The Buffalo Bills could not afford to get into a shootout with the Atlanta Falcons Sunday.
The Bills had to try to keep reigning NFL most valuable player Matt Ryan off the field. They had to impose their rushing will on Atlanta to some degree. They did it just enough.
The best grades from the Bills' upset of the Falcons go to a defense that created three turnovers and a special teams unit that enjoyed another historic day.
The Bills' offensive line pulled its weight just enough to take advantage, which was an essential part of the Bills' upset recipe.
Here's our unit-by-unit grading of the Bills' win based on video review (on a scale of 1 to 5), starting with the offensive line:
Offensive line (3.0): The Bills did not impose their will the previous two weeks. With running personnel on the field (two backs or two tight ends), the Bills managed just 25 yards on 10 carries in Carolina and 43 yards on 21 carries against Denver.
Atlanta's smallish defense was allowing only 85 rushing yards a game. The Bills gained 117. With two backs or two tight ends, the Bills gained 80 yards on 23 carries (a 3.5 yard average). Not awesome, but pretty good. The 19-play, 11-minute drive to a field goal was huge to keep Ryan & Co. at bay.
Credit offensive coordinator Rick Dennison with mixing up the run scheme. The Bills didn't just rely on zone blocking. They ran nine gap-scheme runs (with linemen pulling) for 30 yards.
The game was a mixed bag for all five linemen. Center Eric Wood had a tough assignment blocking Grady Jarrett much of the day. Wood held Jarrett once and was beaten by him three times. But Wood bulled him on a key third-and-1 play and held up vs. Jarrett on four other important positive run plays. Passing grade for Wood.
Left tackle Dion Dawkins continues to look good when he's drive blocking. Richie Incognito gave up a sack but looked good pulling and held up vs. big Dontari Poe a couple times in the second half. Right guard John Miller was OK. He had a couple good plays early. He gave up a play to Poe late. Dennison didn't put the tackles in bad pass-protecting situations.
Quarterback (3.5): Tyrod Taylor played smart and effective again. His 44-yard throw to Charles Clay was a beauty, and so was the 34-yarder to the tight end on a corner route. He stood in the pocket and took a hit on that one. Taylor was patient in the pocket on the TD to Jordan Matthews. He created two first downs with nifty scrambling. He was conservative on a third-and-6 deep incompletion for Clay. He might have pulled the trigger to Zay Jones on a slant. But the Bills couldn't afford a negative play, and he didn't make one.
Running back (4.0): Fullback Patrick DiMarco deserves congratulations for a quality performance against his old team. He played 30 snaps, his most of the season, and provided numerous kick-out blocks for LeSean McCoy. Shady made the most of his 23 touches for 108 yards. He continues to press the edge well on outside zone runs and make people miss between the tackles.
Receiver (2.0): Chalk up another win with minimal wideout production (only four catches for the wide receivers). Fortunately for the Bills, tight end Charles Clay was super. He was too quick for linebacker De'Vondre Campbell and even beat speedy Duke Riley downfield for a catch.
Jones dropped a pretty 32-yard throw from Taylor in the first half. It was good to see Jones rebound with an 18-yard catch on a comeback in the third quarter.
Defensive line (4.0): The Bills needed to win the pass-rushing matchup with Atlanta's average-at-best offensive tackles, and they did. Jerry Hughes' speed rush around Jake Matthews created the play of the game, the fumble that Tre'Davious White returned for a touchdown. Hughes had quick pressure (one of his six on the game) on Micah Hyde's fourth-quarter interception.
Marcell Dareus didn't start and played only 22 snaps (29 percent). He showed some hustle down the line of scrimmage. His best play was quick penetration against Andy Levitre that forced an incompletion on the play before Hyde's second INT.
Eddie Yarbrough played 72 percent of the snaps and showed he's earning his time. He set the edge well. He created a 2-yard loss and a no-gain play. He had a bat-down near the goal line.
The containment of Devonta Freeman, who averaged just 3.2 a carry, was huge and kept Ryan out of great down-and-distance situations. Nine of the 13 third downs were third-and-6 or more. Ryan Davis set the edge on the key 7-yard loss for Freeman in the fourth quarter.
Linebackers (4.0): Lorenzo Alexander continues to show his edge-rushing success last season was no fluke. He was a handful for backup right tackle Ty Sambrailo. He got beat down the sideline by Coleman for 39 yards but most NFL linebackers would be the victim on that play. Rookie Matt Milano played 32 snaps in place of injured Ramon Humber (thumb). He made a few mistakes, missing Coleman on a stretch play, getting to the flat late on a fullback pass get getting fooled on a misdirection. But he showed speed and awareness. Not bad in a tough game. Preston Brown had 10 tackles.
Defensive backs (4.5): The game did not go according to Atlanta's preferred script because All-Pro Julio Jones played only 12 snaps due to a hip injury. Yes, that was huge. Atlanta loves to throw out of its two-back or two-tight-end sets because Jones wins one-on-one against most cornerbacks. But with him out, Atlanta ran its base personnel groups only 10 of 45 plays. Then Mohaed Sanu (hamstring) sat the whole second half. Ryan completed only one play-action pass.
Credit the Bills with defending Atlanta's dangerous vertical stretch passes. Micah Hyde played perfect center field on his third-quarter interception. Then he did a Troy Polamalu impersonation on the diving interception in the fourth quarter. Leonard Johnson had tight coverage to tip that pass into Hyde's arms. Hyde also made a touchdown-saving tackle on Coleman along the sideline in the second quarter. On the final play, Hyde read Ryan's eyes to defend a passing lane, forcing the QB to throw to his right.
Jordan Poyer missed a tackle on Freeman in the fourth quarter but showed toughness on the next play to defend the edge on a wide run.
White added another good chapter to his superb rookie season. He made a sure third-down tackle on Sanu to force a punt. He broke up a third-down pass for Sanu. He didn't bite on an out-and-up by Gabriel. And he made the scoop-and-score fumble return for a touchdown.
Special teams (5.0): Stephen Hauschka ranks 11th in the NFL in average salary for kickers at $2.95 million a year, according to Spotrac. What a free-agent bargain. Hauschka joins Dan Carpenter (2014) as the only Bills with four field goals of 53-plus yards in a season. The Rams Greg Zuerlein (2012) is the only other NFL kicker to have two games with two 53-plus field goals in one season.
Colton Schmidt had a clutch punt from his own end zone of 60 yards with a 4.65-second hang time (4.5-plus is great), and it went for a net of 49. Lorenzo Alexander made a 3-yard tackle for loss on a punt return. The Bills did give up a 61-yard return to dangerous Andre Roberts. But Buffalo almost recovered a muffed kickoff on a nice pooch kick by Hauschka in the third quarter.
Buffalo stars of the game: 1. Stephen Hauschka. 2. Charles Clay. 3. Micah Hyde.
Atlanta stars of the game: 1. Tevin Coleman. 2. Deion Jones. 3. Grady Jarrett.