Ugly wins count the same, but lucky wins aren’t sustainable in the National Football League.
Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers felt more lucky than it did ugly. But I assure you, it had plenty of both, at times, en route to the Buffalo Bills' eighth victory of the season to maintain their one-game lead over the Miami Dolphins for the AFC East lead.
The good news?
The Bills defense continues to take strides, and followed up two really solid performances against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals by piecing together their best game of 2020. Buffalo held, what I believe will be, the eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year in Justin Herbert to his worst performance this season.
Just a lot of promising developments on that side of the ball overall, including the emergence of linebacker A.J. Klein.
It’s the offense that continues to concern me and many other on-lookers. Yes, I’m aware they’re scoring at the best rate we’ve seen in two decades, but it’s time to start looking at the Bills through a more critical lens.
Are they a playoff team or are they a Super Bowl contender?
If the Bills continue to spin their wheels in the third quarter and let it carry over to the fourth like they have in, what feels like, every game they’ve led in this season, they’ll be lucky to win a game in January. Maybe you’re of the mindset that their shortcomings in the third quarter are more frustrating than they are debilitating. Maybe both are true, but they, badly, need to find a level of consistency when they get early leads.
The good news is they’re starting off well enough to hold off these runs opposing teams are making in the second half, but I’ve got the Kansas City Chiefs and Pittsburgh Steelers in my peripherals, and you can’t play like the Bills did in the second half on Sunday against either of those teams and live to tell the story.
They’ve been flirting with disaster all season in the second half of games.
The only difference between the Chargers and the Bills are that the Bills find those ways to win the tight games at the end. But every offseason, people look to a team's record in one-score games to determine whether they’re a team built to win long-term. Teams who feast on one-score games typically aren’t teams that compete at the top of the league year-in and year-out.
What I’m ultimately trying to say is that with each win, the closer I’d like to see the Bills get to a finished product. It’s only Allen’s third season, so there’s plenty of time to see what a finished product looks like. But in a season that I want them to look like they belong at the top with Kansas City and Pittsburgh, they do just enough in the second half of games for me to question their true legitimacy.
I don’t want to poke holes in wins, but here I am.
In fairness, though, this is what happens when expectations universally go up. We’re not talking pretty wins, we’re talking clean wins. Wins where the Bills play four quarters of football in every phase.
Their special teams are the beacon of efficiency, especially as of late. Their defense has looked more-and-more like themselves over the last month.
Then there’s the offense.
I’ll acknowledge that it’s ironic I’m framing the driving force of the Bills' 8-3 record as the problem child, but as much as it drives the train, it’s also the crew that can keep opposing teams in the game. Whether it’s the three turnovers in a span of seven plays this week, or 33 yards over five drives two weeks ago to the Cardinals. The Bills offense regularly puts this improving defense into tough spots.
Until Sean McDermott can coach four consistent quarters of three-phase football, I’ll continue to be bearish on where the Bills ultimately slot in within the AFC.
Right now, I’m not sold they’re a team fighting with the Chiefs. They’re much closer to the Cleveland Browns than they are the Chiefs, and although that doesn’t have the same meaning it did for the last 30 years, it’s certainly not a place I want to be moving forward.