Sunday afternoon Rex Ryan and his Buffalo Bills weren’t up to the challenge. Literally and figuratively. Not only were they challenged by which calls to challenge, but also by their failure to make necessary second-half adjustments.
After Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins torched the Kansas City Chiefs for six catches for 158 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, he inexplicably vanished in the second half. He was targeted just once more for zero catches after intermission. And it wasn’t because he wasn’t open, because he was. That foolish strategy – along with a defense that allowed Alex Smith to carve them up like a Thanksgiving turkey and a third-string running back to rumble for 114 yards – may have torpedoed their playoff hopes.
At 5-6 following the 30-22 loss, the Bills are now the 10th seed, with only the top six seeds (four division champs and two wildcard teams) making the playoffs. Buffalo trails Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Houston and Oakland in the wildcard race. They can leap-frog the Texans by beating them at the Ralph next Sunday, but leap-frogging both the Steelers and Chiefs isn’t going to be easy, especially now since Kansas City holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“We are out of mulligans,’’ said Ryan, who indicated his team might need to run the table to have a shot at ending their 15-season postseason drought, the NFL’s longest active streak of futility.
Before we delve into the challenges, let’s first deal with the Watkins strategy. The second-year wide receiver has let his feelings be known this season about wanting the ball thrown his way more. And after Watkins caught a combined six passes for 53 yards the past two games, Ryan totally agreed with him. Tyrod Taylor threw him the football eight times in the first 30 minutes and all Watkins did was set a personal record for most yards in a half, nearly topping his game-best mark of 166, set three games ago against the Dolphins.
Ryan said Watkins wasn’t targeted in the second half because the Chiefs made an adjustment, bringing a safety over to help in coverage. I’m not buying that excuse because there were a few times in the first half when Taylor threw to Watkins when he was double-covered and the receiver still came up with the ball, including once for a touchdown.
I’m also wondering why offensive coordinator Greg Roman didn’t do some different things with Watkins in the second half to counter what the Chiefs were doing. You can’t tell me he wasn’t anticipating Kansas City would be devoting extra attention to a player who was dominating the game. I could see using him a little more as a decoy in the second half, but to target him just once doesn’t make sense. And at some point shouldn’t the head coach walk over to his coordinator and say, “We need to get more balls Sammy’s way”?
Operating behind a patch-work offensive line that was without three starters, Smith went from game manager to game-winner, completing 19 of 30 for 255 yards and two scores. Jeremy Maclin, who entered the contest averaging five catches for 68 yards, caught nine balls for 160 yards and a score. Meanwhile, former practice squad back Spencer Ware rushed for 114 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries as the Chiefs scored on six of their final eight possessions against a Bills defense that clearly was missing injured linemen Mario Williams and Kyle Williams. Their absence contributed to the Chiefs robust ground game (158 yards). It didn’t help that dependable cover corners Stephon Gillmore and Ronald Darby had one of their poorer outings.
For some reason, a week after hitting Tom Brady on nearly 20 drop-backs, the Bills didn’t really go after Smith. Yes, he’s much more mobile than the Patriots quarterback, but Smith doesn’t handle pressure nearly as well and doesn’t read the field as quickly as Brady.
Rex lost both of the calls he challenged. More disturbing than that were two plays he didn’t challenge. Now, some of this is on the officials and the inability for even the NFL rules-makers to know what constitutes a catch any more. Trailing by eight and facing a second-and-10 from their own 20 with just under three minutes remaining, Taylor rifled a pass to Chris Hogan, who caught the ball and took at least three strides before being tackled to the ground, at which time the ball came loose. Officials immediately ruled it an incomplete pass, when it clearly was a completion. The Bills would have had possession at the 30 with another first down.
All of us on our couches could see it was a catch, as could the CBS commentators. But for some unexplainable reason, Rex eschewed the challenge. After a third down pass to Charles Clay netted just a yard, Taylor scrambled to near the first down marker before being pushed out of bounds. In a last-ditch effort, Ryan challenged the spot, but was unsuccessful, and the Chiefs ran out the clock.
Late in the second quarter, Maclin made a sliding catch in which the ball may have hit the ground before the receiver could secure it. Ryan didn’t appeal this one either. I’m not sure the replay would have been conclusive enough to overturn the call, but it was worth a shot. Certainly the chances of this one being overturned would have been better than the challenge Rex made on a Robert Woods catch that was ruled an incompletion.
A week after playing a team that had won four straight, Buffalo will host one that’s won three straight and needs this game as much as the Bills to stay in contention for a wildcard spot. Sunday’s Texans game will be followed by road contests in Philadelphia and Washington. Buffalo then closes out the regular season with consecutive home games against the Dallas Cowboys and the Jets.
Perhaps, they have another mulligan. Perhaps, they can still get in by winning four of five down the stretch.
More likely, though, they are going to need to win them all. And even if they do, they will need several of the teams in front of them to stub their toes.
Just like last year when they fumbled away a home victory against Kansas City, it appears that a squandered opportunity vs. the Chiefs has cost them again.
NOTES: Taylor completed 20-of-37 for 290 yards and three scores, but was just six-for-11 for 54 yards and one score in the second half. . . . The injury bug continues. The Bills lost running back Karlos Williams to a shoulder injury and defensive end Alex Carrington to a knee injury. Carrington had started in place of Mario Williams (foot injury). . . . LeSean McCoy rushed for 70 yards on 19 carries and also caught three passes for 31 yards and a touchdown. . . . Buffalo was flagged for nine penalties, including a costly special teams holding call against Ron Brooks that forced the Bills to start at their 10 on their final possession. . . . Jerry Hughes picked up yet another major penalty, when he intentionally bumped into Smith after he delivered a pass. The roughing-the-passer call kept alive a Chiefs field goal drive. . . . The Bills lost two fumbles – one by Taylor, one by McCoy. . . . Dan Carpenter missed his third extra point of the season.
WROC-TV correspondent Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills for 31 years and has written five books about the team’s history. The Professional Football Writers of America has recognized his work 11 times, including the past two years when he has finished first in column writing.