It's been a month since the Buffalo Bills made the difficult choice of switching offensive coordinators in the middle of the season. There was more than a tinge of desperation attached to the move, but few are complaining about it at this point.
Buffalo's offense has caught fire since Joe Brady replaced Ken Dorsey as the Bills play caller on November 14. Since then the Bills have revamped the attack, relying more on James Cook and the running game while allowing Josh Allen to carry the ball more often himself. The results have been staggering as the Bills offense leads the league in yards over that span and has topped the 30-point mark in three of the four games. Buffalo has converted nearly 50 percent of its third downs under Brady as well.
Not coincidentally, Buffalo won three of those four including Sunday's demolition of the red-hot Cowboys, averaging 29.3 points since Dorsey's dismissal. It's not like Brady has benefited from beating up on the weaklings, either. Buffalo has wins over the Jets, Kansas City and Dallas during the stretch (three of the tougher defenses in football), as well as a 37-34 overtime loss in Philly that featured some questionable calls in the Eagles favor.
Cook has been the centerpiece of it all, and not just as a runner. While he bulled his way to a career-high 179 yards against Dallas, he's also been a dangerous receiver. He's caught 16 passes and three touchdowns under Brady, offering Allen some easy completions that have allowed the offense to stay out of long yardage situations. This after managing only 24 catches during the first 10 games.
The offensive explosion has allowed Buffalo to pick itself off the mat and reemerge as a contender in the AFC. The problem is at 8-6 they've used up most of their mulligans and still have a lot of work to do just to get into the playoffs. With games at the Chargers and home against the Patriots, it could set up a winner-take-all showdown with the Dolphins for the AFC East title in the finale.
But when the Bills were stumbling at 7-7 following the bitter loss to the Eagles, staring at dates with the Chiefs and Cowboys, few felt Buffalo would be in the equation at all. Now, the Bills have become the team nobody wants to face in the postseason – and that's in large part due to Sean McDermott's bold decision to make a change at coordinator.
Playing to win the game?
Bill Belichick has had a curious pattern of game management in recent seasons when trailing by multiple scores late in games. While it's true that chasing touchdowns in the waning minutes is a difficult way to win, it seems like Belichick at times has been content to not lose by more rather than trying to mount an improbable comeback.
The latest example of that came Sunday in the 27-17 loss to the Chiefs. After rolling the dice to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Kansas City 16 in the second quarter, and then watching Bailey Zappe hit Hunter Henry for the tying touchdown, Belichick lost his nerve on fourth down going forward.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs took control of the game late in the first half and scored on three straight possessions (17 points) during a span that saw New England possess the ball for a grand total of two plays (one being a meaningless run to close the first half). It was at this point when Belichick seemed pull back on the throttle instead of trying to desperately claw back into the game.
It started on the Chiefs last possession before halftime. The Patriots actually led 10-7 at that juncture but K.C. was threatening with a first down at the Patriots 21 coming out of the two-minute warning. Both teams had all three timeouts but the Patriots chose not to stop the clock after a 2-yard run bled 38 seconds off the clock. The Chiefs then picked up 7 yards on a Rashee Rice catch, setting up third-and-1 at the 12 with the clock still running. Still, no timeout from Belichick to preserve time for a potential Zappe hurry-up drive of his own. Instead, as the teams set up for the third down play, Belichick finally called timeout when he didn't like the defensive alignment, leaving just 50 seconds to go before the half.
Kansas City picked up the first down and eventually scored with :35 left. Clearly the clock was not going to be a factor for the Chiefs as they were well within scoring range with three timeouts. So, why wouldn't Belichick try to steal a possession in what was still a tight game?
After the Mahomes explosion turned it into a laugher at 27-10, Belichick still remained conservative. Early in the fourth quarter Belichick opted to punt on fourth-and-3 from his own 42, then punted again on fourth-and-4 from his 33 on the following possession, this time with just 9:28 left in the game still trailing by 17.
Certainly the offense was ineffective after a touchdown drive on the third series of the game, and injuries impacted the state of the offensive line, but trailing by 17 it's hard to imagine the Patriots had much to lose. Even after a Chiefs turnover set up a Patriots touchdown to make it 27-17, the offense still lacked urgency.
Taking over at the 1 with 4 minutes left following a Chiefs punt, the offense began with a Zappe sneak for 2 yards and followed that with a 4-yard Ezekiel Elliott run. Chasing two scores and needing 99 yards, the Patriots ran it twice and huddled after each play, taking the clock down to 2:44 before a pair of incompletions ended the series.
Belichick admitted the final sequence wasn't handled properly, but the lack of overall urgency was apparent throughout the final quarter. Elliott had comments after the game indicating the lack of tempo in the fourth quarter. Even as the Chiefs ran the ball on first down from the 6, Belichick chose not to call his final timeout and let the clock wind to the two-minute warning. Andy Reid then had Mahomes kneel three times to run it down.
It was as if the goal was to keep it as close as possible rather than trying to mount a miracle comeback. Even the Fox announcer team of Joe Davis and Daryl Johnston wondered about the motivation of the conservative approach but it's a tactic we've seen in the past in similar situations, such as in last season's home loss to Buffalo that frustrated many offensive players.
According to the site tankathon.com the Patriots are currently tied with the Carolina Panthers should the teams finish with identical records based on strength of schedule. It lists both the Patriots and Panthers with a strength of schedule mark of .521. The site calculates the number using all 17 opponents for each team, and the numbers will change based on results over the final three weeks. In this tiebreaker the team with the easier schedule would win out and receive the higher pick.
It's not the first time I've mentioned it but Kevin Stefanski deserves plenty of Coach of the Year consideration for keeping the Cleveland Browns very much in contention in the AFC. Joe Flacco posted back-to-back wins, becoming the fourth quarterback to win a game for the Browns this season, and the Browns sit at 9-5.
Cleveland's injured reserve list not only includes Deshaun Watson and Nick Chubb but three starting offensive linemen as well. Center Ethan Pocic also missed Sunday's win over the Bears, leaving Flacco behind shaky protection. Yet, the Browns managed to score 13 points in the fourth quarter including 10 in the final three minutes to escape with a 20-17 win over the Bears.
- San Francisco (11-3) – Another methodical victory for the Niners.
- Baltimore (11-3) – Another methodical victory for the Ravens.
- Dallas (10-4) – Cowboys continue to struggle on the road.
- Miami (10-4) – Undermanned Dolphins respond to ugly loss to Tennessee.
- Kansas City (9-5) – Mahomes is still working though offensive issues but Chiefs remain dangerous.