After only two games, the Buffalo Bills' offense found itself at a crossroads.
It either had to be fixed, especially when it came to throwing the ball, or the Bills could expect more ugly losses like that 9-3, leather-helmet-era-throwback debacle against the Carolina Panthers.
Sunday at New Era Field, the Bills found some answers that went a long way toward helping them beat the Denver Broncos, 26-16, with the surprising outcome sharing the spotlight with the strongest national anthem protesting the Bills have done since it became an NFL trend last year.
If the Bills (along with other teams) showed solidarity in their response to President Trump's pointed criticism of league-wide protests, they also were unified in making necessary adjustments to help their ability to move the ball through the air — players and coaches.
"Absolutely," Tyrod Taylor said, "(offensive coordinator) Rick Dennison always has an open ear even from my time working with him in Baltimore (when Taylor was a backup and Dennison was quarterbacks coach). This week, I talked with him about the things I have seen and that I liked, the things I felt we were good at."
Things like implementing more crossing routes to take advantage of the mostly man-to-man coverage the Broncos play. Things like moving Taylor's pocket so that he could escape pressure, give receivers more time to separate from standout cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., and make throws from the edge. Things like designed runs by the quarterback. Things like changing up pass protections to try to "calm down 58," the number worn by game-wrecking Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller.
"We were on the same page and ultimately we were able to go out there and execute," Taylor said. "It wasn't pretty every drive. We had some drives we could have been better at, but we were able to get the job done there."
No, Taylor wasn't spectacular. But he was efficient and effective enough to complement another solid defensive effort to get the Bills to 2-1 and give the Broncos their first loss. Taylor completed 20 of 26 passes for 213 yards and two touchdowns and a passer rating of 126.0, easily his best game of the season.
The rest of the Bills' points came on four Stephen Hauschka field goals, including 55- and 53-yarders, and the running game was still stuck in mud, so this was hardly an offensive Rembrandt.
But it showed that the Bills have a sincere interest in trying to make themselves the best team they can be, even in the wake of moves that seem to say the opposite. After the passing game's struggles and Sammy Watkins going off for 106 receiving yards and two touchdowns last Thursday night, fans felt the compounded pain of watching current receivers fail to make plays and one they used to have do so for another team.
"That was just kind of an emphasis for the week, that we wanted to get the passing game going," said receiver Andre Holmes, who caught the Bills' first touchdown off a deflection in the end zone from fellow receiver Zay Jones. "J-Matt (receiver Jordan Matthews) early on in the week had said, 'Don't speak too soon on us receivers,' and that's just the kind of mindset we have. We've been in the league long enough to know what type of players we are and that we're good receivers.
"We never got down or anything. We just went out there and made plays."
Again, nothing flashy. The Bills' top two pass-catchers Sunday were running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay with seven and six catches, respectively, for a combined 87 yards. Clay also had a TD.
Matthews had three receptions for 61 yards, while Holmes only had two for six yards. But they were part of a sign of progress, especially considering the quality of the Broncos' cornerbacks and the off-the-charts talent of Miller, who was limited to only one sack.
"I know their corners get a lot of press and they should; they've got great, athletic corners," Matthews said. "But at the end of the day, corners are as good as their pass rush. They have a really good pass rush in 58. And all week as receivers, we were talking about, 'Look, as far as our releases (from the line), we're not running the race against the DB. We're running the race against 58. Because you take too much time at the line, 58 might already be in our backfield.' "
Matthews, Holmes and Jones were tired of being told they're a collection of, at best, No. 2 wideouts lacking the ability to stretch opposing defenses. They had had enough of being blamed for everything that was wrong with the offense, including its continued struggles on the ground.
Matthews and Holmes claimed they tuned out the "noise," but they certainly seemed to have a pretty good awareness of the negativity that emanated from the media and elsewhere.
"First of all, you've got to look at our first three games," Matthews said. "We played two teams that in the last two years have been to the Super Bowl. And then we've got another team next week that's been to the Super Bowl recently. So things aren't going to just be awesome.
"Our biggest thing is we want to make sure we're efficient. That's where I tell all the guys, 'Look, whether we're having a hundred-yard games, 30-yard games, 20-yard games, are we putting our team in a position to win games and are we being efficient? Are we catching the ball when it comes to us? And if we're not, we just continue to work and we go back and try to get the next opportunity.'
"Nothing aggravates me more than when we just compare the numbers all the time. OK, this person (Watkins) played on the whole other side of the country versus a totally different defense (belonging to San Francisco, which can't stop the pass). You can't really compare that."