Sullivan: Bills a bright spot in 2020, but new year full of potential

Jerry Sullivan

There have been moments during the last two weeks when you really had to wonder. You’d swear there was something in the air, and I’m not talking about the winds that swirled around Bills Stadium on Saturday night.

Come on. Not one, but two medium-range field goal attempts by Justin Tucker, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, clanged off the goal post and out. A week earlier, the same thing had happened to the Colts' kicker. Could this really be a coincidence?

It’s enough to make you think that destiny was at work, that unseen forces had made a pact with the Bills Mafia to reward their decades of painstaking devotion and deliver Buffalo its first Super Bowl victory in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whatever the case, the Bills are back in the AFC championship game. On a wild, windy night in Orchard Park, they whipped the Ravens, 17-3, in the divisional round and will play the Chiefs-Browns winner for a Super Bowl berth at 6:40 p.m. next Sunday.

Oh, it’s the first time the Bills have played in the AFC title game in 27 years, since the last of the four Super Bowl years after the 1993 season. Who did they beat that day? The Kansas City Chiefs. Just saying.

I’m a realist. I stopped believing in destiny years ago. Boston fans felt the Red Sox were destined to win after the Carlton Fisk homer in Game 6 of the World Series in 1975. They lost the next game. Fans thought the Bills were destined to win the Super Bowl after the comeback game. Then they ran into a much better team, the Cowboys, and lost 52-17.

You know what trumps destiny? It also starts with "de." Defense. It was the relentless Buffalo defense that prevailed on a wind-whipped night when a clash of two young star quarterbacks, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, turned into an unsightly, low-scoring slog.

Jackson never had a chance. The Bills controlled him in the run game, confounded him in the passing game, and eventually knocked him out of the game with a suspected concussion when he raced back to retrieve a high snap in his own end zone late in the third quarter.

Of course, Jackson had suffered a greater indignity moments earlier. His ill-advised pass on third-and-goal, with Baltimore pushing to tie the game, was intercepted by Taron Johnson and returned 101 yards to make it 17-3. Concussion or not, that was your ballgame. There’s no way the Ravens were going to score 14 points on that Bills defense.

“Taron Johnson made a play a lot of people will remember here in Buffalo,” Josh Allen said afterwards. "It was a franchise altering play."

Johnson’s pick six, which tied the NFL record for longest interception return in a playoff game, will indeed take its place in the Buffalo annals — alongside Mike Stratton’s famous hit on Keith Lincoln and Carlton Bailey’s defensive touchdown in the 1991 AFC title game.

That return will be replayed over and over for years to come. But it was merely the finishing touch on a defensive masterpiece by head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.

The Ravens came in on a roll, averaging 34 points and 425 offensive yards during a six-game winning streak. Jackson was playing like he had in his MVP season a year ago. It didn’t matter. They took away his running lanes, blanketed his receivers, confused him with blitzes and consistently put him in difficult down-and-distance situations.

It was reminiscent of last year’s game plan, when the Bills held Jackson to his lowest offensive output of the season in a 24-17 loss in Buffalo. This year, however, they kept the Ravens out of the end zone.

The Bills have allowed yards and first downs, but over the last three months they’ve stiffened near their old goal-line. The Ravens had four first downs on their opening drive. But Levi Wallace came off the corner to sack Jackson, eventually forcing the Ravens to try a field goal by Tucker. It clanked off the upright.

That’s how it went for most of the night. The Ravens outgained the Bills, 340-220. They controlled time of possession. But the Bills’ defense made big stops at opportune times, putting Jackson into situations that were beyond his abilities as a passer.

Jackson is a dangerous player, a fabulous athlete. But he’s simply not in Allen’s league as a passer. He bristles at the criticism, but it’s warranted. Get the Ravens into obvious passing situations and a talented, resourceful defense will find a way to stop them.

Frazier and McDermott were ready, and it shouldn’t have been any surprise. Since late October, the Bills’ defense has been as good as any in the league. They give up running yardage, but the secondary does not get beat deep. They’ve held down some of the best passers in the NFL over the last 12 games, dominating most of them in first halves.

Allen wasn’t much better Saturday. He was 23 of 37 passing for 206 yards, his lowest output since November. He had some trouble throwing deep in the wind. But he led the Bills on an efficient, go-ahead TD drive at the start of the second half, finding Stefon Diggs (eight catches, 106 yards) for the 3-yard score.

That was all the Bills really needed. Allen didn’t turn the ball over for the second week in a row. He outplayed Jackson, last year’s MVP. Think about this: Depending on how things play out, he might have to go through the 2018 MVP (Patrick Mahomes) and this year’s likely winner (Aaron Rodgers) to win the Super Bowl.

That’s some heady talk, but it’s warranted. The Bills have won eight games in a row — seven by 10 points or more, If not for the Hail Mary against Arizona, they’d take a 12-game winning streak into next week’s AFC championship game.

They can beat anyone, and the X factor is a defense that has become very tough on opposing passers. They wouldn’t shut down Mahomes or Rodgers (or Baker Mayfield), but if they played the way they did against Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Jackson, they could hold them under 30.

It's a fast, deep, well-coached defense that plays well as a unit. It’s a tribute to Frazier, who deserves another shot to be an NFL head coach. There’s been a lot of buzz about offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and justifiably so. But the defense has quietly been one of the best in the league over the last three months.

It’s too bad the first two home playoff games in 25 years couldn’t have been played in front of a full house. The 12th Man is essentially a defensive phenomenon, a real factor. To their credit, the 6,700 on hand Saturday were rocking and sounded like 10 times that number at times.

“The whole stadium was a VIP section,” said left tackle Dion Dawkins. “Everybody was out there doing their thing.”

At times, it must have felt pretty surreal in that stadium. A Bills lover could be excused for thinking it might be a team of destiny. But it’s not about fate or luck, but the simple fact that they’re very good, and capable of winning the whole damn thing.

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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