1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Bills -3.5, Over/Under: 52
Division leaders meet today in a crucial matchup of unbeatens as the surging Buffalo Bills travel to Nissan Stadium to face the Tennessee Titans, who are coming off of an impromptu bye week due to COVID-19. With a quarter of the 2020 campaign now in the books, deciphering the hierarchy in the AFC has become a bit easier with the Kansas City Chiefs sitting at the summit, followed by the Baltimore Ravens. However, that next tier of teams is more difficult to organize, which is where each of today’s combatants find themselves, starting with the Bills (4-0, 1st in AFC East), who are off to their first 4-0 start since 2008. It’s been eleven years since somebody other than the New England Patriots has won the division, and for Buffalo it’s been even longer than that, with their last division crown coming back in 1995, which must seem like a lifetime ago for the faithful in Western New York. With that said, it appears that a new era is dawning for a franchise that had been one of the most downtrodden in recent years; following the Music City Miracle of 1999, they went seventeen years without a postseason appearance, a streak that was finally snapped 2017, with the club now looking to advance to their third Playoffs in four years.
Credit to General Manager Brandon Beane, and Head Coach, Sean McDermott, who have done a textbook job of rebuilding this franchise, with the groundwork largely coming through the Draft. They found their Franchise Quarterback, Josh Allen (70.9%, 1,326 YDS, 8.06 NY/A, 12 TD, 1 INT, 89.8 QBR), in the 2018 Draft, and have built his supporting cast in a masterful manner; the Offensive Line has been completely rebuilt over the past two years, while the skill positions have been gradually improved via Free Agency with the likes of John Brown (14 REC, 194 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 2 TD) and Cole Beasley (18 REC, 260 YDS, 14.4 Y/R, 1 TD) at Receiver, and the Draft with Tailback, Devin Singletary (50 CAR, 212 YDS, 4.2 Y/C, 1 TD), and Tight End Dawson Knox (5 REC, 78 YDS, 15.6 Y/R, 0 TD). After showing flashes last season, Beane went out and got a home run hitter in the form of Pro-Bowl Receiver, Stefon Diggs (26 REC, 403 YDS, 15.5 Y/R, 2 TD), whom Buffalo acquired for a cache of draft picks. This acquisition was a statement to the rest of the league that the Bills indeed mean business, with Diggs bringing a dimension of verticality to the passing game which has been reflected in the statistics; Buffalo has averaged 331.5 passing yards per game (2nd Overall) on a healthy 8.1 net yards per attempt (3rd Overall), which is a huge increase from 5.8 that they produced a year ago, with Diggs playing a huge role in their improvement, averaging 15.5 yards per reception. This has allowed Allen to really reach his potential in his third year as the starter, with the 24-year old showing rapid growth across the board; he’s completing a career-high 70.9% of his passes (up from 58.8%), averaging 8.02 net yards per attempt (up from 5.72), while tossing twelve touchdowns in comparison to just one interception and posting a QBR of 89.8 (up from 47.9) thus far. Furthermore, his imposing frame (6-5, 237 lbs) and mobility allows him to make plays on the ground as well, rushing for three more scores as well. The key though is that Allen is no longer running for the sake of running, or to escape a collapsing pocket. Now in his third year in Offensive Coordinator, Brian Daboll’s, system, he’s using his legs to set up plays downfield, with the speed that he now has on the perimeter allowing him to make such plays; he’s averaged 7.4 completed air yards per completion, up from 6.5 in 2019, with much of his work coming via Play-Action, with sixty such passes coming out of that particular section of the play book, leading to 631 yards. To give you an idea as to how significant this has been for Buffalo, Allen only attempted 105 such passes out of Play-Action in 2019, posting a total of 787 yards, and that was sixteen games. This kid should surpass that yardage in a week or two, possibly even tonight.
“You watch Buffalo’s offense, they do a lot… The quarterback can complete passes left-handed. The guy’s a beast standing back there. They got a pretty good attack.”Jon Gruden, Las Vegas Raiders Head Coach
When we last saw the Bills, they were successfully running their perfect start to the campaign to four games, defeating the Las Vegas Raiders 30-23 last weekend. This one was a bit closer than the final score would lead you to believe, though Buffalo rarely looked as if they were threatened at any point in the affair. The visitors only amassed 336 total yards on twenty-one first downs, but that was largely due to the fact that they won the turnover battle 2-0, recovering a pair of fumbles in the Fourth Quarter, the first of which came via a seamless strip sack of Raiders’ Quarterback, Derek Carr. Though they’ve had their share of injuries, the Bills’ Defense, really showed up in this one, relegating the hosts to filed goals on three of their first four drives of the game, before completely negating them on the ensuing four drives, ending as follows: punt, fumble, downs, and a fumble. Allen continued his hot start to the campaign, completing 24-of-34 passes for 288 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with the aforementioned Diggs hauling in six receptions on seven targets for 115 yards, while Singletary accounted for seventy-six yards from scrimmage and a score on twenty-three touches. McDermott’s charges had no problem staying on the field, converting on 8-of-14 third and fourth downs. Now they’ll look to build off that performance against the Titans, who they bested last year in a defensive battle, 14-7. This one was ugly on both sides, folks, as the Bills managed to come away with a win despite converting just 5-of-15 third and fourth downs, while getting flagged eleven times for a loss of seventy-eight yards and losing the turnover battle 1-0. Tennessee however, missed FOUR field goals on the evening, which ultimately proved to be the deciding factor.
