One of the main topics of discussion heading into Sunday’s game was whether the Bills’ stunning win at Minnesota was a fluke, or whether it was a genuine indication that they had pulled things together and might actually be a contender in the AFC playoff race.
Well, we got our answer. You can consider the Vikings game an outlier, or the football version of a market correction. The Bills were positively dreadful for the third time in four weeks in Green Bay, getting outplayed in every imaginable way in an unsightly 22-0 loss to the Packers.
Reality came crashing home, one week after a game in which the Bills took the Minnesota fans out of the game with two early turnovers and took a big lead without having to establish a running game — against a distracted Vikings team whose star defensive end, Everson Griffen, had been hospitalized with a mental breakdown.
They were the same sorry outfit we saw in the first two games. If not for the ongoing fascination with a franchise quarterback, it was boring and hard to watch. Josh Allen was off-target and skittish. They couldn’t run the ball, even with LeSean McCoy. The NFL’s worst wide receivers were shut down like a Bible Belt liquor store on Sunday morning.
The defense, which had generated historic pressure on Kirk Cousins in Minnesota, got dominated at the line of scrimmage. Again. They missed tackles, left receivers wide open down the field. Even the new shutdown corner, Tre’Davious White, got abused a time or two.
How bad was it? Allen was 16-for-33 passing for 151 yards, much of it in garbage time. Allen was sacked seven times. McDermott left his prize rookie on the field, exposed to punishment, into the final minute. I've given up trying to understand why coaches do such things.
Allen was 5 of 19 in the first half, including a hideous duck that was picked off in the end zone with his team in field-goal range just before halftime. Early in the third quarter, the Packers were outgaining Buffalo, 309-82. If Aaron Rodgers hadn’t been a little off in his passes, it could have been a lot worse than 16-0 at the half.
On their first 15 snaps on first downs, the Packers gained 120 yards, an average of 8.0 per play. It’s hard to generate much of a pass rush when your opponent is in second-and-1 half the time. Even so, there’s no excuse for Jerry Hughes to disappear after his heroic game a week ago. But that’s typical of Hughes, who had two sacks in his last 14 games a year ago.
Most reasonable observers weren’t counting on a second straight road upset. Fans would have settled for a competitive performance in defeat, one that confirmed the Bills are a better team than the one that was embarrassed in the first two weeks of the season.
Instead, in the immortal words of former NFL coach Dennis Green, “They are what we thought they were.” Green was talking about an opponent, but you get my drift. The Bills appear to be the same physically challenged group that got smashed in the first two weeks, one of the least talented teams in the league, a team destined for a very high pick in the NFL draft. That's who they are.
I don’t believe Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott expected their team to make the playoffs again this season. McDermott has hinted at it many times, reminding people that teams often take a step back and that the Bills aren’t close to being where they need to be in the Process.
Sunday’s loss cancels out the Vikings game and re-sets expectations to their pre-season levels. This team doesn’t have enough talent to make a playoff run. But it was supposed to have a good enough defense to be competitive in most games, and enough rising young players — particularly Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds — to inspire hope.
Allen is a little farther along than most critics imagined … especially when you consider that he would still be sitting and watching if Nathan Peterman hadn’t melted down in the opener. Edmunds has had his rough moments, but it’s encouraging for a kid his age (at 21, he was the second-youngest player to start an NFL opener) to be calling signals and acquitting himself nicely this soon in his rookie year.
Still, this was a sobering loss, a game that reminds you how far this team has to go. The Packers are a pretty average team. Aaron Rodgers, the superstar quarterback, made a number of big plays, but he was off on a lot of throws and could have been beaten by a more worthy foe.
The Packers came in as the NFL’s 24th-ranked running game, averaging 89 yards a game. They had their way with the Bills’ defensive front, rushing for 141 yards and a healthy 4.4 yards a pop (and 5.3 when the game was in doubt). In the early going, they gashed the right side of the Bills’ line — Hughes’s side — and constantly got themselves into favorable down-and-distance situations.
It was a chippy game, with a lot of players suffering minors injuries. Micah Hyde went out early with a groin injury in his return to Green Bay. Charles Clay limped off at one point. So did White. McCoy, who has been known to play hurt, seemed compromised by the rib injury that kept him out of the Minnesota game.
Kelvin Benjamin left with an apparent head injury after a collision with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Benjamin got into a verbal joust with rookie corner Jaire Alexander early in the game. He showed a lot of fire. It would be nice if he actually performed like a No. 1 wide receiver. It has become reflex to dismiss Zay Jones as invisible — until garbage time, that is.
The most significant correction of all, of course, was Allen. He was dynamic a week ago, hurdling defenders and throwing check downs to open receivers. The fact is, the Bills got 70 percent of their yardage after the catch in Minnesota. Allen didn’t need to do much when it came to the difficult mid-range throws down the field under pressure.
Allen struggled mightily in Green Bay. He looked like a raw rookie. He held the ball too long at times, threw short of receivers at others. He made that ill-advised throw late in the first half. It’s become fashionable to make excuses for the offensive line, but they continue to be overmatched in the run game and broke down often in pass protection.
Most of this was apparent in preseason, and during the opening two losses. The Minnesota game was an aberration, evidence of the confounding events that occur in a league where even the best teams come apart at times and the bottom-feeders can take advantage.
The Bills will rise up now and again, but they’re a bad team. They’re simply too thin at some positions, ane untalented at others, to hold up over an entire season. You can't hide $50 million in dead cap space. The injuries will continue to mount. So will the losses.
A quarter of the season is already done, and they’ve been atrocious for more than half of it. In the first half of their three losses, the Bills were outscored, 70-6. Think about that.
Be grateful for a gift like the Minnesota game. It’s nice to know those moments are possible. But acknowledge that the real Bills are the ones you saw in the three losses. Accept that it’s a learning “process” and that the bad days will outnumber the good, and that the thing they need most of all is time.