A column Senior Sports Columnist Chuck Pollock
Before the season began, a popular argument among Bills fans was whether the “Super Bowl Window” had closed on their team.
Deniers argued that as long as Buffalo had Josh Allen at quarterback, they were part of the Lombardi Trophy chase.
Cynics countered that the AFC had only gotten better and the conference was loaded with the league’s elite quarterbacks: Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa, Allen, and even Lamar Jackson and Desean Watson.
But sometimes Super Bowl windows close for reasons other than fading talent … on occasion it’s due to injury.
And that’s what happened Sunday in London when the lackadaisical Bills went through the motions in a 25-20 defeat by Jacksonville.
The loss was punitive, but the injury toll was devastating, including two likely for the season.
Heading the list was Buffalo outside linebacker Matt Milano, one of the NFL’s best, who suffered a leg injury that requires surgery.
The other name is one many Bills fans don’t really know, DaQuan Jones, unless they’re Penn State fans. But the 6-foot-4, 320-pound defensive tackle is the NFL’s second-highest-rated player at his position, a tribute to his run-stuffing ability. He sustained a torn pectoral muscle. And while that might sound innocuous, it isn’t.
Chris Spielman, a Pro Bowl middle linebacker with Detroit, who spent his last two seasons with the Bills, told the story about having the same injury during his time with the Lions. The medical people insisted he shut down his season, but Spielman, one of the NFL’s all-time tough guys, refused and played out the season in incredible pain.
Thus, in a span of eight days, Buffalo lost its best cornerback (White), top linebacker (Milano) and standout defensive lineman (Jones).
But the defensive injury woes don’t end there. Christian Benford, the starter opposite White at cornerback, didn’t play against Jacksonville due to a shoulder injury. Worse, his replacement, Kaiir Elam, Buffalo’s first-round draft choice in 2022, performed so poorly against the Jaguars he was pulled from the game in the fourth quarter and replaced Ja’Marcus Ingram, fresh off the practice squad.
BUFFALO now has only four linebackers and one of those, Tyler Matakavich, is a special teamer. Milano was replaced by this year’s third-round draft choice, Dorian Williams, but he had so many tackling issues he was pulled in favor of Tyrel Dodson, who spent training camp battling for the starting middle linebacker job until it was won by Terrel Bernard.
And the injuries haven’t avoided the offense, tight end specifically. Dalton Kincade, this year’s first-round draftee, is in the concussion protocol while Dawson Knox has a wrist injury.
All of which reminds me of a comment cynical coaches have made over the years in every sport: “Depth is great … until you need it.”
I keep thinking of the high draft pick misses under Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane, particularly offensive lineman Cody Ford (2019) and defensive end Boogie Basham (2021).
But the worst pick might just be Elam who couldn’t measure up — inactive the first four games — with his desperate team down to critical mass at cornerback.
In fairness, what appeared to be some questionable selections by Beane have blossomed. Defensive end Greg Rousseau, the top choice in 2021, is starting to verify that lofty pick, and defensive tackle Ed Oliver taken in 2019’s first round, who seemed to have bust written all over him his first three years, has become a solid performer inside, at a light 287 pounds, in part due to Jones’ protection against the run.
Finally, as he showed Sunday, 2020’s top pick (taken in the second round), end A.J. Epenesa has become a contributor … he was Buffalo’s best defender against Jacksonville in a game where they really needed him.
BUT HERE’S the irony.
In a year when many of the AFC’s top quarterbacks — Mahomes, Burrow, Herbert and Lawrence — are underperforming while Allen and Tagovailoa have thrived, Buffalo might be undermined by injury.
Though they appear to get a break this week.
The Bills, one of the league’s highest-scoring teams, this Sunday host the Giants, one of the NFL’s worst. Much will be made of the fact New York is coached by Brian Daboll, the former Bills offensive coordinator who, a year after steering his team into the playoffs, has seen the wheels fall off.
Normally, Las Vegas-types would call this a “trap game” — Buffalo is favored by two touchdowns — but after the way the Bills played in London, the blowback is hard to ignore.
It’s actually the perfect time for Buffalo to play, arguably, the NFL’s worst team and it couldn’t come at a better time.
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)
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