Falcons 34, Bills 31
How did the Bills lose this game? Who had the largest impact? Here are my thoughts.
Well this game was the dagger. It’s the one that effectively eliminated the Bills from the playoffs this season, and it came in possibly the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable. I can’t imagine writing this entire article about the loss, although it is THE story so I will of course, but there is a lot more to analyze about this game than the fumbles by Stevie Johnson and Scott Chandler deep in Atlanta territory which led to the Bills loss.
First, what went right?
The running game.
The plan for The Bills going into this game was to run the ball. The Falcons entered the game with the 31st ranked run defense in the NFL, allowing over 130 yards per game. The Bills meanwhile came in with the leagues fifth best running game, averaging 134 yards per game on the ground. Coming back off a bye week, with the team fully healthy, and Spiller having an additional week to rest his high ankle sprain, running the ball seemed to be the best way to attack the Falcons.
On just the second play from scrimmage, C.J. Spiller showed just how dangerous he can still be, as he broke a 76 yard run up the middle to the Atlanta 4 yard line. Later in the game Spiller was also able to break a 36 yard run this time making it into the end zone to tie the game. These are the ‘homerun’ type plays that the Bills had been looking for all season, and exactly what they needed to be able to do against a terrible Falcons run defense. Spiller finished with 15 carries for 149 yards, and Jackson complimented this effort with 42 yards on his 11 carries, and also adding a touchdown. The Bills finished the game with 195 yards on the ground, which was more than they could have expected, and what should have been enough to win the game.
The defensive line, and Jerry Hughes.
This seems to be a constant throughout the year, as the Bills now lead the NFL with 43 sacks, but Sunday it was the sole bright spot for the Bills defense (6 sacks 5 from the D-Line). Jerry Hughes was a major contributor, coming up with two sacks, and Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams also chipped in with one a piece. What is most surprising about this game is that 4 of the Bills sacks came on third down, ending Atlanta drives. Had those sacks not occurred when they did, the score could have been much worse than 34-31.
Now, what went wrong?
The rest of the defense.
For all that went right on the Bills D-line, what happened with the majority of the linebacking corps and secondary was another story altogether. Matt Ryan is an outstanding quarterback, despite his team’s record this fact was never in doubt. Ryan was only 28-47 on the day, but his 311 yards passing against a fully healthy defense that put him under pressure all game, was a dagger in the Bills hopes. Ryan completed 4 long third down conversions, and six receivers had catches of over 10 yards. This does not even include the dropped long pass by Antone Smith which would have surely resulted in a touchdown.
Stephon Gimore had another particularly bad game, allowing a less-than-healthy Roddy White to burn him for ten catches and 143 yards. This is not the Stephon Gilmore Bills fans have been hoping to see, and perhaps, as I said last week, it is time to give him more help over the top.
The other key to the game for the Bills was stopping the Atlanta running game. The Falcons came into the game ranked last, yes last place in the league, in rushing yards per game at only 74 yards. Against the Bills this week however the Falcons were able to rack up 151 yards on 30 carries.
While a team can live with giving up this many rushing yards, it was the big plays that killed the Bills. Steven Jackson ripped off a 27 yard run for Atlanta’s first TD, while journeyman Antone Smith broke off a huge 37 yard run for a score. Even Matt Ryan got in on the action, picking up a huge third down conversion by scampering for 17 yards right up the middle of the defense. The long runs were both the result of over-pursuit by the Defense, the first by Jim Leonhard, the second by Kiko Alonso.
The elephant in the room: turnovers.
All of the previous points aside, the Bills still had an opportunity to win this game. Driving with less than one minute left in the tied game (31-31), Stevie Johnson had the ball stripped from his hands and Atlanta recovered, giving them the ability to run out the rest of regulation.
On a very similar play on the first possession of overtime, Scott Chandler was stripped deep in Atlanta territory and the ball was again recovered by Atlanta, who kicked a field goal a few plays later.
This is what hurts. This is the loss that we have become far too accustomed to. It’s the loss that should no longer happen. A fumble by a rookie wide out might be acceptable in that situation. Something that could be chalked up to inexperience and nerves, but when it happens to your number one receiver, a seven year veteran in the league, it is unacceptable. If this were the only time it had happened then fine, its football and these things happen, but for it to happen again to this player, it raises a lot of concern. I’m not going to attack Stevie here, it’s not my place, but that is a play that cannot happen in that spot.
On the somewhat bright side, as one of my friends messaged me immediately after the game, we learned something important about EJ Manuel Sunday. The guy is clutch. Much will be asked this week about the value of Stevie and Chandler to this team, but that only obscures what we should see about Manuel. He led the team on two potential scoring drives at the end of the game, and had it not been for those drops, we may be talking about how Manuel is developing into a great end of game quarterback.