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Buffalo Bills’ opponent preview: An identity analysis

Perhaps the Bills’ greatest foe is failure to establish a consistent identity

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are about to take on the Miami Dolphins in what could be one of the craziest regular-season conclusions of all time. By the time their game kicks off at 8:20 p.m. EST, Buffalo could be looking at a win-and-in scenario where loss means elimination. That’s not that crazy, but when the win-and-in is for the second seed in the conference, it makes the idea of missing the playoffs entirely seem absurd.

In order to guarantee their ticket to the postseason, Buffalo needs to go through Miami. Figuratively and literally. With no disrespect intended to the Dolphins, their injury-depleted roster is arguably not the Bills’ biggest foe. In order to come through with a win Buffalo will need to overcome their identity crisis —their arch-nemesis this season.

The Offense

The ups and downs of the season aren’t news to us fans, but let’s break them down a little bit. In totality, the Buffalo Bills have been very efficient, putting up the seventh-most points per drive this season at 2.41, and the sixth-highest scoring rate per drive with 42.4% of drives ending in points. You might even be surprised to hear that they’re 23rd in turnover percentage. By my rule of four, that’s still in average territory.

So where’s the identity crisis? They’re no strangers to a dip. In five games this season they’ve scored 20 points or less. Not all of those games have come against vaunted defenses, either.

This same team has dropped 30-plus points on teams six times this season. Some days the offense looks effortless. Other days getting a first down seems like a struggle.

Compounding the statistical fluctuation, the offense has also been volatile stylistically. Starting the season with plenty of two tight end formations, an injury to tight end Dawson Knox led to a reduction by necessity. There have been changes in the frequency of play action usage, featured play makers, and more.

Oh yeah, did you hear about them firing offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and replacing him with Joe Brady? Brady has only had six games calling the plays on offense and therefore can’t be considered anything other than a work in progress.

The Defense

Allowing 1.67 points per drive, the Bills are sixth-best in the league. They allow scores on 32.6% of drives, eighth-best in the league. Both of those are in large part to their 15.7% turnover rate. That’s second best in the league and only 0.1% behind the first-place San Francisco 49ers. They’ve only allowed teams to score 25 points or more in three contests. This threshold was chosen as it’s only a field goal more than league average. How does the defense have an identity crisis if they’re so consistent?

Two of those three games were against the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots. That’s a mediocre team and a horrific one. They also seem to lose their mojo when they need it most.

Buffalo allowed a terrible New England team to march down the field 75 yards, bleed out nearly the entire two minutes left on the clock and score a touchdown for the win. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo needed a stop to get the ball back to try and take the lead at the end. Cincinnati was allowed to burn over three-and-a-half minutes of clock for the win. The Denver Broncos were allowed to eat two minutes of remaining clock and drive down the field for a game-winning kick. The Philadelphia Eagles were able to drive down without much resistance for a game-tying field goal. Then in overtime, with Buffalo kicking their own field goal, Philly went right down and scored a touchdown to close the game.

Coaching and Culture

Head coach Sean McDermott has come under fire for coaching decisions repeatedly in his career. Against Philadelphia, the Bills had 20 seconds, a timeout, and a Josh Allen in the fourth quarter to try and move into field goal position for the win. McDermott famously told his team to kneel it to overtime. Prior to that he burned a timeout seemingly without cause, which would have allowed Buffalo plenty of flexibility to win the game in regulation. How is that an identity crisis?

Sean McDermott is the same coach who faced a tied game against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving last season. With 23 seconds left, and timeouts to help manage the game flow, McDermott did the opposite of what we saw this season. The Bills went for the field goal and won the game in regulation.

I could go on with examples, but this year’s Buffalo Bills have been hard to pinpoint with tendencies, aggression, and more. So who exactly are they?

The Buffalo Bills that faced off against the Dallas Cowboys, and yes, the Miami Dolphins earlier in the year were unstoppable. Against the New York Jets in Week 1 they were closer to unwatchable. In stretches between we’ve seen ups and downs across the board.

If the Bills sort themselves out we can only hope that the version of themselves they discover is the version that can win it all. The finger crossing begins... now.