A column by CHUCK POLLOCK
A “must win” in the second game of the season?
Well, yes, it’s a bit of hyperbole, but not as much as you think.
The Bills, who gifted the Jets a win Monday night in the Meadowlands, return to Highmark Stadium for their home opener, Sunday afternoon against the Las Vegas Raiders.
It’s a game Buffalo just has to have, not only given the dynamic of the AFC, but also the East division.
There’s little disagreement which conference is the NFL’s elite, at least this season, and the best, competitively, is the AFC East.
But Week 1 provided a sobering insight.
The Bills, in a national telecast, could not have looked worse. They couldn’t beat a team which lost its franchise quarterback for the season after a mere four snaps. And while Aaron Rodgers’ ruptured Achilles tendon effectively ended the Jets’ hopes of a divisional title, for one game they gutted out an impressive win by turning over Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen four times — three interceptions and a lost fumble — then put a galling exclamation point on the win with a punt-return touchdown in overtime.
THAT’S A TOUGH memory to purge … giving away a game when circumstances were entirely in the Bills’ favor, including a 10-point second-half lead.
Now they face a Raiders team that merely went into Denver and spoiled Sean Payton’s inaugural, 17-16, last Sunday.
But it wasn’t a fluke.
The Raiders have two huge offensive weapons. Wide receiver Davante Adams and running back Josh Jacobs, are in the NFL’s top three in their respective positions, and there’s an experienced game manager at quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo.
On defense, Las Vegas has Maxx Crosby at end, one of the NFL’s top pass rushers.
All of which make you wonder why the Bills are 8½ -point favorites, the second longest odds in this weekend’s games.
FOR HIS part, Bills coach Sean McDermott is thrilled to be back at Highmark Stadium.
“Any home game in Orchard Park, is special,” he said. “It’s an incredible atmosphere unlike any place in the NFL … similar in some way to Lambeau (Green Bay’s home field).
“The environment, the cookouts. I really enjoy driving into the stadium in the morning, watching people hanging out and spending time with family and friends.”
McDermott added, “It’s not like at some stadiums where it’s half-full at kickoff and then fills in a little bit. (Bills fans) are here right at the start, which I love.”
OF COURSE, there wasn’t much discussion of the elephant in the room … Allen’s propensity for turning the ball over and declining to slide or step out of bounds on his runs.
And, after six years, Allen still has ignored suggestions about protecting his body on the run and making better decisions when forcing passes downfield.
Instead what we get from him is, “Obviously, I’ve got to play smarter football.”
We’ve heard versions of that since 2018 and nothing changes.
And here’s the reality, in 2020, Allen ranked 13th in NFL interceptions, in 2021 he fell to 17th and last season he tumbled to 23rd, a frightful freefall.
Meanwhile, McDermott is visibly uncomfortable with questions about why Allen isn’t listening to anybody.
“Josh is extremely resilient,” he said, recycling the same thing he says after every sloppy loss tied to his quarterback’s careless play. “We’ve been through this experience before in terms of having to reset after a game like that. That’s what I expect (him) to do fully.”
But this is Year 6, Allen is far from being a rookie and yet there’s no sign he’s learned anything about protecting the football.
Clearly, the mindset is that his big arm plus the power and mobility on the run will extract the Bills from a potentially hurtful loss.
But he isn’t impervious to injury, especially some of the hits he takes during his too many rushes.
Allen isn’t an elusive rushing QB such as Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes or DeShaun Watson … he’s a power-runner with speed who relishes dishing out punishment. But that’s hardly the formula for NFL longevity at the quarterback position.
And you don’t get the idea Allen is in any hurry to change.
At a press conference earlier this week, he said his approach is, “Internally just understanding the game, understanding situations and making that a point of emphasis on game day.”
But isn’t that what every quarterback should be doing by his sixth season?
Allen continued, “I let it get away from me last game. (But) I’m not going to let it affect me going forward. As a quarterback in this league, the best ones are able to kind of put this behind them, but take away lessons from it and not let it affect how they play the next game in a negative way.
“It’s not the first time I’ve thrown three (interceptions) and, barring how long I play in this league, hopefully it’s a long time, it might not be the last I ever throw three.”
In assessing his career, Allen added, “It’s a double-edged sword of I get away with it a lot of times and sometimes I don’t and sometimes it hurts us. I just need to know when and where to do it and when not to do it. That’s a learning process that takes a long time.
“In Year Six in this league, I should know better when to do that. Now I’ve gotta go out there and I’ve gotta prove that.”
Personally, the line seems to be too much, but Buffalo should still win.
Bills 24, Raiders 20
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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