We’ve been reminded again that NFL fortunes can change in a snap. Or, in the case of the Buffalo Bills, a fumbled snap.
Last week, fans fretted over Josh Allen’s strained throwing elbow, the most talked about wing in Western New York. Those concerns were quickly allayed during Sunday afternoon’s game at Highmark Stadium, only to be replaced by a new worry: the condition of Josh Allen’s bruised and battered psyche.
For the second consecutive week, Buffalo managed to squander a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead and lose a game it should have won. And the man most responsible for building those leads and giving them away was Josh Allen.
A month ago, after out-dueling Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes on the road, Josh was the leading candidate for NFL MVP. Now, he’s leading the NFL in interceptions with 10.
He was picked off two more times in Sunday’s 33-30 overtime loss to Minnesota and fumbled away a snap in his own end zone, while nursing a four-point lead with 41 seconds remaining in regulation. The Vikings recovered for the improbable, dispiriting go-ahead touchdown. Josh managed to drive the Bills down the field for the field goal that sent the game into OT. And it appeared he was going to redeem himself by engineering a victory march during the extra session, but he wound up throwing an interception in the end zone that iced the Vikings win.
In the second half of his last three games, Josh has six interceptions and two lost fumbles. His red zone problems are even more alarming. Since week five, six of his eight turnovers (five picks and a lost fumble) have occurred inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. That’s in stark contrast to the efficiency of his first four NFL seasons, when he threw just two interceptions in the red zone. Every coach since the leather football helmet days of Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg has preached that turnovers are killers, and the Bills have committed at least two of them in five of their last six games. Hardly a formula for success.
And now a team favored to win it all finds itself in third place in the AFC East, trailing the Miami Dolphins (7-3) and New York Jets (6-3), both of whom have beaten Buffalo. Were the playoffs to commence today, the Bills would be the fifth seed in the conference and forced to open the postseason on the road. It’s too early to panic, but it’s not too early to be concerned.
The NFL is wackier than ever this year. How many of you predicted the New York Giants would have a better record than the Bills through nine games? And who thought the Chiefs, sans star receiver Tyreek Hill, would be dominating an AFC West division that was supposed to be the most competitive in football history?
The Bills will have an opportunity to right things the next two weeks with potential “get-well” games versus the 3-6 Cleveland Browns in Orchard Park and the 3-6 Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. And they control their destiny in the AFC East, with four division games remaining (home against the Jets, Dolphins and New England Patriots, and on the road vs. the Patriots.)
But much will depend on Josh doing a better job of protecting the football and making wiser decisions, especially in the red zone and at the end of games. He has been trying to do too much lately. And that’s somewhat understandable, given the banged-up Bills defense, which has dearly missed injured safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, and shutdown cornerback Tre’Davious White, and the issues with the offensive line, secondary receivers, and a rushing attack that remains overly reliant on Josh.
Some of the coaching decisions also continue to baffle. Had Sean McDermott kicked a chip-shot field goal to go up 30-10 early in the fourth quarter Buffalo would be 7-2 and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
One of the things that has made Josh great is his drive and determination; his willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. But it can be a detriment when you try to do too much. As we witnessed early in his career, his attempts to play “hero ball” can result in “zero ball.” Lately, he appears to have reverted to some bad habits by trying to force the issue. This has led to too many giveaways and not enough touchdowns during crunch time.
“Sometimes before you win, you’ve got to prevent yourself from losing,’’ McDermott said. “I know that’s a negative connotation, but that’s really where it starts.”
Adversity comes calling every season. Slumps happen. Players and coaches press. Fans despair. Josh needs to get back to being the Josh we saw a month ago. He needs to relax a bit. Stop trying to do too much. And he needs others to do their share. Josh is facing a crisis of confidence, but I believe he will bounce back. There’s plenty of season left. And it still can be something special.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
Scott: Allen has bad hands. How many times has he fumbled in crucial situations. He needs off-season work on improving his hands.