EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It was 8:25 p.m. when Aaron Rodgers crumbled to the field with what the New York Jets fear is a ruptured Achilles tendon. Moments earlier, he’d run out of the tunnel with an American flag to a stadium full of flashing lights and ravenous Jets fans. This was the man who was going to finally turn them around, the one whose arrival turned the Jets into a runaway train of offseason hype.
And there he was, limping into a medical tent, then getting loaded onto a cart and staggering to the locker room. The moments that followed were a blur for Jets players. Jets cornerback DJ Reed admitted players were “rattled.” Sauce Gardner called it a “roller coaster.”
This was a vulnerable Jets team. Zach Wilson replaced Rodgers, and shortly after, the Jets punted the ball back to the Bills. This was Buffalo’s chance to pin the Jets to the mat and wait for them to tap. Josh Allen led the Bills down the field until a sack knocked them into a third-and-15. Then he hit Damien Harris for a 13-yard gain to set up fourth-and-2 on New York’s 22-yard line. Allen and the offense were finding a rhythm. The Jets were cornered, trying to find their equilibrium while their franchise quarterback was getting X-rays. The crowd had lost energy.
This was Sean McDermott’s chance to set the tone for Buffalo’s season, to dictate the terms of the game. He knew this offense needed a jolt of confidence. That’s been apparent since the divisional round loss to the Bengals when Allen and company had no answers for Cincinnati’s defense. McDermott switched up his philosophy and played the starters in the preseason. When the first preseason game didn’t go well, he played them again.
Maybe that should have been a hint that McDermott was uneasy about his offense. But here was another chance to try to get the offense’s swagger back and show faith in the team’s $258 million quarterback. Instead, McDermott opted for a field goal to take a 3-0 lead. McDermott has been one of the most aggressive fourth-down coaches in the NFL over the last few seasons. In Football Outsiders’ aggressiveness index, which measures how likely a coach is to go for it on fourth down, McDermott ranked seventh last season and 13th in 2021.
So why not trust your 235-pound quarterback behind two new starting guards? Or why not hand the ball to Damien Harris or Latavius Murray, the two powerful backs Buffalo signed this offseason? McDermott’s mindset shifted when Wilson entered the game but not how it should have. Instead of being cutthroat when the Jets were exposed, he tried to get through the game the safe way. For most of the game, Wilson struggled enough to make that path to victory possible. The Bills went into halftime with a 13-3 lead after Allen led another long touchdown drive and then a Wilson interception gave the Bills a short field for an easy field goal drive.”
“With all due respect to (QB) Zach (Wilson), they’re two different quarterbacks, just from experience alone,” McDermott said after the game. “And that’s when you’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re up 13-3, I think it was at halftime and you’re saying, ‘Take care of the football, be smart,’ and we weren’t smart. And again, when you shoot yourself in the foot it’s hard to win games.”
Part of that was Allen turning the football over four times, including three times in the second half. Part of it was decisions like the early field goal that allowed the Jets some life. Early in the third quarter, McDermott gave the Jets even more life. The Jets had third-and-13 at the Bills’ 25-yard line. They took a pair of penalties, one an offensive pass interference and the other an ineligible receiver down field. Accepting the offensive pass interference would have put the Jets in third-and-23 from the 35-yard line, giving the Bills a chance to keep them off the board entirely. McDermott declined both penalties, allowing Greg Zuerlein a much more manageable 43-yard field goal.
McDermott took over defensive play-calling duties this offseason, and the sentiment among players was that he would be an aggressive play caller. But instead of giving his defense a chance to knock Wilson out of field goal range, McDermott was happy to get out of the drive having just allowed three points. That made the score 13-6.
Allen and the offense just needed to lead one more scoring drive to make McDermott’s decisions a mere footnote. But Allen and the offense were a mess for most of the night against the Jets’ swarming defense. Allen was sacked five times, and the Jets hit him nine times. He hadn’t turned the ball over this many times in a game since the 2019 season opener on this same field. So maybe McDermott had reason to hesitate and take the points early in the game.
