Joe B: 7 observations from Buffalo Bills vs. New England Patriots (12/24/17)

(WKBW) - Through it all, the Buffalo Bills had two weeks to prove they could end the playoff drought at 17 years, and to take a major step forward as head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane continue to try and built the roster for the long-term. Considering the help that they got in the form of a Tennessee Titans loss.

However, the mighty New England Patriots stood in their way and left them with a 37-16 loss, and now a win-and-hope-for-some-help situation setting up for Week 17 of the regular season.

How did it all happen? Seven observations from the loss that leaves the Bills with an 8-7 record:

1) The touchdown that wasn’t
- The Buffalo Bills had a tremendous opportunity at the end of the first half. Down by a score of 13-10, the Bills were on the doorstep of putting points on the board and going into the halftime with a 17-13 lead — and they were getting the ball back to start the second half as well. Tyrod Taylor threw a fade route to the back corner of the end zone to Kelvin Benjamin, and the initial ruling was that he came down with the catch. That is, until the play went for a review and it was reversed, bringing on a firestorm of harsh words from fans, players, and even head coach Sean McDermott himself regarding the decision. There are a few things to digest here — and first, we’ll start with the play itself. I’m being completely honest here… I don’t know if it was an actual catch. I think it was a too close to call, and I don’t envy the officials on the field for having to make that call right away. However, I also think that it’s one of those calls — after all the different looks we saw — that you cannot simply overturn. The word ‘inconclusive’ comes to mind, and I don’t think it should have been overturned. Had it been ruled incomplete on the field, I don’t think they could have overturned it in the Bills’ favor either. That was an error by the NFL, in my opinion. However, it went against the Bills and they were clearly shaken by the call almost to a man. Head coach Sean McDermott said that he doesn’t understand how it gets overturned, multiple players within the locker room were adamant that it was a horrible call, and it was clearly attributed by many there as a contributing factor to the loss. I do think Sean McDermott has to be extremely careful here with this situation — and I think he should deal with it much like how he approached the situation with the hit from Rob Gronkowski on Tre’Davious White a few weeks ago. He did a great job of buttoning that up and not allowing it to become a lingering talking point past the first day or so, but this one feels like it could be a bit different. There isn’t any time for dwelling on what just occurred, especially with a must-win game quickly coming up in Miami next weekend. If the team can’t shake off the feeling that they were slighted the last time around, that’s at least a small percentage that isn’t being attributed to the major task at hand. McDermott, although he’s mad now, has to nip this in the bud immediately.

2) The Bills can blame themselves, too
- Throughout the game, the Buffalo Bills scored all of nine points on the offensive side of the ball and all they have to do is look in the mirror for not really being even close by the end of the contest. Tyrod Taylor and the offense went without scoring a touchdown, with the only big scoring play coming from Jordan Poyer and his interception return for a touchdown — but that wasn’t with a lack of opportunity. We know about the Benjamin play, but that play should never have happened. That’s right… all the controversy, all the conversations, all the potential fines the Bills may incur for being critical of the call by the officials — it would have vanished had the top tight end on the roster, and one of the highest-paid tight ends in the league, done the rudimentary task of catching a pass in the end zone that hit him squarely in the hands and chest. That should have been a touchdown right then and there, the Bills should have had a lead going into the half, and then the rest of this never would have had to happen. So, there’s one wasted opportunity for points and a net loss of four points. Earlier in the game, there was also a 3rd-and-2 play in the New England red zone in which LeSean McCoy went out on a route, and had his man beat as he broke toward the sideline in the end zone. Taylor spotted McCoy, threw the ball… and wasn’t even close. It was low, it was away, and it was a massive opportunity missed for a touchdown. The Bills went for it on the next play and was unable to convert, bringing that, plus the Clay drop up to a net loss of 11 points that they should have had. Where New England capitalized on chances to score, the Bills were woeful once again and ended a two-game matchup with the Patriots by scoring only 12 points.

3) Why kick a field goal?
- This is one decision that really stuck with me after the game. Head coach Sean McDermott, down by seven points with just 13:13 left in the game, elected to send out his field goal unit on a 4th-and-1 opportunity from the New England 32-yard line. A few things about this bother me, and we’ll start with the obvious: field goals aren’t going to get the job done against the New England Patriots. You need touchdowns… plural -- and the Bills wound up with an awful 14-point swing thanks to the missed field goal and the Patriots marching the ball down the field for a touchdown. The Bills, who struggled to score a touchdown in seven quarters against this opponent, were only 32 yards away and chose to take the “safe route,” even when gaining a yard with one of the league’s best running backs was the safer option to try and keep them afloat in the game. The second part that bugs me about it is the fact that the Bills were being aggressive earlier in the game. They went for it earlier in the game on a 4th-and-2 in New England territory and didn’t convert. Then, on the Kelvin Benjamin overturned touchdown, the fact that we’re all forgetting is they ran that play with just six seconds left on the clock in the first half — and in many situations, that’s a spot where teams will just take the field goal and not take the risk of being held without a point. Those two decisions were admissions that the Bills knew it would take touchdowns, and not field goals, to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots. To know that they thought that, and then went away from it in the fourth quarter, makes it especially a frustrating call. Lastly, after the game, I asked McDermott as to whether the lack of results from being aggressive earlier in the game helped contribute to his decision to kick the field goal. While he said a lot of things went into the decision, he also stated that the negative results weighed into it as well. Each fourth down decision should be made independent of one another, and while multiple factors should be weighed, what the team did previously should not be one of them — especially not when LeSean McCoy is sitting there on your roster. Two steps forward, one step back in the game management for Sean McDermott on Sunday.

