Games like Sunday’s at Ralph Wilson Stadium have people scrutinizing the effort as much as the outcome.
With nothing at stake on a soggy and dreary afternoon, you come in with the lowest of expectations.
The setting seemed perfect for the Buffalo Bills’ players to demonstrate that they had quit – on the season, on themselves, even on their coach who is known for being as player friendly as any of his peers in the NFL. The woeful Dallas Cowboys certainly weren’t going to give them a reason to be motivated. For the most part, they didn’t.
Still, the Bills did manage to sort of rise to the occasion with a 16-6 victory. That’s probably putting it too strongly, but compared to the walking-dead approach they took in the first half of last week’s loss at Washington, their play Sunday qualified as inspired.
“One team, one heartbeat,” running back Karlos Williams said. “This is what we do. We fight, we push. We’ve done that all season, and I think that’s part of our attitude. I think it’s a part of our culture here in Buffalo.”
Coming from a rookie, that’s a pretty profound observation. Williams also felt empowered to say what he did because with Pro Bowler LeSean McCoy out with a knee injury, he stepped up.
On a day when the Bills’ offensive game plan was all about the run, Williams finished with 76 yards and Mike Gillislee contributed 93, including a 50-yard touchdown sprint that put the game out of reach with 2:25 remaining. Combined with the 67 rushing yards of quarterback Tyrod Taylor, the Bills had 236 yards on 40 attempts and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Taylor attempted only 18 passes (his third-lowest total of the season), completing 13 for 179 yards.
“He’s got a big playbook,” guard Richie Incognito said of offensive coordinator Greg Roman. “He’s got a lot of different ways to run the football, and we figured out what works well for us. And now we’re hitting them.”
This was far from a pretty win. The Bills had their typically dumb penalties. Dan Carpenter missed another extra point. Taylor made a boneheaded throw that was intercepted in the end zone to kill a scoring opportunity. And, in general, the Bills looked very much like a team missing 10 starters because of injury.
In many ways, the game was reflective of the gray, cold, wet conditions that seemingly would have discouraged at least half of the 70,172 fans who purchased tickets to stay home. But that wasn’t the case. The stadium was mostly filled and the noise level was enough to make life even more difficult than it already was for the Cowboys with the horrific quarterbacking of Kellen Moore and without their most talented player, receiver Dez Bryant, in the lineup.
“This fan base is as good as any fan base that there is in the league,” coach Rex Ryan said. “I know how loyal they are. I know how appreciative they are of the efforts of the guys on the field. This is their game, and that clearly showed today because … look how miserable it is.”
It’s fair to say the Bills made somewhat of a statement. After a week when there was growing speculation about Ryan’s job security – amidst growing player complaints about his defensive scheme – and talk of owners Terry and Kim Pegula potentially turning to outside help to put their football operation in order, the timing of a performance that showed plenty of grit couldn’t have been any better.
Now, Ryan finds himself with a chance to keep his previous employer, the New York Jets, out of the playoffs by beating them next Sunday at The Ralph. The Bills won the earlier meeting of the teams at MetLife Stadium, and afterward, Ryan expressed how emotional it was for him.
After Sunday’s game, he did his best to downplay how much sweeping the Jets and spoiling their postseason aspirations would mean. But after a season of tremendous disappointment, especially with the Bills falling short of his predictions they would finally end their playoff drought, you know Ryan is pretty much viewing the game as his personal Super Bowl.
That was the way running back Boobie Dixon described it, but he didn’t have a whole lot of company from his teammates.
“It’s a very big game,” Taylor said. “It’s not the Super Bowl, but it’s definitely a big game for us and we’re looking forward to it.”
When the offensive line saw Roman’s game plan, it could hardly contain its enthusiasm.
“Any time you have an opportunity to run the ball and it’s a big part of the game plan, as an offensive line, we’re kind of licking our chops,” offensive tackle Cordy Glenn said. “That’s what we want to do anyway, so we look forward to that type of stuff. We love to wear” the opponent “down instead of them wearing us down.”
And the running of Gillislee and Williams did plenty to cause the Bills’ offensive linemen to play with a higher level of enthusiasm.
“It’s definitely something we feed off of,” Glenn said. “It gets our confidence going when we see those guys going in there and knocking off big runs one after another.”
Said Incognito, “Karlos does a hell of a job running the football. He’s a tall, punishing runner, and we feed off that energy. When he plugged one up in there and you hear some heads cracking, you feel that and they feel that. That sets a tone for the day. We just kept chipping away and chipping away, and kept swinging.”