A column by CHUCK POLLOCK, Sun Senior Sports Columnist
If there was any question about the Bills’ resilience, it was proven Monday afternoon at Highmark Stadium.
Oh, the Bills were favored by 9½ points, were playing on their home field and had the benefit of their diehard fan base which endured three-feet of snow which had fallen a day earlier with winds in the 20s and temperatures hovering around zero.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Buffalo, 12-6 and seeded second in the AFC, beat the seventh seed Pittsburgh, 31-17, in a first-round wild-card playoff game.
But it’s how the Bills did it that stands out.
OH, JOSH ALLEN, did his Josh Allen thing; three touchdown passes and a franchise-best playoff scoring run of 52-yards.
But that wasn’t what made this win special.
Buffalo had been plagued by injury on defense as top cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Matt Milano were lost for the season early on and run-stuffing defensive tackle Da’Quan Jones (pectoral) missed 10 games before returning.
However, things got only worse against Pittsburgh.
Cornerback has been a problem since White ruptured his Achilles tendon in a win over Miami in Week 4. Versus the Steelers, the list got longer. Christian Benford, a sixth-round draft pick in 2022, had established himself as a viable starter, but left after suffering a knee injury and nickel back Taron Johnson, one of the NFL’s elite, didn’t return after being diagnosed with a concussion.
And that was after Rasul Douglas, a takeaway machine — four interceptions, two fumble recoveries — since being acquired in a trade with Green Bay on Halloween Day, was inactive for the Steelers with a knee injury.
The status of Benford, Johnson and Douglas is unknown for next Sunday night’s divisional round game against the Chiefs (11-7) and their elite quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
IT’S A disturbing prospect if any or all of Benford, Douglas and Taron Jackson can’t go.
That means Mahomes would be working against a trio of subs, Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam at the corners and Cam Lewis at nickel. The latter is particularly concerning as he replaced Taron and was badly beaten for a Steelers touchdown.
Buffalo has three corners on the practice squad, veteran Josh Norman and youngsters Ja’Marus Ingram and Kyuron Brown, but they’re on the practice squad for the reason.
And that’s not the only defensive concern after Sunday.
Middle linebacker Terrel Bernard, who has been playing solidly, left the game with an ankle injury of undetermined severity and that was after fellow starter Tyrel Dodson was inactive due to a shoulder problem. During the game, Baylon Spetor, who replaced Dodson, left with a back issue, and was replaced by A,J. Klein a street free agent signed during the week and he and rookie Dorian Williams were Buffalo’s linebakers for much of the game.
Buffalo has no linebackers on its practice squad.
Small wonder there will be no “24-Hour Rule” to celebrate a victory for coach Sean McDermott and his defensive assistants as they try to riddle out the team’s cornerback and linebacker issues before the Chiefs arrive in Orchard Park.
NOTES FROM the Bills 31-17 wild-card playoffs victory over the Steelers Monday afternoon at cold, windy Highmark Stadium:
— The Bills and Steelerts are now 2-2 in all-time playoff meetings. McDermott is 5-5 in the playoffs for Buffalo.
— Allen’s 52-yard sprint for a second-quarter touchdown was not only the longest of his NFL career it was also the second-longest in NFL playoff history, behind only a 56-yarder by San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick.
— Buffalo’s first takeaway came when Steelers wide receiver George Pickens fumbled at the end of a reception with Bernard recovering.
The Bills second takeaway was an interception of Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph by Elam, last year’s first-round draft pick. It was his first of the season and third of his career.
— Buffalo needed a challenge to get possession on the fumble as, on the field, the pass was called incomplete. McDermott challenged and the call was reversed. It was only the ninth time in his 31 career challenges that it has gone his way. Later, a second challenge on a Pat Freiermuth fumble after a catch was rejected and the Bills went the final three quarters without having a remaining challenge.
— Buffalo kicker Tyler Bass had his first field goal attempt, a 49-yarder, blocked by Montravius Adams with linebacker Nick Herbig recovering, setting up the Steelers first touchdown. Bass also missed a 27-yard field goal in the final minutes that would have made it a three-possession game.
— Pittsburgh’s first sack of Allen was logged by linebacker Markus Golden, his fourth. The second went to linebacker Alex Highsmith, his eighth.
— The Bills only sack of Rudolph was made by defensive end Greg Rousseau, his sixth of the season.
— Steelers kicker Chris Boswell hit his only field goal and is now 17-of-17 on postseason attempts.
— Buffalo’s leading tackler was Klein who had been waived from the practice squad. He finished with 11 tackles and seven solos after replacing the injured Spencer who came in because Dodson was inactive
One again, edge rusher Von Miller didn’t record a single statistic.
The Steelers top tackler was safety Minkah Fitzpatrick with 10.
— Inactive for the Bills were wide receiver Gabe Davis (knee), safety Taylor Rapp (calf), Dodson (shoulder), Douglas (knee), defensive tackles Kingsley Jonathan and Poona Ford and offensive tackle Alec Anderson. Elam replaced Douglas, Damar Hamlin took Rapp’s spot and Andy Isabella was elevated from the practice squad to fill the open wide receiver spot .
Punter Sam Martin injured his hamstring on the blocked field goal, but he returned and handled punt and holder chores.
— The Steelers’ only injured inactive was outside linebacker and NFL sack leader T.J. Watt (knee), also on the list was No.3 quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)
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