The Buffalo Bills pulled out a last second (literally) 17-16 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday but the victory was quite costly to the Bills’ already struggling offense. Although the win helped the Bills avoid a third straight home loss and from falling below a .500 record it also came with the loss of both of their starting running backs.
Fred Jackson was lost late in the first quarter to a groin injury that appeared to be fairly serious – the appearance of the dreaded cart often signals as much – but further testing on Monday will be needed to confirm an exact prognosis. Just a short time later, after breaking off a 53 yard run on his first carry of the game, CJ Spiller was done for the day as well with a left shoulder injury. His diagnosis came much sooner – a broken collarbone that will end his season and possibly his career as a Buffalo Bill.
Spiller is in the last year of his rookie contract and most believe that he will demand more than the Bills are willing to pay. For proof of this sentiment one only need look at the Bills’ track record on high caliber home grown free agents with Jarius Byrd being the most recent example. With the Bills under new ownership this pattern could change but Spiller was subject to trade rumors earlier in the week due to his inconsistent play for the bulk of the beginning of the season, providing some possible foreshadowing of the Bills’ intentions.
With the early game exit of both Jackson and Spiller the Bills found themselves down to third string back Anthony Dixon and fullback Frank Summers. Bryce Brown, acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles early in this year’s free agency period, has been inactive for all seven games to start the season. Dixon filled in admirably, rushing 13 times for 51 yards but it would be difficult to continue to classify the Bills’ rushing game as the strength of the offense moving forward. Dixon has never been a starter in his five years in the league and Brown served as LeSean McCoy’s backup with the Eagles. Certainly neither comes with the cache of either Jackson or Spiller – with Jackson’s loss possibly hurting the operation of the offense the most as he was the Bills’ most reliable offensive weapon on a weekly basis.The Bills have little choice but to hope that both Dixon and Brown can offer a solid rushing option so that quarterback Kyle Orton isn’t forced to throw over 40 times per game as he did today.
The injuries to Spiller and Jackson were really just a continuance to the often ugly play by the Bills throughout the game. After turning the ball over four times today (three fumbles – two of which came in the red zone and an interception on a poor decision by Orton) the Bills have now turned the ball over seven times in their last two games after doing so just four times in their first five games. Still playing against a rookie quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater) on just his third start and his first game on the road and a team that no longer has the legs of the best running back in the league (Adrian Peterson) to rely on Buffalo managed to overcome it’s many mistakes.
They did so mainly on the strength of their last drive of the game – a 15 play, 80 yard drive executed to perfection in under three minutes that led to the game winning two yard touchdown pass from Orton to rookie receiver Sammy Watkins with a second left on the clock. Contained within that drive was a fourth and 20 conversion to tight end Scott Chandler that put Buffalo in Minnesota territory and a 28 yard pass to Chris Hogan that set up the winning touchdown. If the Bills’ offense had functioned like that for the entire game the end result wouldn’t have been such a nail biter.
Perhaps the only good to come from the loss of Jackson and Spiller was the sudden focus on Watkins in the Bills’ play calling. Watkins – the rookie receiver that the Bills gave up first and fourth round picks to move up in the draft and select – has had too many games where he disappears for large stretches. But today Watkins would finish with nine receptions for 122 yards and two touchdowns – the kind of production that Buffalo was expecting when it paid such a steep price to acquire the versatile and dynamic receiver. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett should have little compunction now about looking Watkins way more often as the offense must readjust to the (possible) lengthy absence of Jackson and Spiller.
The Bills’ defense, normally their most reliable unit had it’s up and downs this game – two interceptions by Leodis McKelvin and five sacks of Bridgewater would classify as the highlights of their performance. Conversely the 158 yards they gave up on the ground – including 103 to rookie back Jerick McKinnon – were by far a season high and kept the Vikings in the game. Buffalo had the best run defense in the league entering the game and were allowing a mere 2.8 yards per rush before permitting the Vikings to average 5.4 yards per rush on Sunday – again minus the presence of Peterson.
The Bills pulled out a win they had to have despite their best efforts to give the game away but the injury bug bit them hard today. Going forward they will have to adjust the identity of their offense and will need to play better on all fronts if they want to keep their hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in 15 years intact. With a brutal December schedule waiting for them, Buffalo needed this win – and another against a reeling New York Jets team next week – before entering their bye and preparing for the second half of the season. They say there are no ugly wins in the NFL …..but this one certainly came close.