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ORCHARD PARK - After a quarter century when the stadium in Orchard Park - no matter what it was called - was cold, empty and dark during the NFL playoffs, the Buffalo Bills are hosting a postseason game for the second year in a row.
Saturday night, the arch rival New England Patriots come to town for a juicy AFC wild-card game that certainly deserves its prime-time 8:15 p.m. kickoff.
Last season when the Bills won the AFC East, they played their first two home postseason games since 1996 when - in what became the final game of Jim Kelly’s career - the Bills lost 30-27 at Rich Stadium to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
In 2020, the Bills earned the No. 2 seed in the AFC and proceeded to squeeze out a pair of victories over Indianapolis (27-24) and Baltimore (17-3) before going on the road for the AFC Championship Game where they lost in Kansas City 38-24.
This year as the third seed, Buffalo is guaranteed only one home game. The only way there could be at least one other game in Orchard Park would be for the Bills to defeat the Patriots, and the second-seeded Chiefs to somehow find a way to lose to the lucky-to-be-there No. 7 seed Steelers.
I’ll be updating the goings on at One Bills Drive right here, so bookmark this page and stay tuned.
Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde earn All-Pro honors
A significant slight was fixed Friday when Poyer was named first-team All-Pro at safety along with Tennessee’s Kevin Byard, and Hyde was named to the second team in voting conducted by a 50-person panel.
Both of Buffalo’s deep secondary stars were overlooked in the Pro Bowl balloting.
Poyer finished second on the Bills with 91 tackles and also had five interceptions, three sacks, and two fumble recoveries. Hyde was fifth in tackles with 74, also had five picks, a sack, a forced fumble, two recoveries, and 10 pass breakups.
“They’ve been outstanding,” coach Sean McDermott said of the two safeties who signed with the Bills as free agents when McDermott took over as coach in 2017. “Two very fine young men that just handle their business the right way. They’re professional in their approach. They can flip the switch when they get on the field. They’ve done a great job of bringing people along in terms of their leadership and their influence on our football team, not just defensively but on the offensive side and special teams as well. So they’ve just done a fantastic job since they’ve been here.”
Bill Cowher offers somewhat mundane thoughts on game
The former Steelers coach talked about the Bills-Patriots matchup, but didn’t exactly break any news in his analysis of what might happen.
"When you have a divisional opponent that you’re playing for the third time, the preparation is one thing, but it’s really going to be about making adjustments because teams are trying to go against what you did in the first couple of games,” he said.
“The game they played in Buffalo, the Patriots threw the ball three times, but they had one big run by Damien Harris. In the second half, Buffalo’s inability to score in the red zone became a component. The game in New England, Buffalo got a lead early and made Mac Jones throw the ball against a pretty good defense. The only thing I’m worried about for Mac Jones is this is going to be his 18th game, and there is such a thing as a rookie wall. It’s just hard to sustain it."
OK, so there’s that.
Bills at full health for wild-card game
It’s pretty amazing that in mid-January, the Bills filed their final injury report of the week and it shows no players with a game-day injury designation.
Meanwhile, the Patriots have a voluminous injury report, though the vast majority of the 13 players that are listed as questionable will almost certainly play.
The one outlier may be left tackle Isaiah Wynn who did not participate in practice twice this week due to a hip and ankle injuries. His availability seems to truly be in question.
Another player not among the 13 as questionable is cornerback Jalen Mills who is on the COVID-19 list and it’s uncertain what his situation will be. If he can’t play, that’s a big loss for the Patriots.
Jerry Hughes could be playing final Bills home game
The defensive end is in the final year of his contract and given that he’ll be 34 years old before the 2022 regular season begins, this could be the end of Hughes’ day in Buffalo.
He has been one of the finest players, certainly of the 21st century, and perhaps even franchise history as he now sits fourth on the all-time Bills sack list with 53.
However, with all the young the Bills have invested in along the defensive line, it seems hard to believe that they would bring him back, especially when they’re going to need salary cap space. Hughes seems to recognize this, at least based on what he said Wednesday.
“If this is my last opportunity to be a Buffalo Bill, I want to go out on top,” Hughes said of Saturday’s AFC wild-card game against the Patriots at Highmark Stadium “It’s going to be electric on Saturday night. You ain’t gonna have to worry about the weather.”
