After six years, I’ve learned not to expect any great revelations from Sean McDermott in press conferences. But one thing you learn over time is that the Bills’ head coach often shows up on the dais with an agenda.
The agenda could not have been more evident after his team’s harrowing, 33-30 overtime loss to the Vikings on Sunday at Highmark. McDermott used the word “belief”, or some form of it, 10 times in a seven-minute presser.
I asked McDermott if that reflected any concern on his part that his team and his players not lose belief in themselves after a second straight setback.
“That’s part of it,” he said. “That’s where you’ve got to hold your confidence through the course of the season. This league tests you in a lot of ways. The season tests you.”
Well, for Bills fans who have suffered through some mind-numbing losses over the years, this one was beyond belief. It was the sort of defeat that would try a hardy fan’s soul. Had it been the playoffs, it would rate right up there with Wide Right, Home Run Throwback and 13 Seconds in K.C.
By now, I had assumed I was done asking how much more a seasoned Bills fan could take. The Josh Allen era seemed to signal an end to the fatalism, the sense that no matter how promising things appeared, some unimagined calamity was surely waiting right around the bend.
Then this happened: Leading 27-23, the Bills made a stirring goal-line stand, stopping a sneak by Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins on fourth-and-goal at the half-yard line. All the Bills needed to do was snap the ball twice — the Vikings had only one timeout — and the game was over.
Josh Allen fumbled Mitch Morse’s snap from center and linebacker Eric Hendricks recovered in the end zone for a Vikings touchdown with 41 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
I could hear people all over the vast Bills Mafia, uttering those words every fan dreads: ‘That was the most Buffalo thing that could ever happen.’
Naturally, the Bills marched to a game-tying field goal by Tyler Bass with two seconds left in regulation. There was still hope. But how many Bills fans figured that would only prolong the agony — you know, the way it did in overtime at Arrowhead in the divisional round last January?
Sure enough, the defense allowed the Vikings to drive to the go-ahead field goal. Rookie cornerback Christian Benford interfered with the amazing Justin Jefferson (10 catches, 193 yards) to keep that drive going. Another rousing goal-line stand held the visitors to three points, keeping the Bills alive.
Allen used his arm (his elbow was fine after a week of uncertainty) and his legs to drive the Bills to the Minnesota 20-yard line in four plays. But on second-and-10, he threw a pass directly into Patrick Peterson’s arms at the goal-line and the game was finally over.
Observing Allen’s demeanor in the post-game media room, you could imagine why his head coach would feel a need to raise the belief level of the guys. Allen was as dejected as I’ve seen him. He looked like a teenager who had just crashed his dad’s car into a tree on the day he got his license.
“Losing sucks,” Allen said. “Sucks this way even worse. Horrendous second half. I’ve got to be better. I got to be better.”
That’s true enough. And it wasn’t simply the crushing loss, or the late fumble at the goal-line, or the fact that the Bills are suddenly in third place in the AFC East — half a game behind the Dolphins and tied with the Jets without the tiebreaker.
No, it’s that Allen and the offense have now struggled in the second half of three straight games. Once was an anomaly, twice a growing concern. But three times in a row is a full-blown crisis, and McDermott seems to know it.
The Bills led 24-10 at halftime. They were ahead, 27-10, and had things seemingly in hand when Dalvin Cook broke an 81-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Allen threw his first interception — also to Peterson in the end zone on a throw for Dawson Knox — and soon it was 27-23.
The Bills have not scored a touchdown in the second half of three straight games — and Sunday’s OT, of course. During that stretch of six-plus quarters, Allen is 26-for-51 passing (51 percent) for 336 yards, with zero touchdowns and five interceptions. You don’t need the NFL formula for calculating passer rating to realize that’s unacceptable.
“No explanation as of now,” Allen said of his second-half woes. “We’ve got to execute better. That’s on my shoulders. Four turnovers today. Three were by me and … losing sucks. That’s just what it is., You hate to lose, especially that way.
“We’ve got to find a way to put this behind us and not let it affect our next one.”
He said the same thing a week ago after the loss to the Jets. You don’t want to dwell on a loss, but you need to learn from it. But Allen continues to make brutal decisions late in games. The offense continues to stall in the red zone. It’s hard to turn the page when you keep turning the ball over.
It would help if they were better at running the ball on short yardage. Early in the fourth quarter, with a 10-point lead, the Bills had second-and-2 at the Vikings’ 7-yard line. They threw on three consecutive plays. Allen’s interception into the end zone came on fourth-and-2.
Why not kick the easy field goal and go ahead by 13 points, putting the Vikings two touchdown behind instead of a TD and field goal. Even more so, why throw three straight times from the 2-yard line? You might as well wear a sign around your necking saying you don’t trust your run blocking.
“Yeah, we had a couple of those, a couple of second-and-shorts that we’d like back,” McDermott said.
For the second week in a row, McDermott agreed that his offense might have become one-dimensional. It’s no small thing, a sliver of discontent with his offensive coordinator, Ken Dorsey. Remember, he didn’t endear himself to Brian Daboll by questioning his commitment to the run last season.
McDermott was asked what he would say to Allen, who has been responsible for so many Bills wins and feels he is letting down his team.
“I believe in him,” he said. “I believe in him. That’s really where it starts. He’s a special person, a special player, he’s a leader of our team. Better days ahead. This is life in the NFL, unfortunately. It’s going to be a hard one to get to be tonight with. That’s why they put us in these positions, right?”
Third in the division is hardly where anyone expected them to be about a month ago, when the Bills were everyone’s pick as the best team in the NFL. But no one seemed remotely concerned by the suddenly cluttered state of affairs in the AFC East.
“What is this, Week 10?” Von Miller said with a laugh. “We’ve got seven games left. I pray and I hope guys think it’s over, that it’s done and they got us figured out. They’d be up for a rude awakening. I hope the media counts us out and does all that stuff. Good, because we got a great team.”
No one suggested they were done. Miller said a test can be good for a team. He pointed out that the Rams were 7-1 and then lost three in a row when he joined the team last season, and went on to win the Super Bowl.
“There’s no panic from me,” Miller said. “If anything, I like the position we’re in. You want to be tested going into December and the playoffs. I’m 12 years in. I’ve been here before. I was just here last year. If anything, my perspective is I had fun today. Today was a crazy game.”
Yes, it was crazy. Fun? That’s debatable. Miller has been here for eight months, but he should understand that Sunday’s loss could shake the belief of seasoned Bills fans and was hardly what they could call fun.