Sullivan: Welcome to a new golden age of activist athletes

Jerry Sullivan

Let’s start by taking care of one major piece of business. You might want to brace yourselves, and no, my brain has not been inhabited by sinister creatures from some other planet. 

The Bills are good enough to reach the Super Bowl. 

There, I said it. 

Look, I’ve been around. I lived through a 17-year playoff drought, with some truly poor and prehistoric Bills passing offenses. But I haven’t forgotten what a modern NFL contender looks like, and the team that got to 4-0 in Las Vegas on Sunday looks the part.

Are they flawed? Of course. Every NFL teams is nowadays. A quarter of a way into the 2020 season, it’s pretty clear that the Bills do not have an elite defense. They struggled at times against the Raiders, allowing the opposing quarterback to pass for over 300 yards with a rating of over 100 for the third week in a row.

It was troubling to see Derek Carr complete 32 passes to a stable of very ordinary receivers. Let’s face it, the Bills won’t face many teams who have a marginal wideout like Zay Jones in a prominent role. Imagine what Patrick Mahomes might do against them. 

But they won again, 30-23. They’re 4-0 for the first time since 2008, when Trent Edwards was fooling the world and they were destined to crumble to a 7-9 finish. This team is legit. It has Josh Allen, a rising young star who thrives on the big moment and is threatening to shatter all of the franchise passing records. 

The Bills have an elite offense. You can’t deny what you see with your own eyes. I can’t even remember who the wideouts were on that ’08 team, aside from Lee Evans. This team has four dynamite wideouts and, in Allen, a quarterback who has made stunning strides in his ability to read the field and find the open man.

Allen didn’t throw for 300 yards for the first time in four weeks. But he was good enough, completing 24 of 34 for 288 yards, two TDs and no interceptions. He had a couple of balls dropped. He took an egregious sack in the fourth quarter, but it’s reached the point where you expect at least one harrowing gaffe from him every game. 

They came in averaging 31 points a game and put up 30. This is what it looked like in 1991, the year Jim Kelly and the gang set the franchise record with 458 points and reached a second straight Super Bowl. This year’s team is on pace for 492 points, by the way, and it feels like they should have even more. 

The defense, sure, it’s an issue. But very few teams are elite on both sides of the ball in the salary cap era. That ’91 Bills team finished 27th in defense. So did the ’93 team. 

They had big names, like Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett, but they had a lot of days when they got gashed and the offense carried the day. Yes, the no-huddle was tough on a defense. But those defenses had flaws and it didn’t matter — not until it got run over in the Super Bowls, that is. 

Modern NFL title contenders are more likely to have great offenses and average defenses than vice versa. The Chiefs were 17th in defense last season. The Patriots were 21st two years ago. The Colts were 21st in defense when they won the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, 18th when they lost it. 

It’s a little early to make sweeping judgments about either side of the ball. Allen and the offense might be playing a little over their heads. The defense might be slow to find itself without a conventional preseason — though I don’t really buy that excuse.

Still, a quarter of the season is a pretty good gauge. If they stay healthy (were you a little terrified when Allen hurt his shoulder?), the offense will be difficult to stop. They simply have too many weapons. It’s a shock when they’re stopped on successive possessions.

The defense has problems. The pass rush has been inconsistent, which is tough on any secondary. They went nearly seven quarters, from early in the Rams game to late in the third quarter Sunday, without forcing a punt. They’re near the bottom of the NFL in most defensive categories in the second halves. 

They’re not as good as the defenses that finished second and third in the league in 2018-19, but they’re better than they showed the last three weeks. And they’re a resilient bunch, much like the Bills defenses that held up in the big moments in the early 1990s.

One thing I learned from the Super Bowl days was how a handful of big individual plays decide most NFL games. The defense would get pushed around, giving up chunks of yardage, then Bruce Smith would make a big sack, or Darryl Talley would strip the ball away, or Steve Tasker would block a punt. 

It was that sort of game Sunday. On their opening possession, the Raiders had a third-and-1 at the Bills’ 35. Ed Oliver stuffed Alex Ingold for a 1-yard loss, forcing a field goal. 

In the third quarter, Las Vegas had third-and-8 at the Bills’ 13, needing a TD to take the lead. Matt Milano and Jordan Poyer stopped tight end Darren Waller in the right flat, forcing another field goal and preserving the lead. 

Early in the fourth, the Raiders again drove into Buffalo territory. On second-and-11 at the 36, Waller caught a short pass and Josh Norman, getting his first playing time as a Bill, punched out the football and recovered it. Welcome to town, new Josh! 

Oh, on the very next play, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dialed up a deep throw. Allen fired one deep down the middle to Stefon Diggs, who ripped it away from the defender for a 49-yard gain to set up the insurance TD that made it 30-16.

That’s the sort of call you get when a coach understands how far the offense has come, and wants to impress that on the other team. You don’t think opposing coaches dread facing this Bills offense, knowing how merciless Daboll can be with these weapons and with Allen ready to attack downfield?

Back to the defense, though: Down 30-16, the Raiders went on fourth-and-1 from their own 34 with 9:52 left in the game. Oliver stoned Josh Jacobs — who finished with 48 rushing yards, his fewest since last year — for no gain.

Finally, reserve defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson stripped Carr and recovered the football later in the fourth quarter, taking away one more possession in a spirited but futile Raider comeback.

That’s five huge, timely defensive plays for a beleaguered defense, and a solid job on the Raiders’ star running back. It makes the overall defensive effort seem a little better, doesn’t it? 

They’re going to give up yards and points, but if they can hold most teams to 23 points, they’re going to win games. It’s hard to imagine Allen and that offense being limited to fewer than 23 points very often. 

As I said last week, a top offense gives a team a greater margin of error in games. You can withstand some defensive lapses and the occasional bonehead decision by Allen, because they’ll score enough points to overcome those shortcomings. 

I remember what it was like in the glory days. The Bills would score a bunch of points and win and people would be complaining about the defense, how they gave up too many rushing yards and let teams hang around in the fourth quarter. 

You know what you call it when the offense is putting up 30 points a game and you’re nervous about the defense but winning games? The good old days.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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