So much of our time was spent in the days leading up to Sunday's game between the Buffalo Bills and Baltimore talking about quarterback Lamar Jackson and the challenges of defending the favorite to win the NFL's Most Valuable Player award.
Now Jackson did throw for three touchdowns, so it’s not like he was a non-factor, but this game was about the Bills defense and the Baltimore defense.
It was an ugly opening quarter for Bills quarterback Josh Allen. The second-year quarterback went just 1-of-7 passing for 10 yards with the lone completion coming on an easy pitch and catch to running back Devin Singletary at the line of scrimmage. Among the notable misfires were a pass down the middle of the field to a very open John Brown that was thrown back inside when Brown had nothing but open field running left to right. The miss to Brown would have easily been a touchdown with a good throw. Allen then sailed two in a row towards the Bills sideline. The first was intended for Robert Foster, the next for tight end Dawson Knox. Those two would have been big gains that would have extended possessions.
The quarter ended with sack and fumble that set the Ravens up deep in Buffalo territory, and less than two minutes into the second quarter, the Bills were down 10-0.
The Bills did manage a field goal drive of their own. Allen got sacked on another second quarter possession that cost the Bills, at least, a long field goal try. Then, as time ran down in the half and the ball around midfield, the Bills, again, could not put together enough on offense, though they did manage a 47-yard field goal try that Stephen Hauschka made to leave the Bills down 10-6 at halftime.
Jackson had a quiet half, running for 28 yards and throwing for only 30 yards. Josh Allen passed for 39 yards and ran for only two yards. Both defenses were tough, and the lone touchdown came after Allen fumbled and Baltimore took over at the Bills' 24-yard line.
The second half began and three plays in, the Ravens struck for a 61-yard touchdown pass from Jackson to tight end Hayden Hurst. Facing an 11-point deficit with almost the entire half to go, what kind of answer would the Bills have?
A field goal to make it an eight-point game followed by a defensive stop and the Bills had the ball back again. That drive ended on a three-and-out, and here’s an observation for you that I would have never noticed had I not been at this game: On the second down play, Singletary was spilt out wide and ran a fly pattern down the sideline in front of the Bills bench. A completion on the play to Brown left the Bills with a 3rd-and-1. Singletary, at least to me, appeared to be looking to the bench for Gore to come in. The line of scrimmage was a good 50 yards away. Instead, the Bills sideline encouraged Singletary to hurry up and get back, which he did by sprinting to the backfield where he lined up behind Allen and promptly took a handoff that went nowhere.
I don’t know, maybe don’t give the ball to the guy who has just run a 100-yard dash next time? Nitpicking? Sure, but in a game where first downs are this hard to come by, failing to convert a 3rd-and-1 was tough.
The next Bills possession was undone by drops. First up, Singletary dropped an easy catch in space with a good chance to make something happen. Then, Cole Beasley dropped, what would have been, a big gain down the sideline. The throw from Allen was right there and Beasley got both hands on it. He simply dropped it.
From there, we had a long pass intended for Foster that fell incomplete. I mention that here because it’s likely that fans would have liked to see Sean McDermott challenge the play for pass interference and the fans may have a point. There certainly appeared to be contact by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith on Foster before they ball arrived. On an individual play basis, the challenge could have been a good idea, but when you take into account how those plays have gone in the league this year, I can understand McDermott being reluctant to throw the flag and potentially give away a timeout in a close game. It’s a tough call, but I think it would have been worth the challenge. You haven’t been moving the ball really at all. I don’t really like having to resort to having the officials help you move the ball, but maybe you get the call.
That play, at least, looked more like interference than the play that helped the Denver Broncos beat the Los Angeles Chargers late last week.
A 30-yard punt and a 51-yard Ravens touchdown drive made the score 24-9.
The Bills then put together a touchdown drive. The big play of the drive was a 38-yard run by Singletary. Beasley caught the touchdown and the two-point conversion, and we had ourselves a 24-17 ballgame with about seven minutes to go.
The Bills needed a stop from their defense and they got it, forcing Baltimore into a three-and-out. After the punt, the Bills had the ball on their 28-yard line, needing a touchdown to tie. 5:27 was left in the fourth quarter and the Bills had two timeouts.
Here. We. Go.
Well, sort of. The Bills ended up in great position to tie the game, but the drive wasn’t much. A pair of personal fouls on Baltimore got the Bills moving. Then a holding call on Buffalo negated a nice catch and run by Singletary. On 4th-and-16, Beasley drew a pass interference penalty that left the Bills with a first down at the Ravens' 18-yard line.
Ok, so now, Here. We. Go.
First down is Singletary for two yards. Second down is a throwaway. On third down, Allen did all he could do to avoid a huge loss and threw the ball away again. On fourth down, Allen got Brown matched up with Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters one-on-one and threw a decent enough pass. Peters was close enough to defend it effectively and that was your ball game.
Afterwards, McDermott refused to fall into the trap of claiming any kind of moral victory by playing such a tight game with Baltimore. I totally respect him responding to the question as he did. He’s the coach of the team, and it would sound bad if he was too happy about a loss.
I, of course, am not the coach. So guess what?
I leave this game feeling great. Sure, the AFC East idea probably died and that’s disappointing. If it needs to be said, of course I’d feel better if the Bills had won the game. But much like the New England game earlier this season, I feel like I just watched the Bills defense do a great job against a team many are calling the best in the NFL.
I know every week is different and the individual matchups within a given game will likely determine your winner. I feel like what I learned on Sunday is that no matter who the Bills draw in a likely Wild Card matchup, they’ll be in the game. Need it be said, if you’re in the game, then you’ve got a chance to win the game. They’ll need some combination of better throws from Allen and his receivers doing a better job of catching the good passes.
I’m heading into the final three games of the year feeling like the Bills have the potential to be a factor in the NFL Playoffs, not just get in.