Meanwhile, we mentioned earlier that the Titans (3-0, 1st in AFC South) received an impromptu early bye week, which is due to a slew of players and staff members testing positive for COVID-19 over a three-day period. As a result, the NFL postponed their matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, moving it to a later date in the season. The league announced on Monday that there were no new positive tests associated with the team, which is certainly a positive turn of events in lieu of their meeting with the unbeaten Bills today, which is a matchup that carries a good deal of history with it. Tennessee effectively closed the book on an era in Buffalo when they met in the AFC Wild Card back in 1999, a 22-16 victory that has since been branded as the Music City Miracle, which saw the hosts pull off a remarkable comeback on the game’s final play, a 75-yard kickoff return in which Tight End, Frank Wycheck, threw a lateral pass to Receiver, Kevin Dyson, who would sprint down the sideline to end zone. That fateful day altered both franchises, with the Bills missing the postseason in the next seventeen consecutive seasons, while the Titans would advance to Super Bowl XXXIV, where they would come up a mere yard short of besting the St. Louis Rams.
Fast forward twenty-one years later and both teams fashion themselves as contenders within the AFC, with the Titans looking to build upon last year’s surprise run to the AFC Championship Game, getting off to their first 3-0 start since 2008. Last year’s incarnation of the team absolutely took off following the promotion of Backup Quarterback, Ryan Tannehill (67.3%, 809 YDS, 7.36 NY/A, 6 TD, 1 INT, 76.2 QBR), who completely transformed the Offense into a big play machine, while Tailback, Derrick Henry (82 CAR, 319 YDS, 3.9 Y/C, 2 TD), steamrolled his way to a rushing title (1,540 YDS). Tennessee opened their checkbook and retained the services of both players during Free Agency, with Mike Vrabel continuing to further build around them. So where are they at thus far in 2020, you ask? Well, they’ve developed a habit of winning close games, with their three victories coming from a narrow margin of SIX points. The Offense has been solid, ranking tenth and twelfth in points (26.7) and total yards (398.7), even though Henry and the running game have yet to really get rolling yet, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry (27th Overall), which is a steep decline from the 5.0 yards that they averaged a year ago. Then again, Henry has historically been a rusher who gets stronger as the season has progressed; the Pro-Bowler racked up just 644 yards and six touchdowns in the first nine games of 2019, only to erupt for 896 yards and ten scores over the final six contests of the campaign, along with another 446 yards in the Playoffs. The key thus far has been a Defense that despite getting throttled on the ground (they’ve yielded 166.0 rushing yards on 5.8 yards per carry), has forced six turnovers in three games, which has parlayed to a healthy Plus-5 differential on the season. Vrabel, whose pedigree obviously lies on the defensive side of the football, is going to have to get this figured out, for it’s been a genuine surprise that Tennessee has been this poor defensively. They’ve given up a dismal 422.3 total yards thus far (28th Overall), have capitulated on third down on 51.5% attempts (29th Overall), and relinquished a touchdown on a harrowing 80.0% of their opponents’ trips into the red zone (31st Overall). The Titans added the services of Jadeveon Clowney (7 TKL, 2 TFL, 5 QBH, 1 PD) to their defensive front, while also welcoming the healthy return of Sophomore Tackle, Jeffery Simmons (12 TKL, 1 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 PD), but have nonetheless been manhandled in the trenches. Is this a case of new faces simply needing to get on the same page? Perhaps, but if they want to truly want to count themselves among the contenders in the AFC, then they’re going to have fix this Defense, and do it soon.
“Every phase of our team has to improve and get better, but there’s no panic… It’s not something that we want to rely on, but it’s something that we want to continue to build on and be excited and appreciative.”Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans Head Coach
When we last saw the Titans, they were busy fending off a desperate Minnesota Vikings team in another close win, this time 31-30 on the road. Trailing 17-12 in the Third Quarter, Tennessee started slow on the strength of four Stephen Gostkowski field goals, but eventually got into a groove as Tannehill and Henry led them on back-to-back touchdown drives of sixty-five and seventy-five yards, with the reigning rushing champ barreling into the end zone. A pair of 50-yard Gostkowski field goals eventually put them up 31-30 inside of the two minute warning, with the Defense finally sealing the deal as Sophomore Safety, Amani Hooker (4 TKL, 1 INT, 2 PD), intercepted Kirk Cousins deep down the right side of the field. In the end, a win is a win, but this performance left a lot to be desired on both sides of the football for the Titans. Offensively, they amassed 444 total yards, with Henry rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns, but found themselves too often settling for field goals due to converting just 3-of-13 third downs. Defensively, they racked up three crucial takeaways, but they were absolutely pummeled by Minnesota’s ground game, relinquishing a season-worst 226 rushing yards. Tennessee lost Pro-Bowl Left Tackle, Taylor Lewan, to a shoulder injury in the First Quarter, while Edge-Rusher, Vic Beasley, saw his first action of the year after missing the first two outings with a knee injury. Both players should be good to go for today’s showdown with Buffalo, with the hopes that they can improve the rushing attack and run defense respectively.