It was a comfortable end to a long-distance, wide-open afternoon for the Buffalo Bills. Or at least, the beginning of a nice passing relationship.
Rex Ryan has built a reputation as the odd man out in the modern NFL, not because of his unconventional system or eccentric playoff hangovers, but because of the way his teams have ended up dragging playoff berths out. Through the first 10 games of this season, the Bills have lost four out of four games in which their opponent threw at least 30 passes. Against the Jets on Sunday, Buffalo showed the disparity in quarterback play between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Sam Darnold that it has promised all year, and they announced that even after trading away No. 1 receiver Sammy Watkins, it will have enough talent to hang with any team that decides to stop throwing at it.
The Bills picked up about a ton of draft picks to acquire Darnold and Eric Decker from the Jets on Friday night, and according to ESPN, they expected Darnold to throw on a few more occasions in this game. And from the point Darnold was forced into the game after a Bills turnover, he threw for 329 yards and a touchdown — numbers that followed up Foles’ 353-yard, two-touchdown game a week earlier.
This playoff-caliber team didn’t lose because of Fitzpatrick, though, and its failings could be attributed to lack of playmaking ability. Five seconds after Darnold threw his first touchdown pass, he missed a wide-open Robert Woods — then misfired on what would have been another touchdown to Woods two plays later. The Bills had to gamble on fourth-and-one twice, and they did the right thing each time, playing strong football in the second half. Buffalo’s three first-half turnovers resulted in zero points, and two of those were wiped out by Buffalo penalties. Bills star running back LeSean McCoy, who played well in the first half before falling apart a bit as the game went on, also had what looked like a heck of a drop on a fourth-and-one in the second quarter, one that could have kept the Bills in it.
Of course, all these things had an effect. Darnold, by contrast, was facing one of the league’s best defenses. Buffalo had 21 tackles for losses on Darnold’s second-half efforts. The Giants secondary features star cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple, but Darnold routinely looked like he was playing with two inexperienced cornerbacks.
When Jets coach Todd Bowles appeared to choke in his postgame press conference, it seemed like he was saying he didn’t trust Darnold. But for all his struggles, he’s a young quarterback who will eventually click with his teammates and the scheme.
For now, Darnold has thrived in this system. It would be unfair to blame Darnold’s ability to throw for yards on the wide-open, pre-snap shotgun formation Bills coach Sean McDermott wants him to play in, though his arm strength is notably lacking. While Darnold made some great throws, he was a bit too quick to take off and run after a play didn’t develop. A decision to pull Fitzpatrick with the score 30-17 with five minutes to go was just what the Bills needed to put the Jets away, but maybe Todd Bowles thought the game was nearly over. That was certainly not the case, and as the Jets were trying to pull Darnold to go for two, he uncorked a pass to himself that was intercepted by Tre’Davious White.
The Bills are a great example of the kind of team the NFL can afford to create. They’re struggling as a unit on offense, but they’re talented enough to generate enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks to force them to throw at them if they want to win. Against Darnold and the Jets on Sunday, the Bills’ defensive edge-rushing was superb, and they could have had more in the game — Ryan Davis and Lorenzo Alexander had sacks and Brandon Beane was a factor in making plays on the Jets run defense, as well. And in an NFL that has a bunch of good quarterbacks, a squad that can score 20 points against them often and would have to rely on Fitzpatrick to put it on the Jets would have been a monumental victory. Instead, the Bills showed they can pile up points just fine without him, which should set up a wave of familiar first-round picks for them next spring.