8:15 PM EST, ESPN – Line: 49ers -1, Over/Under: 47.5
COVID-19 continues to play havoc with the NFL schedule as the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers will face off not in the friendly confines of the latter’s Levi Stadium, instead relocating tonight’s contest to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Due to Santa Clara County (where Levi’s Stadium calls home), recently prohibiting all sports from being played for a period of three weeks, the National Football League decided to move this primetime matchup to the closest available venue, which happens to be the home of the Arizona Cardinals, which of course will be hosting their own affair a day before this matchup. Of course, this is just the latest scheduled contest that has been upended by the Coronavirus pandemic that has caused the league to postpone multiple games over the past few weeks, while in some cases forcing teams to take the field without a single healthy Quarterback (ahem, Denver). However, that notion doesn’t apply to the Bills (8-3, 1st in AFC East), who as many expected have filled the void within the division following the New England Patriots’ fall from grace. A ten-win team in 2019, Buffalo’s growth remains on schedule, as Sean McDermott’s side have built a comfortable lead in the East, looking like a lock to win their first division title since 1995. However, that’s not say that their work is done by an means, for with five weeks left before the Playoffs the Defense still hasn’t found it’s footing, while a pair of significant injuries threaten to slow down their potent Offense.
Though McDermott is now in his fourth campaign in Western New York, this is the third season that (Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll and (Quarterback) Josh Allen (68.8%, 3,028 YDS, 7.08 NY/A, 22 TD, 8 INT, 75.4 QBR), have been together, with the latter taking an exponential leap in his development, with the Offense far better for it. Any doubts over drafting this kid Seventh Overall out of Wyoming back in the 2018 NFL Draft have long been quelled, for the 24-year old has developed into one of the best young signal-callers in the game, particularly when you consider the other higher-profile passers who were also selected in that Draft Class. A physical specimen checking in at 6-5, 237 lbs, the key with Allen was always going to be his progress in mastering the finer nuances of playing the position, and by and large he’s done so in 2020; his completion percentage has risen from 58.8% to 68.8% and his net yards per attempt has taken a major leap as well, increasing from 5.72 to 7.08, while overall QBR has improved from a mediocre 47.9 as a Sophomore to 75.4 as a Junior. (General Manager) Brandon Beane has done a tremendous job of bolstering the supporting cast around him via Trade, Free Agency, and the NFL Draft, particularly in terms of upgrading his weaponry; the Bills traded 1st, 5th, and 6th Round Picks in the 2020 NFL Draft and a 4th Rounder next year for wantaway Receiver, Stefon Diggs (80 REC, 945 YDS, 11.8 Y/R, 4 TD), who looks well on his way to earning his first career Pro-Bowl nod, reeling in eighty receptions for 945 yards and four touchdowns. As a whole, the Offense has entered the realm of the league’s top third, averaging 27.2 points per game (10th Overall) on 384.6 total yards (11th Overall), including 280.2 yards through the air (7th Overall) on 7.1 net yards per attempt (7th Overall). Even though the rushing attack has been below average (104.4 Y/G, 21st Overall), it hasn’t stopped them from moving the chains, with Buffalo converting on third down a healthy 49.6% of the time (2nd Overall). A lot of this has to do with Allen’s ability to make plays with his legs (81 CAR, 311 YDS, 6 TD), and at his size he’s able to pick up the first more often than not by simply falling forward, rushing for thirty-two first downs thus far. Unfortunately, this side of the football suffered some MAJOR blows over the week, losing both (Sophomore Guard) Cody Ford and (Receiver) John Brown (29 REC, 386 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 2 TD) to Injured Reserve with knee and ankle injuries respectively, while Allen limps into tonight’s affair with an ailing ankle and knee from over the weekend. However, those losses are only one concern for McDermott, who must also have reservations over his Defense, which for all intents and purposes has taken a major step back in 2020, particularly when you consider how well they had played throughout the first three years of his tenure with the franchise. The 46-year old was hired due to his work on that side of the football, and he was able to turn this unit into one of the league’s best in relatively short order; Buffalo ranked Second and Third Overall in Total Defense in 2018 and 2019, while finishing Second in points allowed last season. However, they have regressed greatly this year, allowing 25.6 points per game (18th Overall) on 373.1 total yards (21st Overall), including 243.5 yards against the pass (18th Overall) on 6.5 net yards per attempt (19th Overall), while performing particularly poor versus the run allowing 129.6 yards (25th Overall) on 4.7 yards per carry (27th Overall), which has parlayed to yielding a 43.1% success rate on third down (21st Overall), and if not for a total of seventeen takeaways (7th Overall) things could be a whole lot worse. Fortunately, they appeared to make good use of their Bye Week, for their first outing afterward saw what was arguably their finest defensive performance of the campaign…
When we last saw the Bills, they emerged from the week off well-rested as they matched up with the Los Angeles Chargers, whom they bested in a 27-17 victory in Orchard Park. After relinquishing over 400 total yards in each of their past two games, Buffalo did a solid job in containing the passing attack of the visitors, led by surprising Rookie Quarterback, Justin Herbert, forcing LA into a largely one-dimensional showing. In a matchup in which his Defense was on the field more than he would prefer thanks to a mistake-prone afternoon from the Offense, which turned the ball over on three occasions, McDermott’s troops handled their business; the visiting side were relegated to just seventy-six yards on twenty-four carries, and had to sell out offensively throughout the affair just to keep the chains moving, converting 4-of-5 fourth downs. After trading scores in the opening period, the established a ten-point advantage in the second, with veteran Slot Receiver, Cole Beasley (57 REC, 667 YDS, 11.7 Y/R, 3 TD), taking the lateral from the aforementioned Allen, and firing it downfield to his Rookie teammate, Gabriel Davis (22 REC, 354 YDS, 16.1 Y/R, 4 TD), for the twenty-yard touchdown. Indeed, it was far from a strong showing from Allen, who completed 18-of-24 passes for just 157 yards, with a touchdown an interception and a lost fumble, headlining an attack whose only intention it appeared was to give away the football towards the end of the game; Buffalo’s first three possessions of the Fourth Quarter ended in a turnover, before Tyler Bass’ 43-yard field goal could allow them to breathe easier, extending the lead back to ten points. On the ensuing possession, Herbert would lead the Chargers all the way to the Bills’ one-yard line, but couldn’t breach the end zone as time expired, securing the victory for the home side.
Meanwhile, while they are certainly worthy of your sympathy, the 49ers (5-6, 4th in NFC West) won’t be having any of it, even if they’ve been adversely effected in 2020 more than just about any other team in the National Football League. My oh my what a difference a year can make, for at this point last season San Francisco was well on their way towards winning the competitive NFC West, and securing the No. One Overall Seed in the NFC, which of course would help propel them to their seventh Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Unfortunately, Kyle Shanahan’s charges would come up just short of hoisting the club’s first Lombardi Trophy since 1994, though were for all intents an purposes tabbed by many to remain in contention for the foreseeable future, particularly this season. However, fate would reveal it’s cruel hand early on, as a rash of injuries across the roster would rob them of a plethora of key figures, including the likes of Starting Quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo (67.1%, 1,096 YDS, 6.75 NY/A, 7 TD, 5 INT, 59.9 QBR), Edge-Rusher, Nick Bosa (6 TKL, 1 QBH, 1 FF), Tight End, George Kittle (37 REC, 474 YDS, 12.8 Y/R, 2 TD), Tailback, Raheem Mostert (67 CAR, 346 YDS, 5.2 Y/A, 2 TD), and Cornerback, Richard Sherman (11 TKL, 1 TL, 1 INT, 1 PD). Couple those setbacks with the heightened competition within the division, and you have a reigning NFC Champion who has suddenly found themselves at the bottom of the division looking up at their fellow residents sporting winning records.
