything that was on the table for the team heading into the weekend remains on the table despite the lack of style points.

Here are three things we learned from tonight’s much-needed win.

Big moments nearly undo the Bills, again

Buffalo won this game despite three critical turnovers, and not forcing any reciprocating big plays defensively. This was the seventh time this season the Bills have lost the turnover battle in a game, and the third time they won such a game. (The previous two wins came against the New York Giants and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

The turnovers were instrumental in keeping the Chargers in the game. Deonte Harty fumbled a punt in the first quarter that set up the Chargers’ lone touchdown of the game, and put the Bills in an early 10-0 hole. After the Bills scored 14 unanswered points to take a halftime lead, their first two offensive plays of the second half were a James Cook fumble (which Buffalo recovered) and a Josh Allen interception. Goodbye, momentum.

After the Chargers cut Buffalo’s lead to 21-16 in the third quarter, the Bills took over and promptly executed a three-play drive in which they managed to lose 22 yards. They took two penalties and a sack on that drive, and then compounded the problem by calling a timeout instead of taking a meaningless delay of game. (That third timeout might have been nice to have late in a close game.)

And then on their next possession, clinging to a 21-19 lead, Cook fumbled again — losing it this time. The Chargers kicked another field goal, temporarily taking the lead late in the fourth quarter.

This was a classic case of the Bills not making it easy on themselves, and it sure looked like it was going to be another game in which mental meltdowns in key moments cost them a crucial win. But this time, the team found a way.

Big plays from unheralded receivers save the day

Buffalo was able to rally to win this game in large part because of big plays in the passing game. The majority of those plays were turned in by wide receivers not named Stefon Diggs.

Gabe Davis had a vintage Big Game Gabe performance, turning six targets into four receptions for a whopping 130 yards and a touchdown. He had gains of 17, 57, 20, and 36, and also had a 28-yard reception nullified by penalty in the fourth quarter. His 57-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter kick-started Buffalo’s offense after a terrible first quarter, and then he kept making plays thereafter.

Diggs got into the act on Buffalo’s 13-play, 64-yard game-winning drive — a possession that ate up 4:58 of the remaining 5:26 on the game clock. On 3rd & 8, Allen fired a laser to the sideline that Diggs caught after beating tight one-on-one coverage to extend the drive. It was by far his biggest play on another quiet night; he finished with five receptions for 29 yards, 11 of which came on that huge conversion.

On a subsequent 3rd & 4 play, Allen rolled away from pressure and found Khalil Shakir uncovered up the right sideline for a 28-yard conversion. Initially, it appeared that Shakir avoided contact, got up and ran into the end zone for a go-ahead score, but replay overturned the call and ruled him down — and that ultimately worked out in Buffalo’s favor, as they were able to burn clock and eat the rest of the Chargers’ timeouts en route to kicking a go-ahead Tyler Bass field goal with just 28 seconds remaining.

Without the big plays in the passing game, particularly those from Davis and Shakir, this otherwise dreary performance might have had a significantly less exciting outcome for the good guys.

Bills still control their own destiny

Buffalo came into this game knowing that wins in their final three games meant a playoff berth — and possibly a division title — and despite the increased heart rate, they took care of the first leg of that journey. Their next game comes on Sunday, December 31 at 1:00 p.m. ET in the comfortable confines of Highmark Stadium against the three-win New England Patriots.

In the meantime, some scoreboard watching is in order — if not for the Bills themselves, then certainly for their fans. Saturday went perfectly for them, with the Pittsburgh Steelers blowing out the Cincinnati Bengals to drop them below Buffalo in the AFC playoff picture. The Bills won. On Sunday, we’re rooting for: