The Bills Played It Safe And Paid The Price
9:01 AM EST on January 25, 2021
There's probably no one thing that the Bills could have done to avoid their ultimate fate in the AFC Championship Game against the Chiefs—even the fairly emphatic 38-24 final score doesn't quite capture the extent to which KC dominated between the second quarter and garbage time. But it's still quite striking how the Bills seemingly played less to win and more to avoid getting blown out.
On the several occasions in which Buffalo opted to send on its special teams unit instead of trying for a makable fourth down, I kept thinking back to what felt like the signature win of the Bills' season—an absolute trouncing of the Patriots on Monday Night Football as they coasted to the AFC East title late in the year. In that game, Buffalo's offense wasn't just fun and surprising, but risky, and never more so than when they called a fake punt in the first quarter with the score tied at 3.
Admittedly, it's easier to do that against a bad team than a good one, but still, where were those Bills on Sunday? On several occasions throughout their struggle against the Chiefs, Buffalo was presented with an opportunity get weird and fancy with their backs against the wall, or just to let one of 2020's best quarterbacks in Josh Allen try to make some magic on fourth down. And yet more often than not, they made a choice that decreased their chances of winning the game. Here's a brief chronological rundown of all those statistically incorrect calls, via Ben Baldwin's "4th down decision bot":
- With the score 0-0 less than four minutes into the game, Buffalo made a field goal on fourth-and-3 at the KC 33
- Down 14-9 and on their own 32 with 8:39 to go in the first half, the Bills punted instead of going for it on fourth-and-3
- Facing fourth-and-goal on the two, the Bills kicked a field goal to end the half down by nine points instead of twelve
- Down by 12 with 6 minutes to go in the third quarter, the Bills kicked a field goal on fourth-and-3 at the KC 8. (The Chiefs would go on to score a touchdown, get an interception, then score another touchdown.)
“Maybe if I had to do it all over again, I would have went for maybe one of them,” head coach Sean McDermott said after the game. Lotta maybes.
The Bills were and weren't a big final-down team this year. Nobody in the league successfully converted more often than their 80 percent rate, but because Buffalo was the best in the NFL on third down, they only ever tried for it on fourth a league-low 10 times. But even if the riverboat stuff isn't in a team's DNA, a win-or-go-home game where you're trailing the defending champs simply demands that a team do everything it can to maximize its limited opportunities. The Bills instead looked more interested in keeping things within a couple of possessions. At least they achieved that goal; maybe it'll make a nice banner.