With so many significant contributors sidelined to injury, it’s a wonder that the 49ers have even managed to stay in the hunt for a Wild Card in the NFC, for coming into tonight’s contest they currently sit just one game out of the final Playoff spot in the conference. Granted, the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears stand ahead of them due to tiebreakers (conference record), but with back-to-back affair with the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Football Team, followed by dates with division rivals, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, there remains a very palpable opportunity for this team to each .500, which should be enough to book a return to the Postseason, however unlikely it may be. With that said, even though they’ve missed so many players, that hasn’t stopped San Francisco from competing, which in the end comes down to Shanahan continuing to coach the hell out of those at his disposal. No Garoppolo? No problem, for Nick Mullens (67.5%, 1,642 YDS, 7.02 NY/A, 6 TD, 7 INT, 44.3 QBR) has acquainted himself rather well in the absence of the 29-year old who participated in just six contests before landing on Injured Reserve with a high ankle sprain. Mullens, an Undrafted Free Agent out of Southern Mississippi, has looked very comfortable in his execution of the Offense, posting statistics that in all honesty are pretty comparable to that of his predecessor; the 25-year old has completed a slightly higher percentage of his passes (67.5%), averaged more yards per attempt (8.0) and completion (11.8) than Garoppolo, with the biggest difference between the two being Mullens has committed more nine turnovers thus far. Of course, it certainly helps to be able to lean on a successful ground game, and while the Niners haven’t been anything close to the juggernaut that they were a year ago, they’ve still shown the ability to control a game when afforded the opportunity to do so; few are better at scheming the running game better than Shanahan, whose side have rushed for a respectable 112.0 yards (16th Overall) on 4.1 yards per carry (22nd Overall), which has been enough to make life easier for Mullens throwing downfield, whether it’s to Sophomore Receiver, Deebo Samuel (27 REC, 318 YDS, 11.8 Y/R, 1 TD), or his Rookie clone, Brandon Aiyuk (35 REC, 446 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 3 TD). Defensively, it’s been a similar story with (Defensive Coordinator) Robert Saleh having to coach up what’s left of a star-stud unit that traded away (Defensive Tackle) Deforest Buckner in the Offseason, and lost the aforementioned Bosa, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, after just two games. Surprisingly, this group has remained formidable, allowing 23.1 points per game (11th Overall) on 315.2 total yards (6th Overall), including 206.5 yards against the pass 4th Overall) on 6.2 net yards per attempt (12th Overall), and another 108.7 yards versus the run (10th Overall) on 4.0 yards per carry (8th Overall). Next man up has been more than just a saying in the Bay Area, it’s been a way life with Shanahan and Saleh no doubt happy to see so many rise to the occasion on this side of the football. (Linebacker) Fred Warner (85 TKL, 4 TFL, 4 QBH, 2 INT, 3 PD) has developed into one of the best in the league at his position, while Rookie Defensive Tackle, Javon Kinlaw (24 TKL, 1 TFL, 4 QBH, 1.5 SK, 1 INT, 4 PD, 1 TD), has slowly come on as the aforementioned Buckner’s replacement. Furthermore, the oft-injured, Jason Verrett (32 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PD), has enjoyed a resurgence at Cornerback, while the unheralded Kerry Hyder (37 TKL, 8 TFL, 17 QBH, 7.5 SK, 1 FR), another Undrafted Free Agent now on his fourth team in six years, is half a sack away from matching his career-high, with four in his last four outings. Well coached, well motivated, and possessing an underestimated volume of depth, San Francisco is fully capable of punching above their weight class on any given day, which is something that they proved for the second time this season last weekend…
When we last saw the 49ers, they were busy sweeping the season series with the Los Angeles Rams, who entered last Sunday leading the tightly-contested NFC West. When they first met back on October 18th at Levi’s Stadium, San Francisco bullied their southern neighbors in a 24-16 affair that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would have led you to believe; the hosts led 21-6 at Halftime en route to dominating time of possession (37:55), and relegating Los Angeles’ (Quarterback) to just 198 yards, a pair of touchdowns and an interception on 19-of-38 passing. Offensively, Shanahan’s charges rushed for 122 yards on thirty-seven carries, controlling the contest on the ground. Fast-forward six weeks and the only that changed was the venue, as the Niners dominated a mistake-prone 23-20 affair that featured seven turnovers between the two sides, with each returning a takeaway for a touchdown. With that said, San Fran once again dominated possession on the ground, rushing thirty-three times for 112 yards en route to holding the ball for 34:03. Saleh’s Defense made Goff’s life miserable one more time, keeping the young passer under wraps with 198 yards, two interceptions and a lost fumble on 19-of-31 passing. Mullens wasn’t much better, completing 24-of-35 passes for 252 yards and an interception, though he managed to avoid the catastrophic errors that afflicted his counterpart. The aforementioned Hyder sacked Goff twice and hit him twice more, while Kinlaw scored the first touchdown of his young career with a 27-yard return to open the Second Half, with the ageless Sherman logging an interception in his first game back following a calf injury that had sidelined him since the Season Opener.