4) Why go away from Kelvin Benjamin?
- Although his day was likely defined by the call to overturn his touchdown, Kelvin Benjamin also had his best game as a member of the Bills since being traded to them in the middle of the year. He was a true Charles Barkley-esque power forward of a wide receiver that just bodied Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore all throughout the game, and Benjamin dominated on all of his underneath routes. Despite such a great matchup for the Bills — and one that was seen on the first drive of the game for the Bills — Buffalo decided to go away from Benjamin for a substantial portion of the game. From the last time Benjamin was targeted on the first drive, to his next target at the end of the second quarter, 21 minutes and 50 seconds elapsed. The Bills were a bit smarter with this in the second half, but this has been a habit of this offense far too often this season. They find something that works, and for some inexplicable reason, they go away from it for long stretches of time. We mainly see it with LeSean McCoy, but on Sunday, it was with Benjamin. All of the evidence we see on a weekly basis needs to be weighed in the offseason on if there is a decision to be made about Rick Dennison.

5) Poyer proves how the safeties saved the defense
- Make no mistake… when Jordan Poyer returned an interception for a touchdown, that was no ordinary mistake by Tom Brady. Poyer, through his scouting during the week and ability to track the ball as well as he does, baited Brady in thinking the throw over the middle was there, and then quickly closed on it as soon as Brady made one motion toward the wideout. He completed the play and brought it back for the Bills only touchdown against the Patriots in 120 minutes of play. Poyer, combined with Micah Hyde, turned what was a humongous weakness for the Bills coming into the season into an absolute strength. In fact, if it weren’t for that duo, I’m not sure the Bills would be nearly as competitive as they are this season. Together, they have nine interceptions, but their positioning and tackling make them so much more than just players that can capitalize on a chance at a turnover. Those two have been revelations for this defense, and two long-term building blocks as more changes are likely to come to the defense this coming offseason.

6) The run defense does the Bills in again
- As has been the case for much of the season, the Buffalo Bills got pushed around right up the middle of the line and it led to Dion Lewis having a career day against them. Without the presence of either Rex Burkhead or James White in the lineup due to injury, Lewis ran all over the Bills in the fourth quarter, totaled 153 yards from scrimmage for the game, and had a pair of touchdowns to go along with it. It really is just a case of needing more talent up front and up the middle. Defensive tackle is a humongous need for the Bills — especially with Kyle Williams playing well below the level we’ve come to know for him year after year. The Bills need that, perhaps a pair of new linebackers that fit the system, and maybe even a defensive end. The front seven will need to be a priority for McDermott and Beane in 2018.

7) McCoy proves his value once more
- Every once and again, LeSean McCoy reminds you with a ridiculous individual effort as to how truly special a player he is for the Bills. McCoy, as quiet as it could possibly be, racked up 147 yards from scrimmage for the Bills in a game that he helped dominate — and probably should have had more. His 39-yard reception was a thing of beauty, leaving a defender in his dust and then using the open space on the field against the defenders — almost making it all the way to the end zone. In most cases, heading into a season with having a 30-year old running back accounting for over $8 million in cap space is an unsavory option. However, McCoy is not the same as most cases out there. He’s still playing at an incredibly high level, and while the Bills should look to draft a young backup running back to develop in the offseason, there is no reason to try and fix what isn’t broken with McCoy.

Bills MVP: RB LeSean McCoy
- He was outstanding all day. Second place goes to Kelvin Benjamin.

Bills LVP: OC Rick Dennison
- The constant infatuation with Mike Tolbert, along with a bootleg delayed fullback screen that went for negative-eight yards led to unsatisfactory results — especially considering that the Bills had been driving the ball down the field and completely ruined the momentum of that drive.

Up Next: The Bills take on the Miami Dolphins in the final week of the season on the road on December 31. The game has been flexed to 4:25 pm, and they’ll play at the same time as the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans, and the Los Angeles Chargers — the three teams they’re competing with for the Wild Card spots.

[Related: Here’s how the Bills get into the playoffs; all the playoff scenarios and what they mean for the Bills]

Final Thoughts:
- Well, we certainly knew that this would be a tough challenge for the Buffalo Bills heading into this game, and it proved to be just that. The Bills came in with a great game plan for Tom Brady and the passing offense, and much like the first time these two teams played, Brady struggled to get going like he normally does. Eventually, the talent disparity and depth of the rosters began to take shape, and the Patriots pulled away. The game wasn’t without its controversies, but at the end of it all, the Bills just couldn’t contend for all four quarters — and especially not when adversity hit. Of the final two games, the win over Miami was always the more important one — that is, if they had to choose only one. The Bills still have a realistic path to the playoffs as long as they can take care of their own business on Sunday and get one or two things to go their way. Regardless of the outcome against the Patriots, the Bills will play in their first truly meaningful game in Week 17 since 2004 — and we’ll truly see what they’re made of.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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