He will have no choice but to watch this again. Imagine how that will feel. It is the eternal curse of the professional football coach. Bills fans can disgustedly delete from their DVRs the recordings of what looked so surely like their team’s first NFL playoff victory in a generation and attempt to forget what might have been. Sean McDermott will, by the convention of his profession, be forced to relive this agony.
It might be worse than the first time around, this 22-19 overtime loss to the Texans in the wild-card round. Buffalo has lost its last six playoff games since an opening-weekend win over Miami in the 1995 season.
He will see so much that could have gone differently (the stuff the players did wrong) and so much that should have gone differently (the decisions made by McDermott and his coaching staff). It was like a coaching clinic in Bizzaro World.
It began not at the beginning, when things went well enough for the Bills to open a 10-0 lead inside the game’s first 20 minutes, but when they had the opportunity to extend that advantage beyond the boundary of two scores.
This is an abbreviated list of the subsequent Bills blunders:
— Having taken possession at their own 4-yard-line with 5:45 remaining in the first half, the Bills conjured a brilliant drive that carried them away from their own end zone and all the way to the Houston 23 with 30 seconds before halftime.
A 3-yard pass from quarterback Josh Allen to wideout Duke Williams on third-and-2 had set up the Bills with a first down, and they followed that by spending their second timeout. And then, having all that time to consider their options, they handed off to Frank Gore on first down.
Gore is a remarkable football player, but he’s 103 years old. Only three of his 166 carries in the regular season covered the yardage that would have been necessary to break off a touchdown there. And when he predictably was slammed to the turf after a 1-yard gain, Allen had to spike the ball on second down to stop the clock because the Bills couldn’t risk spending their third timeout on anything but a field goal attempt.
That left a single down to throw the ball toward the end zone, which failed. The Bills got their lead to 13-0, but that inexplicable first-down call cost them the opportunity for more.
— After the now-sizzling Bills defense opened the second half by driving the Texans backward 6 yards on their first possession, Buffalo received a punt at its 36 and immediately invaded opposing territory with Allen’s 19-yard run on first down.
A sharp 7-yard run from dazzling rookie Devin Singletary left the Bills with a third-and-3 from the Texans’ 38. The Bills thought they were going to convert that with a short-yardage running play up the middle? Ha! Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham wrecked that plan with ease, stopping Singletary for a 2-yard loss and forcing the Bills to punt.
— The offense was starting to stumble, but the Bills’ D still was on fire. After at last surrendering a catch to All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins, All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White forced a fumble recovered by teammate Tremaine Edmunds at the Houston 38. They’d blown one opportunity to go up 20-0, and suddenly here was another!
On second-and-10 from the Texans’ 14, though, the Bills became extremely timid and tried another run, this one producing a measly 2 yards. A magical opportunity became another field goal and the lead was just 16-zip.
“We had opportunities to win the game,” McDermott told reporters. “We didn’t get the job done.
“We were a little loose at times. We needed touchdowns, too. You can’t let a team like that hang around.”
— On the Bills’ penultimate possession, having squandered their advantage and fallen into a 19-16 deficit, they advanced to the Texans’ 25 with 2:22 left and a solid-gold opportunity to grab the lead or tie the score.
After a first-down incompletion, of course they attempted the obligatory running play, which the Texans destroyed for a 3-yard loss, and now they were facing a third-and-13. The Texans’ rush overwhelmed the Bills’ line and forced Allen backward; there, he tried to get rid of the ball while still in the pocket and was flagged for intentional grounding.
So now, holding all three timeouts, they faced a fourth-down decision between attempting a hopeful field goal from 59 yards that might have tied the score, punting in an attempt to pin Houston deep and perhaps regain the ball with good field position, or trying to convert a first down on fourth-and-27.
McDermott opted to go for it.
This certainly was the most epic of his Saturday evening howlers.
It might have been the single worst decision any coach made in any NFL game this season.
It did not work.
“We wanted to be aggressive there,” McDermott said, confusing “aggressive” with “bonkers.”
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That the Bills then held the Texans on four downs and regained the ball with enough time to traverse most of the field and position Stephen Hauschka for a tying field goal is beside the point.
Had they begun closer to midfield after a Texans punt, they would have been better positioned to secure a game-winning score.
Of course, they probably would have squandered the opportunity with a meager run on second-and-long, so maybe it wouldn’t have mattered after all.