Hughes remains a key part of the defense and he was second among all defensive linemen in percentage of snaps played, so it’s clear the Bills rely on him. However, his production has dipped this year as he has only two sacks, and according to Pro Football Focus numbers, his pressures were down to 45 from 66 in 2020.
The longest tenured player in the organization has seen plenty since he came to Buffalo in 2013 in a trade with the Colts, but one thing he hasn’t seen much of is the postseason. This will be just his sixth playoff game.
“A lot of guys on the team, all they know since coming into the NFL is the playoffs,” Hughes said. “Like I told ‘em once we won that game on Sunday, make this part of your legacy. You guys are very familiar with winning. Winning is now a tradition, let’s continue that in the postseason. There’s no reason why we can’t go back to the AFC Championship and win and then some. So I think a lot of these guys understand that. The moment won’t be too big on Saturday. We just need to go out and prove that we can play football and let everyone know we are a postseason organization.”
Keeping band together may be difficult
The Bills have been extremely fortunate when it comes to keeping their organization together, but the times may be changing on the heels of a second consecutive AFC East division title.
The team already lost top personnel man Dan Morgan to the Panthers after 2020, and now, the cuts could be deeper. Assistant GM Joe Schoen, who has been a tremendous asset to GM Brandon Beane, is known to be a candidate to replace Dave Gettelman as the GM of the Giants, and in Chicago to replace Ryan Pace.
Schoen had his Zoom interview with the Giants, the team confirmed, Wednesday morning.
And both of Buffalo’s coordinators, Brian Daboll and Leslie Frazier, will get head coach interviews. The Bears have already asked permission to speak to both as they seek a replacement for fired head coach Matt Nagy.
As of now, there are also head coach openings in New York, Jacksonville, Miami, Denver, and Minnesota, and there might be one in Las Vegas where Rick Bisaccia is an interim replacement for the fired Jon Gruden. Daboll and Frazier may get other interviews.
If Schoen, Daboll and Frazier were to move on, the expectation would be that they’d take others from the organization with them, and just like that, the Bills’ coaching and front office continuity would be disrupted.
New dad Mitch Morse back with team
The center left Buffalo right after Sunday’s game to return to his offseason home where his wife Caitlin gave birth to the couple’s second child on Monday, a boy they named Deacon James Morse.
“It was a special day and I was glad to be able to share that with my family,” Morse said. “A very unique situation, very fortunate and pretty blessed 24 hours both professionally and personally.”
Caitlin Morse was induced and the arrival came at around 5 p.m. Monday. “It's just been such a roller coaster of emotion,” said Morse, who also has a daughter named Kennedy. “All highs. So, very excited. My wife was such a trooper, can't give her enough credit for what she did. And she was very patient with me understanding of the schedule. It was a tough morning (Tuesday) having to get here and she was such a trooper. So kudos to her, she did all the heavy lifting.”
Tyler Bass quietly had another great year
Perhaps the No. 1 determining factor when you’re assessing the performance of placekickers is this: If you aren’t talking about them, then they’re doing just fine.
I’m not sure anyone has talked about Bass this season, and that’s because the second-year man who was a sixth-round draft pick in 2020 was outstanding.
On the heels of a rookie year when he made 28 of 34 field goals and 57 of 59 extra points to set a franchise record with 141 points, Bass was even better in 2021. He made 28 of 32 field goals and all 51 of his extra points (135 points) despite playing numerous games in lousy weather conditions.
“Tremendous amount of confidence in Tyler,” coach Sean McDermott said. “He’s had a nice year and the work that he’s done with Reid (Ferguson) and Matt (Haack) has been outstanding in a lot of ways. We’ve had quite a bit of this wild weather … I just think it’s where we live, it’s where we play, half of our games at least. So you gotta be wired in such a way that you can handle that and push through it, and I think he’s done a really good job of that.”
Bass’ lone miss inside 40 yards came in the absurd wind game against New England, so he could hardly be blamed for that. His other three misses were all tough kicks: Two came against the Colts from 49 and 57 yards, and one came in Week 2 from 53 yards, his lone misfire on the road.
One teammate who loves Bass is wide receiver Stefon Diggs.
“Probably because he got some swag,” Diggs said. “There's only a couple kickers in the league with some swag. I think he plays like that, because he's got some swag. He's going to let you know. Sometimes he got his eye black on. I feel like he plays with a lot of juice. It's hard to kick in Buffalo; ask any of the kickers.”
