Sullivan: Gray leading Niagara through tumultuous 2020

Jerry Sullivan

Talk about an inconclusive outcome. Heading into Sunday’s game at the Jets, the prevailing sentiment among Western New Yorkers was that nothing short of a blowout victory would be sufficient. 

So what do you say about a dreary, 18-10 win, a game in which the Bills couldn’t score a single touchdown against a winless team that had allowed at least three TDs in each of its other six contests?

Do you jump up and down, declare the Bills a legitimate championship contender again? Do we heap praise on the beleaguered defense for having the same number of sacks (four) as passing yards allowed against Sam Darnold in the second half?

This was not an artistic triumph, nor a game that’s likely to restore the flagging faith of fans who had started to wonder if the Bills were a legitimate title contender and if their 4-0 start was a classic tease.

It was a win, which sure beats the alternative. When the Bills fell behind 10-0 in a miserable first half, it was shaping up as one of the most humiliating losses in team history, tossing Bills Mafia (trademark here) into a panic.  

But mercifully, the Bills pulled themselves together and discovered the “sense of urgency” that all teams carry around in their bag of cliches. They took care of business, dominating the worst team in the NFL and snapping their losing streak at two.

Again, this doesn’t prove anything, except that Josh Allen and the Bills are good enough to let a bad team hang around for much of the day — as they did at home against winless Miami a year ago — and prevail in the end. 

So they’re 5-2, still atop the AFC East and a game ahead of both the Dolphins and Patriots, pending New England’s game against San Francisco. If they can beat the Pats at home next Sunday, it’ll be a more meaningful indication of where they stand in the NFL.

Look, I don’t want to diminish what they accomplished Sunday. After a shaky start, Allen completed 18 of 23 passes for 178 yards in the second half. Overall, he was 30 for 43 for 307 yards, his fourth 300-yard game of the season.

Allen didn’t throw a touchdown pass — he had thrown at least two in every game until Sunday’s — but he played with the accuracy and poise he had demonstrated during the team's stirring 4-0 start. 

Oh, he was Bad Josh-shaky early. He lost a fumble and threw two or three squirrelly passes that could have been intercepted. We’ve grown accustomed to these lapses into hero ball, but he’s completing 68% of his passes on the season. He’s still on pace to break the franchise records for passing yards and TD passes.

Gregg Williams, the Jets’ defensive coordinator, had clearly gone to school on the Chiefs and Titans games. He generally rushed only four men, took away the deep stuff and forced Allen to beat him with crisp underneath throws. Allen obliged him.

The question, of course, is whether he can do it against the best teams, and if he can engage the elite quarterbacks in a shootout when his defense isn’t stopping the opposition. Allen couldn’t do it against Patrick Mahomes last week or Deshaun Watson in the playoff game last January, so he still has a lot to prove. 

Then there’s the defense, which dominated in the second half against a very bad Jets team. It was about time they dominated someone. Jerry Hughes was terrific when it mattered. The secondary actually lived up to its elite reputation, blanketing Darnold’s sorry stable of wideouts for much of the afternoon.

But why did it take so long for them to settle in? The Jets ran the ball down their throats early. Frank Gore, the geriatric ex-Bill, was inspired in the first half. Late in the half, the Bills had possessed the ball for just 5:36. They were allowing the opponent to keep Allen off the field, as KC had done on Monday.

Then Darnold made one of those throws that makes Jets fans rue the day they drafted him over Allen (and Lamar Jackson) in 2018. Darnold made a lazy throw down the left side, ignoring backup corner Dane Jackson, who made the interception — amazingly the first pick by a Bills defensive back all season.

That turned the game around. The Bills took the ball at their own 27 with 40 seconds left in the half and marched into position for a 48-yard field goal by rookie Tyler Bass, who wound up tying the franchise record with six makes. Allen was 4 of 5 passing on the drive and seemed to find his rhythm. 

It continued after halftime, as Allen remained in a groove and the defense made life a living hell for Darnold, who was 1 for his last 10 passing and got sacked four times. The Bills blitzed and got more pressure than they had all season, albeit against a weak O line and the worst third-down offense in the league. 

There was a sense of relief among the Bills in the closing seconds at MetLife, a feeling that they had escaped. They were without some key players, including John Brown, Cody Ford and Josh Norman. 

They were without tight end Dawson Knox, who had tested positive for COVID-19, and three other players at his position who had been in contact with Knox — on National Tight End Day, no less.

The defense is still a huge issue. It’s simply not the same unit without the departed guys from last year’s defensive front. Ed Oliver and Tremaine Edmunds seem overwhelmed at the point of attack at times, finesse players who struggle to get off blocks. 

The problems aren’t going away because they dusted off the Jets. Most of the Jets’ offensive players wouldn’t start on winning NFL teams. Frank Gore? La'Mical Perine? Really? 

The Bills are a long way from reclaiming their status as an elite D. At this point, it’s more a question of whether they can be average, the sort of opportunistic defense that can complement a high-scoring offense and hold its own in playoff games — assuming Allen does his part.

Again, beating the Jets proves little. There’s a slow, gathering perspective to an NFL season. Looking back over the last few weeks, it appears that the Bills aren’t in the same class as the AFC’s top teams, and they’re clearly better than the conference’s doormat.

Where they fall in that vast middle remains to be seen. The best teams tend to improve in the second half of seasons. The Patriots have been the best example for two decades under Bill Belichick. Next week, no doubt, will tell us quite a bit more.

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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