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Opining on heartbreaking losses by Bills, SU

Like many, I thought for sure Josh Allen was going to plow into the end zone on that quarterback sneak and give the Buffalo Bills a dramatic come-from-behind victory against the Titans in Tennessee Monday night. After all, he had been successful on 13 of 14 fourth-and-one sneaks during his NFL career. But, this time, playing the percentages didn’t work. Allen was stopped short, and now the Bills head into their bye with an extra week to stew over what might have been.

I found it interesting that in his post-game remarks, Allen mentioned how the Bills had bounced back with a vengeance after suffering that “Hail Murray” defeat to the Arizona Cardinals last year on a last-second, 43-yard Hail Mary of a prayer touchdown heave from Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins. Buffalo went into a bye week after that gut-wrencher, too, and responded with five decisive wins to finish the regular season with a 13-3 record.

There is no reason to believe history won’t repeat itself. These resilient Bills are motivated to reach and win a Super Bowl this season, and their path would be made easier by securing the No. 1 overall seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. As of today, Baltimore holds the top spot in the American Football Conference at 5-1, and the Bills are bunched in second with the Los Angeles Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals, Las Vegas Raiders and Tennessee at 4-2.

The rest of the schedule greatly favors Buffalo. The Bills remaining opponents are 24-43, a paltry 36 percent winning percentage. Of those games, the only one in which Buffalo will be the underdog will be the December 12 road contest against Tampa Bay, the defending Super Bowl champs. The Ravens, meanwhile, have a much more formidable schedule. Their opponents are a combined 40-32 (56 percent), and in addition to two contests apiece with AFC North rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland, Baltimore has demanding out-of-conference games against Green Bay (5-1) and the Los Angeles Rams (5-1).

So, the Bills are still in the driver’s seat, but there are areas they need to improve. Their failure to score on Allen’s sneak underscored a continuing problem producing touchdowns when they penetrate the opposition’s 20-yard line. They have been in the red zone an NFL-best 29 times this season, but have cashed those opportunities in for touchdowns just 55 percent of the time. Only six teams have done worse. And their pass rush remains a work in progress. They didn’t sack Ryan Tannehill Monday night, but much of that had to do with the attention they were forced to pay to Derrick Henry, the best running back in the game.

That said, barring major injuries or COVID outbreaks, the Bills should be just fine going forward.

***

Syracuse is another upstate football team coming off a heart-breaker, losing 17-14 last Friday to Clemson. That’s makes three, three-point losses in a row for the Orange, and, unlike the Bills, it’s difficult seeing SU going on some big roll, and earning an invitation to one of the 35 bowl games.

With a 3-4 record, beleaguered Orange coach Dino Babers appears on his way to a losing season for the fifth time in six years. His sketchy recruiting and game mismanagement have prompted disenfranchised fans to call for his firing, but that’s probably not going to happen. Babers’ contract was extended following a 10-3 record three years ago. It reportedly runs through 2024 and is believed to include a buyout of at least $5.5 million. That’s pocket change for an SEC school or a large state-run university, but it’s a big chunk for a private school like Syracuse. So, SU probably can’t and won’t move on from Babers any time soon.

The main reason to continue watching the Orange can be summed up in two words: Sean Tucker. The dynamic sophomore running back has been a diamond amid the ashes, rushing for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games. Tucker currently ranks second in the nation in rushing (948) and all-purpose yards (1,172) while scoring 11 touchdowns.

I see parallels between him and Joe Morris, who also was a bright spot during a dark era of SU football. Tucker is on pace to rush for 1,625 yards, which would shatter Morris’ single-season school mark of 1,372, set during his sophomore year in 1979. Tucker has said he would love to wear SU’s No. 44, which was made famous by Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little. That number was retired in 2005, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it taken out of mothballs on rare occasions such as this one, where you have a generational back who wants to call attention to past greats.

Although Brown, Davis and Little wore the number during their three varsity seasons (freshmen weren’t eligible until the 1970s), offering it up to other superb running backs for a season or two is not unprecedented. In fact, following Little’s final season in 1966, Coach Ben Schwartzwalder asked All-American fullback Larry Csonka if he wanted to switch from 39 to 44 for his senior season, but he respectfully declined. Coach Dick MacPherson made a similar suggestion to Morris in 1981. Like Csonka, Morris was flattered, but opted to keep the No. 47 he had worn his first three years.

The No. 44 holds a special place in SU lore that extends well beyond the football field. The famous double digits have long been part of the University’s zip code and phone exchanges. Interestingly, the legend of 44 was born of happenstance. Brown originally requested 33 because he had worn that number at Manhasset High School on Long Island. But it was already taken, so longtime Syracuse football equipment man Al Zak flipped Brown jersey No. 44. He would wear it with All-American distinction, and would convince his Syracuse successors, Davis and Little, to carry on the tradition, which they did. I think Tucker would be a worthy successor.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.   

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