Emmanuel Sanders may have chance to play
Coach Sean McDermott said Tuesday that the veteran wide receiver would be a full participant in practice. Here’s the caveat: It was only a walk through as the Bills won’t hit the field for a full workout until Wednesday.
His chances of playing Saturday night may hinge on how he makes it through an actual practice starting Wednesday and then on Thursday.
The only player listed on the injury report was defensive end Efe Obada. He missed last week’s game with an ankle injury, but he was also a full go Tuesday.
Sanders has been in and out of the lineup since the Tampa Bay game due to a knee injury. He sat out the Carolina, Atlanta and New York games, but he did play on Dec. 26 at New England though he made only two catches for 20 yards.
Gabriel Davis has taken the bulk of Sanders’ snaps, but he’s coming off a bad game against the Jets when he caught only three of 14 targets and had three drops. Davis missed the last game against the Patriots because of COVID-19.
“I have full confidence in Gabe,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said. “He’s a good player for us.”
However, if Sanders can play, the Bills may decide to lean more on the veteran in a win-or-go-home playoff game.
Bills Pass rush has emerged down the stretch
On their way to four straight victories to close the season, one of the most interesting developments has been the sudden productivity of the Bills’ pass rush.
In those four games, the Bills have recorded 96 QB pressures (per Pro Football Focus whose numbers admittedly are always a bit inflated) and 19 sacks. Because of that late push, a pass rush that felt like it was lacking most of the season actually finished with 42 sacks which tied for 11th in the NFL, but their sacks per play percentage of 7.34% was sixth best.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier credited the defensive line coaches, Eric Washington and Jacques Cesaire, with doing “A terrific job in really bringing our defensive line along. Early in the season, we were going through our rotation, trying to figure things out and just to make sure that we were playing our best football in late December, early January with our defensive line.”
It would seem they are, but Saturday they have a tough test against a good Patriots offensive line that allowed Mac Jones to be sacked just 4.97% per attempt which was eighth-best in the NFL. Only 14 of those 96 pressures the last four games came in the game at Foxborough.
One key thing to watch: Left tackle Isaiah Wynn got hurt in Miami and could not finish the game. His status this week is up in the air.
For the season, the defensive line finished with 30.5 sacks led by Mario Addison (7), Greg Rousseau (4), Ed Oliver (4) and Efe Obada (3.5). Oliver, in particular, has been excellent from the inside. Not only did he get home four times, but the pocket push he and Harrison Phillips have been getting late in the year has been critical.
“To get that many sacks in the final game of the season (nine vs the Jets) just speaks to how well Eric and Jacques did of keeping our guys fresh and having a rotation where we’re not wearing guys out, where they can’t help us throughout the ballgame,” Frazier said.
Officially, this is the first Bills-Pats playoff meeting
I say officially because the teams did play a quasi-playoff game in 1963 as members of the AFL after they finished tied for first place in the East Division with records of 7-6-1. However, that was considered an extra regular-season game.
The Bills played host on a 24-degree day where the muck at War Memorial Stadium was covered mostly in snow, and in a somewhat stunning development, Boston’s defense held Cookie Gilchrist to seven yards rushing and the Patriots rolled to a 26-8 victory.
Despite the non-existent rushing attack which had been Buffalo’s strong suit on offense, Bills quarterback Jack Kemp took responsibility, lumping in his backup, Daryle Lamonica, as well.
“Blame it on the quarterbacks. We are either the heroes or the bums,” said Kemp, and he and Lamonica were certainly bums as they combined to throw four interceptions (three by Lamonica).
The Bills fell behind 16-0 at halftime before Kemp heaved a 93-yard TD pass to Elbert Dubenion late in the third quarter and a two-point conversion pass to John Tracey to cut the deficit in half. But the Bills could do nothing else.
“They played an excellent game on offense and defense,” said Bills coach Lou Saban, who had a little extra skin in the game. He had been the Patriots inaugural coach when the AFL was formed in 1960, but was fired during the 1961 season and moved to the Bills before 1962.
“We had a very poor day, that’s about the game right there,” Saban continued. “We just didn’t look good. But I want to thank every player personally, they did their best. We had a good season and we were very fortunate to get as far as we did.”
Saban, of course, would eventually get his revenge on the Patriots. In the final game of 1964 the Bills went to Fenway Park with the division title on the line and beat Boston 24-14, then went on to win the first of their back-to-back AFL championships.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bills vs. Patriots wild-card: Here's what McDermott, players are saying