Sport Roth: Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills are close, but not 'championship caliber' yet

06:35  05 january  2020
06:35  05 january  2020 Source:   democratandchronicle.com

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HOUSTON – When the ball split the uprights, Shaq Lawson, Corey Liuget and Star Lotulelei could be seen in a pile of bodies, helpless at that point to do anything.

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Turning a long day into night. Putting an end to the Bills’ best season since 1999 with the swiftness of pulling the plug on a television. Or the respirator that we all needed to keep breathing through this drama. Driving home the sinister one-and-done nature of the playoffs.

It took 17 years for Buffalo to end a playoff drought that had become the longest in North American professional sports. That was 2017. Looks like winning their first playoff game since 1995 is going to take a bit longer. To end a playoff losing streak now at six games.

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You watch professional football long enough, and you will see finishes that even Hollywood can't script. And what we witnessed Saturday will stack right up there in the colorful playoff history of these two original American Football League cities, where football isn’t a game, but a way of life.

Nobody in the sellout crowd, and likely in living rooms and bars across America, was sitting for the entire fourth quarter and overtime. Wondering if any team deserved to win. Or which team would blink.

Maybe it doesn’t rise to the level of Buffalo’s 41-38 overtime victory in 1993 over the old Houston Oilers when the Bills rallied from an NFL-record 32-point deficit in Orchard Park.

It didn’t have the controversy of “The Music City Miracle’’ in 2000 when the Oilers, who had moved and been reborn in Nashville as the Tennessee Titans shocked the Bills 22-16 on a kickoff return on a disputed lateral.

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Saturday’s game won’t even earn a nickname, unless “Deshaun’s Dance’’ will suffice. But what a game.

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The Texans rallied from a 16-0 hole, took the lead 19-16, only to watch Buffalo's Josh Allen, given a mulligan after a disastrous series of mistakes, drive his team to Stephen Hauschka’s fourth field goal as regulation ended.

But after each team had a turn with the ball in the extra session, Houston won it thanks to quarterback Deshaun Watson doing what Deshaun Watson does, turning disaster into brilliance.

On a third-and-18 play, he left blitzing cornerback Siran Neal and linebacker Matt Milano rubbing their eyes in disbelief as he dipped, ducked and spun free to complete a pass to running back Duke Johnson for first-down yardage (the play clock had hit 0:00 by the way). Four plays later, Watson connected with another running back, ex-Bill Taiwan Jones, for 34 more, moving the ball to the Buffalo 10.

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Game over. And for Buffalo, season over.

As Watson and Allen met to shake hands, as Texans coach Bill O’Brien, no stranger to playoff disappointments, greeted Bills coach Sean McDermott, a bottom line to this affair became as clear as the blue Texas sky: The Bills aren’t quite there yet, and more to the point, Allen isn’t there.

In a marque battle of young dual-threat quarterbacks, Allen edged Watson 372 combined yards to 302, even catching a 16-yard touchdown pass from John Brown on a nifty trick play on the opening drive to give Buffalo a rare 7-0 lead. Allen became the first NFL player since the 1950s to have more than 15 yards rushing, passing and receiving in a playoff game.

But Watson, a year older and wiser, who lost in this round a year ago, threw for one TD, ran for another and also converted two 2-point conversions to rally his team. Against a No. 3-ranked Bills' defense that doesn't blow leads. Capping it all with an escape move Texas outlaws Bonnie and Clyde could admire.

 “Give Buffalo credit, we didn’t protect well and he got himself out of some major jams,’’ O’Brien said. “That play at the end obviously was unbelievable. He’s got a huge heart and he’s been winning his whole life.’’

“I knew it was blitz zero and I’d have to get the ball out quick, I just braced myself and spun out of it,’’ said Watson, who was sacked seven times but kept on coming back for more.

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Now it’s up the Bills to come back for more.

McDermott has made his program “playoff caliber’’ but it’s not “championship caliber,’’ certainly not on offense where off-season moves must address.

Even as the team’s No. 24 offense rolled up 425 yards against a Texans defense bolstered by J.J. Watt's return but still mighty vulnerable, the points were again difficult to come by.

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had a terrific game plan for the opening drive but settling for field goals kept the Texans in the game. And after Allen fumbled early in the fourth quarter, the momentum shifted like a Texas twister. A twister that began to spin wildly when Watson began finding his top receiver, De’Andre Hopkins, like on a 41-yard strike that led to Houston’s go-ahead score.

As has been the case all year, nobody will question Buffalo’s character and heart.

Even after a series when Allen took an intentional grounding penalty followed by a 19-yard loss on a sack to turn the ball over on downs with 1:35 to play, the defense got the ball back thanks to individual tackles by Lawson, Trent Murphy and Lotulelei, who stuffed Watson on a fourth-and-one. Pure heart.

On the mulligan, Allen and the offense drove to the tying field goal and overtime.

“They made plays, more plays than we did and congratulations to them,’’ McDermott said. “We had opportunities to win and came up short. Not an easy pill to swallow this time of year. A lot of pain in that locker room. A lot of work has gone into it. So we’ll learn form it, go into the off-season, and keep building, keep working.’’

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In a locker room muted by frustration and the shock of losing grip of a big game they had control of, player after player talked about this game making them stronger. Giving them "fuel'' for next season, as Allen put it.

"It's a bitter taste,'' said Allen, who came far in his second year but not far enough. "You don't want to lose any way, but not that way. But this is just going to make us hungrier.''

Buffalo's 0-for-6 hasn't reached the magnitude of 0-and-17. But point taken.


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This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Roth: Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills are close, but not 'championship caliber' yet

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