But it felt all too familiar. This was a coach who was punting from the opponent 41-yard line in a playoff loss to the Bengals. One who was taking chipshot field goals against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game three years ago instead of going for touchdowns. On Monday night, instead of trusting his star quarterback to chase points or trusting his defense to make third-and-23 a nightmare for Wilson, McDermott tried to white knuckle his way to a 1-0 record.
That strategy fell apart in the fourth quarter when McDermott’s defense let Wilson go 3-of-3 for 41 yards and a game-tying touchdown — an incredible catch by Garrett Wilson. When the Jets got the ball right back after an Allen fumble, they quickly faced fourth-and-1 from Buffalo’s 18-yard line. Robert Saleh, who spends pregame running stadium stairs, decided to go for it and got the first down by running a quarterback sneak with his backup quarterback. The Jets would have to settle for a field goal anyway, but that decision allowed them to chew more clock. Saleh was putting the game in the hands of his players.
This game ended in overtime with Xavier Gipson returning a punt for a touchdown to give the Jets the improbable 22-16 win, but it never needed to get to that point. Allen and McDermott let the home team hang around too long and it’s beyond time both of them correct the issues that allowed that to happen.
“Look it’s an entire team, it’s not just one person,” McDermott said. “It starts with us as a coaching staff and making sure we’re putting the players in the proper position and then taking care of the football. I thought we did some good things tonight at times and then there’s other times where there’s just too much handing them the game at times.”
Here are some other quick thoughts from Buffalo’s loss …
Allen’s awful night
Long after the game ended and Allen had spoken to reporters, he sat at his locker stall with a towel over his head, staring at the ground. He repeatedly took the blame for the loss in his postgame press conference and repeated familiar refrains about needing to take care of the ball. Teammates came up to Allen to console him as he slowly dressed and finally made his way out of the locker room. Asked if he ever worries about Allen’s confidence, McDermott said, “Sure, yeah. Everyone mentally is up and down. Like I said, the journey of a season.”
Allen’s confidence seemed unshakable at times over the last two seasons. That wasn’t the case Monday night. He too often didn’t look like he trusted his protection and also didn’t have enough receivers running open. That didn’t excuse two of his interceptions that were reckless heaves down the field with no obvious target. This was one game, and Allen is still one of the best quarterbacks on the planet. But his turnovers were an issue last season, and it’s one that hasn’t been fixed. It’s odd that these moments of regression are still happening for Allen or that his confidence could ever be in question. The Bills have to hope it doesn’t linger beyond this week.
Offensive line troubles
When the Bills got the ball first in overtime, they ended up in a second-and-15 due to a Spencer Brown false start. Earlier in the game, Brown got walked back into the quarterback on multiple occasions. Allen was only pressured on 26 percent of his dropbacks, a manageable number, but the pressure was significant. He was hit nine times and sacked five. On non-Allen carries, the Bills averaged 3.8 yards per carry. After replacing two starters on the interior of the offensive line, the Jets still were too much for the Bills to handle up front.
Run defense proves costly
Last we saw the Bills’ defense, the Bengals ran for 176 yards on 34 attempts. Against the Jets, McDermott’s unit allowed 174 yards on 28 carries. Breece Hall had runs of 83 yards and 26 yards that skewed the average, but those chunk plays ended up costing the Bills. It should have been easier to key on the run with the Jets down to their backup quarterback. Instead, the Jets were able to keep themselves in the game on the strength of their running backs. Inexplicably, the Jets had five plays of 20-plus yards in this game while the Bills only had one. Ed Oliver, Leonard Floyd and Matt Milano were all bright spots on a night when the defense was good enough to win.
The Bills return home to play the Las Vegas Raiders next week before traveling to Washington to play the Commanders and getting a home game against the Dolphins to round out the first month of the season. That’s not too rough of a schedule, so there should be a chance to reset after an 0-1 start. Week 1 isn’t a time to panic about a Bills team that has enough talent to make another run at a championship. The Chiefs and Bengals both lost in Week 1, too. The Bills can’t be too focused on that, though. They need to take the problems that popped up in this game seriously before it becomes too much of a pattern.
(Top photo of Sean McDermott: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)