The first quarter of the NFL season was an offensive whirlwind, as teams broke league records for points, touchdowns and passing touchdowns in the first four weeks of a season. Everywhere you turned, it was a high-scoring extravaganza.
But evidently, the Bills and Titans didn’t get the memo. On Sunday at New Era Field, they played a stinker of a game that was more reminiscent of the leather-helmet era — or maybe that infamous 6-3 Cleveland win in Buffalo back in 2009.
That game came to mind earlier in the day when the news came that the Bills planned to sign veteran quarterback Derek Anderson, as a mentor and backup for Josh Allen. It was Anderson, remember, who went 2-for-17 passing for 23 yards in a winning effort for Cleveland that day at what was then known as the Ralph. Anderson could have walked in off the street and done as well as the two quarterbacks on Sunday.
But I imagine Buffalo fans saw it as a thing of beauty. When Stephen Hauschka won it, 13-12, on a 46-yard field goal at the final gun, exuberant fans had to take comfort in the fact that any win is good, especially from a team with the worst passing game in the NFL.
On a strange afternoon at New Era Field, a day when both offenses were dysfunctional, we finally got a game that wasn’t over at halftime, and that went right to the final horn. After seeing the Bills get blown out three times in four games, fans had to be happy to see the defense reprise its inspired play at Minnesota and get rewarded with a victory.
The defense was terrific, getting three takeaways and holding Tennessee to 221 total yards and 4.2 yards a play. Of course, the Bills mustered all of 223 yards and 3.5 yards per play. The difference, aside from the final kick, was that the Bills scored a TD — on a breath-taking 14-yard TD run by Josh Allen early in the game.
But Allen had a brutal afternoon, there’s no getting around it. He was 10 of 19 passing for only 82 yards. The Bills didn’t win because of him, but in spite of him, with an offensive game plan that featured LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory (a combined 128 yards on 38 carries) and demanded little from the rookie’s arm.
Of course, the Bills were determined to get their running game going after abandoning it in Green Bay. Coach Sean McDermott called out his team for failing to win the line of scrimmage during the week, and his team rose to the challenge on both sides of the line.
They ran the ball 21 times in the first half alone, after running their tailbacks just 11 times against the Packers. It was clear the coaches didn’t want to demand too much from Allen this soon in his career, especially against a Titans defense that had blitzed the most of any team in the league in the first four weeks under new coach Mike Vrabel.
Allen has a long way to go in his development as a franchise quarterback. Reports that they’ll be bringing in Anderson as a backup and mentor to the kid are evidence of that. Anderson is a marginal backup at this point, but he was the veteran influence behind Cam Newton for years when McDermott was in Carolina.
The Bills came into the game ranked last in the NFL in passing, and this performance will bury them even further. Allen was terrible for most of the day. The defense played an inspiring game, putting the offense in position time and again to pad the lead, but Allen and his guys were sadly incapable of taking advantage.
Midway through the third, the Bills got heavy pressure on Mariota and forced the Titans to punt. But the Bills did nothing on their next possession. Allen had to throw the ball into the ground on a screen, threw short and wide of Kelvin Benjamin on second down, then was short on a throw over the middle on third down.
It was reminiscent of games a year ago when the defense played heroically but the offense was dysfunctional — the 9-3 loss in Carolina early in the season and the 10-3 playoff loss at Jacksonville are the two most glaring examples.
But the defense kept coming. After the three-and-out in the third, they forced their third turnover of the day. Allen is a rookie, a kid. Mariota is a former second overall draft pick in this fourth season. But Mariota was nearly as bad. He hasn’t evolved nearly as well as a passer as the Titans anticipated when they invested so highly in him in the draft.
Allen made a rare sharp pass completion early the fourth quarter, finding the normally invisible Zay Jones for 12 yards to keep a drive alive. But on his very next throw, Allen’s throw for Andre Holmes was batted in the air from behind and intercepted by Adoree Jackson to give the ball back to Tennessee midway through the fourth.
At that point, you wondered how long the Buffalo defense could hold up. Mariota and the Titans had been a good team in the fourth quarter this season. A week earlier, they had beaten the defending champion Eagles in overtime — when coach Mike Vrabel pulled his field-goal team off the field and went for the winner in OT instead.
So the Titans had to feel confident as the clock wound down inside seven minutes of the fourth. The Bills’ defense held yet again — with Jerry Hughes stripping Mariota on a scramble, only to have the ball roll out of bounds. Ryan Succop booted a 50-yard field goal, his fourth of the day, and the Titans had their first lead of the day.
But the Bills moved the ball into possession for the game-winner, getting a huge catch and run from McCoy and some sensational power running by Ivory. Allen made the only throw he had to on the drive, hitting Ray-Ray McCloud in the flat for a key first down.
It was a win, to be sure, and will momentarily put the Bills back in the playoff hunt. But if you believe this season is all about Allen’s development, it proves little — except that even the most mediocre passer can win in the NFL when his defense plays lights out. This was the kind of game Tyrod Taylor won on occasion.
Allen will benefit from it, simply by being out there and marching a team to a winning score in a real NFL game. It’s a win, but it was another stark reminder of how far the kid has to go.