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Pollock: The Buffalo Bills’ season can still go three ways

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By CHUCK POLLOCK, Sun Senior Sports Columnist

After the Bills’ Week 12 giveaway overtime loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia which dropped them to 6-6, who’d have thought Buffalo’s season would come down to the finale at Miami, which we suspected when the schedule was released back in May.

That’s what happens when a team regroups after losing four games in fourth-quarter meltdowns … three of them in the final two minutes.

Thus, here they are at 10-6, facing a game Sunday night at Hard Rock Stadium against the Dolphins (11-5) with Buffalo’s season ending in three possible ways: a fourth consecutive AFC East title and a home playoff game, a postseason berth on the road, or elimination.

This dynamic was created Sunday afternoon by the Bills holding off New England, 27-21, at Highmark Stadium, and the Dolphins being fileted by the Ravens, 56-19, in Baltimore.

A bit surprisingly, Buffalo is favored by two on the early line.

Best case for the Bills is a win to have both teams finishing at 11-6 but Buffalo winning the division via two head-to-head victories. 

And even though Miami has already clinched a playoff berth, a victory would guarantee a first-round home game for the Dolphins — or Buffalo if it wins — and the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Should that happen for the Bills, they would host either the Colts or Texans in Orchard Park.

A loss for Buffalo wouldn’t eliminate it from playoff contention UNLESS two things happen: the Steelers, 9-7, win Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, where the Ravens, 13-3, are the conference’s top seed and have nothing to play for AND the Jaguars, 9-7, beat the Titans, 5-11, Sunday in Nashville.

BUT WHILE the Bills have put together an impressive rally, there’s reason for concern.

Their last two victories, 24-22 over the Chargers in Los Angeles and Sunday against the Patriots, have been anything but easy.

Buffalo’s offense has almost let the defense down.

In L.A., the Bills lost the turnover battle, 3-0, and needed a Tyler Bass field goal with 28 seconds remaining to secure the win.

Then, Sunday afternoon, New England returned the opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and though Buffalo took the lead for good less than nine minutes later, the cushion never felt secure.

Indeed, while the Pats outgained the Bills, albeit by only a few yards, star-crossed kicker Chad Ryland missed a field goal from 47 yards and had a 52-yarder blocked, those six points a telling stat in a game decided by that margin.

Buffalo had a six-minute edge in time of possession, won the turnover (4-1) and sack (3-1) battles and was still a touchdown away from losing.

Quarterback Josh Allen had a second straight substandard game. And while against the Chargers the Bills leaned on the running game (he threw only 21 passes), versus New England, Allen just wasn’t accurate, completing only half his throws.

Thus, even after four straight victories, when McDermott says “we have a lot to work on,” he’s being honest.

Other notes from Buffalo’s final regular-season home game:

— A highlight, even before the game started, was the appearance of Bills’ Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy and his family in a Highmark Stadium suite. Levy, now 98, was there with his family, wife Fran, and her daughter and grandson. Marv’s step-grandson had begged to go to a Bills game with him. They came in Saturday, made a visit to the Anchor Bar, and went to the game Sunday. Fittingly he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with his signature phrase: “Where would you rather be than right here, right now?”

— It wasn’t quarterback Josh Allen’s best passing effort. He went 15-of-30 through the air with an interception, a mere net 154 passing yards and a 53.3 quarterback rating. That effort ended his live NFL streak of 23 consecutive games with a passing touchdown.

He did score twice on 1-yard “tush push” TDs, giving him 15 rushing scores on the season and 42 touchdowns on the season. Allen was the first Bill to score multiple rushing touchdowns in back-to-back games since Willis McGahee in 2004.

— Wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who had four 100-yard games in the first five this season, has had none in the past nine. Sunday, he had four catches for 26 yards but now has 100 on the year, the fifth straight season he’s accomplished that. Diggs also has 803 catches over his career, the fastest NFL player to achieve 800 in his first nine years.

— Luckily, Bills’ fans had phones. Coach Sean McDermott decreed that the scoreboard did not show the crucial Miami-Baltimore score so that his players wouldn’t be checking it. Of course, during the week he declared he knew nothing about that … he was focused on winning the game.

— Jalen Reagor’s 98-yard touchdown return of the opening kickoff was the Patriots’ first since October of 2018. The last time Buffalo surrendered a kickoff-return TD was in November of 2019 when the Dolphins Jakeem Grant did it.

— Buffalo’s first takeaway came when defensive tackle Ed Oliver made a one-handed catch of a deflected  Bailey Zappe pass, the first of his five-year career. Later, Bills cornerback Rasul Douglas picked off Zappe twice, giving him a team-leading four on the season and the team lead since being acquired in a trade with Green Bay on Halloween. It was Buffalo’s first defensive touchdown of the year and he also deflected five pass.

Douglas has now had six takeaways in seven games and became the first Bill with two picks, including a “pick six” touchdown, in a game since Nickell Robey-Coleman in 2016.

A third takeaway occurred when middle linebacker Terrel Bernard knocked the ball loose from tight end Pharaoh Brown with cornerback Christian Benford recovering.

— The Bills’ three first-quarter takeaways were the most since that was accomplished in 2014 against the Jets.

— Bills kicker Tyler Bass kicked two field goals and three PATs and those nine points moved him into fourth place on Buffalo’s all-time scoring list passing Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed.

— New England’s lone takeaway was logged by safety Alex Austin, a Bills’ draftee, who picked off Allen, his 16th of the season. It was the first interception of Austin’s career.

— Oliver also was credited with the first sack of Zappe, his ninth of the season, trailing only end Leonard Floyd, 10½ . The next two went to Bernard, giving him 6½ on the year.

— New England’s only sack of Allen was logged by Deitrich Wise Jr. who was also credited with forcing a fumble which the Bills recovered. He now has 5½ sacks on the season. It was his first forced fumble.

— Heading the inactive list for the Bills, finally, was defensive end Von Miller, who has been a total non-contributor since he came off injured reserve rehabilitating from knee surgery over a year ago.

It was the first time in his 13-year career that he’s been a healthy scratch. In 11 games since returning to the roster, his contribution was three tackles and three quarterback hits.

Also inactive were safety Damar Hamlin (shoulder), cornerback Kaiir Elam, offensive tackle Alec Anderson and defensive tackle Linval Joseph.

— Out for the Patriots were four starters: wide receiver JuJu Smith Schuster (ankle) injured reserve, offensive tackle Trent Brown (no injury listed), tight end Hunter Henry (knee) and safety Jabrill Peppers (hamstring).

(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@wnynet.net.)

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