ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – You could almost feel the massive weight lifted off the shoulders of Buffalo Bills’ (6-6) fans everywhere at the exact moment that Tyrod Taylor’s 40-yard, fourth quarter pass connected with a wide-open Charles Clay for the go-ahead touchdown. In the words of Rex Ryan postgame, it was ‘a layup,’ but we know all too well the Bills’ have missed many layups before.
In fact, earlier in the fourth quaarter Clay dropped a pass over the middle with no one around him, which for some time looked like it was going to be the demise of the Bills playoff hopes. Redemption is a beautiful thing though and Taylor remained confident in his talented tight end and went right back to him later on, for what eventually helped the Bills’ lock up a much needed win over the Houston Texans (6-6), 30-21.
“I could tell he was a little down after the first drop, but it’s important for guys to remember that there’s a lot of plays in the game,” Taylor said of his teammate, Clay afterward. “It was a big play for us, [Matthew Mulligan] did a great job of playing the safety…Clay did a good job of running his rout and staying on course and the lineman did a great job protecting.”
“I feel like I did a pretty good job of trying to put [the drop] behind me,’ Clay said. “For Greg Roman to call that play and for Tyrod to trust me in that situation speaks volumes. I can say, I don’t think I have ever been as nervous as when that ball was in the air.”
Clay actually finished the day as Taylor’s leading receiver – in terms of receptions – hauling in four catches for 66 yards and the lone touchdown. For Taylor, those four connections with Clay actually made up one-third of his total completions on the day as he completed 11 of his 21 pass attempts for 211 yards and three touchdowns. Buffalo’s fourth touchdown also went to Taylor who scored on an eight-yard run to begin the second quarter.
The stout performance for the Bills’ quarterback was highlighted by his franchise record 187 consecutive pass attempts without an interception, breaking the previous mark of 175 set by Drew Bledsoe back in 2002.
“Taylor throwing for three touchdowns and running for another was a good day in fantasy,” Rex Ryan joked afterward. “He just keeps getting better.”
Three more of Taylor’s pass attempts went to Buffalo’s stud wideout Sammy Watkins, who snared three catches for 109 yards and a touchdown. 106 of those yards actually came by way of two separate 53-yard bombs in the second and third quarters respectively. It’s clear that Taylor has made a conscious effort to throw the ball up to Watkins more when he’s in single coverage and it’s paid dividends throughout the second half of the season.
Of those 50-50 situations Watkins said, “If I am going deep, just throw it out there. Either I am going to catch it or knock the ball down.”
Even with a beat up offensive line – which was without its entire right side – Buffalo found success running the ball – for 187 yard to be exact – and keeping Taylor upright in the pocket as well. LeSean McCoy racked up 112 of those rushing yards on his own, for his third 100-yard performance this season.
Leading up to Sunday, Bills’ players and coaches fielded dozens of questions about how they would go about stopping one of the best defensive players in the game in DE, J.J. Watt. That narrative fizzled out pretty quickly as Buffalo bullied Watt all afternoon and held him sack-less for the first time in six games. In total Watt registered just four tackles in all. It was evident right off the bat that Buffalo’s strategy was to throw two or sometimes even three guys in the way of the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and it was executed flawlessly.
“I mean we’re putting two, three guys on him every snap,” “We’re doing everything we possibly can against him. [He’s a] great player.”
Injuries were a major problem on the defensive side of the ball as well, where Buffalo pieced together a bit of a makeshift front seven this week in preparation for Houston. Already without defensive lineman Kyle Williams and Alex Carrington for the remainder of the season, LB Nigel Bradham did not play Sunday and DE Mario Williams was limited. The defense took another big hit injury wise with Stephon Gilmore leaving the game in the third quarter due to a shoulder injury and never returning. Still, the defense stepped up in several big spots to help earn the victory.
One such moment came from safety Bacarri Rambo, who rocked Texans’ wideout Cecil Shorts on a crucial third down and six, late in the fourth quarter to dislodge what would have been a completed pass and force a punt. That stop set up the offense for the Taylor-to-Clay touchdown pass and ultimately the win.
While Buffalo never trailed in the game, there were certainly stretches where things looked troublesome.
After forcing Houston into a quick three-and-out on their opening possession of the game, the Bills’ offense came out in sync, piecing together two touchdown drives on each of their first two possessions. The first one – a seven-play, 53-yard drive – was capped off with a three-yard TD pass to Watkins, while the second – a more methodical, nine-play, 71-yard drive – ended with Taylor’s eight-yard TD run, as he eluded a would be tackler off the left side, tiptoed the sideline and dove for the pylon.
A Houston touchdown and missed PAT by Nick Novak squeezed in between had the Bills up 14-6 early.
With 3:57 left in the half, Texans’ back Chris Polk caught a pass in the flat off to the left side and ran over Bills’ cornerback Stephone Gilmore on his way to the end zone, tightening things up at 14-13.
Buffalo would answer on their final drive of the half though, as the first 53-yard hook-up between Taylor and Watkins set them up at the Houston 18-yard line. Over the next six plays Taylor would pick up a first down on third-and-four, then later find Robert Woods on a two-yard pass to push the lead out to 21-13.
To start the third quarter Buffalo had the ball and a chance to take a commanding lead, but swiftly went three-and-out and gave it back to Houston still up eight.
Over the next four possessions the two teams exchanged punts back and forth, until 31 second remained in the third quarter. Buffalo would get all the way to the Houston 32 as part of a seven play drive and bring out Carpenter for a 50-yard field goal that he pulled wide off to the left. It was Carpenter’s fourth missed field goal of the season.
Entering the fourth quarter, the Bills’ secondary had held Texans’ star, wideout DeAndre Hopkins in check for just two receptions and 17 yards. With 11:58 to go though, Houston began a drive that featured Hopkins as the focal point and made it count. Hopkins would haul in three separate passes of 23, 29 and 19 yards – the latter of which went for a perfectly timed, touchdown catch over CB Ronald Darby – to bring the Texans back within one. Jonathan Grimes would punch in the two-point conversion and we were all tied up at 21 a piece.
That would set the stage for Buffalo’s biggest drive of the year and in a spot where they’ve been accustomed to blowing games, the offense instead came through courtesy of Taylor’s rainbow to Clay for a 40-yard score.
As big as that score was with under two minutes to go in the fourth, Carpenter’s fourth missed PAT this season kept things interesting for a moment, before the Bills’ defense slammed the door on Houston one more time with a four-and-out. Carpenter would rebound with a 36-yard field goal shortly thereafter to seal the deal.
“I liked our plan, how we were gonna run the ball,” Ryan said of the game plan. “I thought we were creative in some things we did…we had a lot of misdirection things and try to keep them off balance, and then threw it over the top on them.”
At 6-6 the Bills are still very much alive in the wild card race, yet find themselves on the outside of the playoff picture looking in following the Jets 23-20, overtime win over the Giants. Still, Buffalo now holds the tiebreaker over the Texans should the two teams finish with the same record.
“We’re still competing for it,” Ryan said emphatically. “I think if we had dropped this one then it wouldn’t have looked so good. So we’re right in the middle of them with a bunch of teams, but that’s the way it is. We want to make that last game be for all the marbles and we gotta win all these.”
As for Buffalo’s remaining schedule they’ll play three straight games against the NFC East next – with Philadelphia, Washington and Dallas in that order – before the final showdown against the Jets, at home on Jan. 3. Next week’s contest in particular features a very intriguing headline, as it’s McCoy’s first meeting against his former team since being traded to the Bills this past off-season – but no one needed to remind him of that.
“I mean you all know who’s next,” McCoy ended his postgame presser.