ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – It wasn’t quite the reward the Buffalo Bills (8-8) wanted to be playing for in Week 17 but they earned their consolation prize after a 22-17 win over the New York Jets (10-6) to keep their division rival from reaching the postseason.
It was Buffalo’s second win over the Jets this year – oddly enough by identical 22-17 – giving Ryan the last laugh over his former team.
“I got a lot of friends over there,” Rex Ryan explained after the win, adding, “I want them to be successful. But not at my expense and that’s what I said and that’s how I really feel. I’m proud of my football team.”
Entering Sunday, the scenario was simple for New York – win and you’re in. They were on a tremendous five-game win streak in which their quarterback, former Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick averaged over 300 yards passing per game, had thrown 13 touchdowns and only one interception. However, in his return to Buffalo for the first time since 2012, Fitzpatrick finished 16-of-37 passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns, but his three fourth quarter interceptions ultimately crushed New York’s playoff hopes.
Buffalo was able to pressure Fitzpatrick consistently, forcing him into many errant passes throughout, as they piled up five quarterback hits and a sack in the process.
Each of the Fitzpatrick interceptions came on their final three possessions of the game respectively. The first and perhaps most devastating interception, came with 10:48 to go, when Leodis McKelvin stayed underneath an Eric Decker post and snared the ball in his gut, out of the sky in the end zone. Then with 1:51 remaining and New York down five Manny Lawson hauled in a wobbling pass for a pick after Fitzpatrick was drilled by DT Marcell Dareus and his pass fluttered well short of it’s intended target. A.J. Tarpley would grab the third and final one, ripping a pass out of the air with just 11 seconds remaining to seal the Jets’ fate.
“[Eric Decker] tried to widen me out,” McKelvin explained. “It was pretty much the same thing that we did and noticed two weeks ago and I remembered. I widened out, [ Jordan] Reed got up underneath me and they scored a touchdown that day. [The Jets] did it again and they paid for it.”
Buffalo’s offense – much like the Jets – struggled early on as they went three-and-out on two pathetic first possessions. What eventually ignited them to grab a lead which they’d never surrender was actually a play from a defensive player that may have suited up as a Bill for the last time in his career – Mario Williams. Facing a third-and-15 from their own seven Williams was able to shed his block and wrestle Fitzpatrick to the ground for a sack, forcing the Jets to punt. The Bills’ were then beneficiaries of an awful, 21-yard boot from Ryan Quigley that allowed them to start a drive from the Jets’ 25. Three plays later Buffalo found pay dirt via an 18-yard, Tyrod Taylor touchdown run.
That was the first of two, Buffalo rushing scores with the other coming on a two-yard Karlos Williams run one drive later. Ground game contributions from Taylor, Williams, Mike Gillislee, Boobie Dixon and even WR Chris Hogan helped the Bills total 113 total rushing yards on 43 attempts.
While the Bills’ passing game didn’t account for any scores it was still effective in its own right, particularly the Taylor-to-Sammy Watkins connection. Despite facing one of the league’s top corners in Darrelle Revis, Watkins finished Sunday’s game with 11 receptions and 136 yards, making the so-called “Revis Island” look more like a continent. In the third quarter Watkins eclipsed the 1,000 receiving yard mark for the season after making a 38-yard catch in the third quarter. He entered Week 17 needing just 89 yards to reach that plateau and will end his second-season with 1,047.
“I went out there with the mindset that if I could get 89 or 100 yards we should win the game,” Watkins said of his performance. “It was great because we won the game. I would’ve been very upset if I had 100 something yards and we lost the game.”
In general it was a true team effort through-and-through: the Bills held the ball for nearly 40 minutes, they took care of the football and they were disciplined, committing a season-low four penalties.
“We talked about finishing with our guys and that’s why I don’t think everybody understands how we play. Like that’s it,” Ryan said. “That’s what our fans expect and all that. I know we all expected more wins this year but we got effort and attitude right.”
In the early going neither team’s offense could establish any kind of rhythm in an ugly opening quarter of play. It was on New York’s third series – their second three-and-out of the quarter – that Mario Williams’ sack would give the Bills great field position to score their first touchdown.
Later in the quarter Buffalo would begin a 13-play series that carried over into the second where they’d score their second touchdown of the afternoon. Unfortunately, after Karlos Williams capped it off with a two-yard TD run, Dan Carpenter would miss his sixth PAT of the season, keeping Buffalo’s lead at 13-0.
After missing a field goal early in the second quarter the Jets finally got on the board with a 17-yard TD pass to Brandon Marshall to finish off a quick three-play, 60-yard drive. One drive later Carpenter would knock in a 20-yard field goal to put the Bills up nine after a methodical 15-play drive that essentially ended the half.
Starting with the ball out of the break Buffalo promptly handed momentum to their division rival on a silver platter when Mike Gillislee fumbled on the second play from scrimmage. Fortunately the Jets’ offensive ineptitude continued and after three ill-effective plays from inside Buffalo’s 25 they could only manage a Randy Bullock field goal.
Putting the fumble behind them the Bills’ went back to work stringing together another long scoring drive of 14 plays to push their lead to 19-10 via a 37-yard, Carpenter FG.
On the ensuing Jets’ drive Fitzpatrick and the offense finally discovered a much needed sense of urgency as the QB would toss his second TD pass of the game to Eric Decker on an 21-yard dart over the middle, to pull within two of the Bills. 1:10 remained in the third quarter.
After forcing a Bills’ punt, New York used a methodical eight-play drive to swiftly move to Buffalo’s 14-yard line and suddenly it was beginning to feel like a typical, Buffalo Bills choke job. That is until McKelvin – who had been torched by Marshall throughout most of Sunday’s contest – was in perfect position defending Decker in the end zone, snaring an interception that halted the drive in it’s tracks with 10:48 to go.
Momentum was back on Buffalo’s side and they’d take advantage, eating 6:54 off the clock with their next possession, eventually extending their lead to five with a 42-yard Dan Carpenter field goal, 22-17.
Season on the line, New York would get two more opportunities in the final 3:49 of regulation to earn a postseason birth, but failed miserably thanks to two more Fitzpatrick interceptions.
Outside of avoiding a losing record in consecutive seasons for the first time since the 1999/2000 campaigns, the result wasn’t anywhere near what Ryan and his team expected to be celebrating come Week 17, but it’s something.
“You’d love to have some do overs because I really thought it was going to come down to this game to put us in,” Ryan said. “I wish we had a couple of things go our way, but you know what, you gotta earn everything you get in this league and that’ll be something that we learn from.”
More than anything this win was about setting the tone for next season – a feeling shared by many players around the locker room.
“We knew going into this game there was definitely a lot of opportunities for us to learn from the season, but it was more so just attitudes that are going into next year,” Taylor said.
“If somebody doesn’t live up to the hype or play the way they should play, like I said get them out of here. We have to continue to grow as a team and stay with each other,” Watkins echoed.
And so a long off-season awaits the Bills who face plenty of questions as they look to end what is now a 16-year playoff drought in 2016.