Norwich athletics coordinator pessimistic about resumption of extracurricular activities

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The window for New York playing high school sports this fall is closing rapidly.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) has issued several press releases, and recently published a tentative athletics plan if fall sports do not resume in September.

The surge of COVID-19 cases in late-winter canceled the conclusion of the 2020 state championships, and the spring sports season was completed wiped away as teachers and students sheltered in their homes, and completed required schoolwork virtually.

Earlier this month, we spoke to Norwich High School athletics coordinator, Rich Turnbull, regarding the state of sports – and all extracurricular activities.

Full disclosure, in my early years working for The Evening Sun, I covered Turnbull during his junior and season seasons playing varsity baseball for Edmeston.  I should also note, Turnbull, and his wife and children, live in Norwich next door to my parents.

“I guess I’ve become a little pessimistic,” Turnbull said in a phone interview earlier this month regarding the possibility of playing sports this fall.

Turnbull noted that part of New Yorik’s phase 4 reopening allowed for school teams to begin training, but that plan was scrapped when the NYSPHSAA ruled that no interscholastic teams could train, only travel teams.

“I lost a little bit of hope, because I thought the athletes would be allowed to train,” Turnbull said.

The guidance released by the state addresses the opening of schools, but clearly states, Turnbull said, no interscholastic activities at this time.

The moratorium on extracurricular activities will, presumably, extend to any academic clubs, music, arts, and theater.

“I think (the resumption of extracurricular activities) is a moving goal line,” Turnbull said. “If I was betting, I don’t see it happening.  I think every AD (athletics director) is frustrated, and we’re looking out for the safety of the kids. We just want some clear direction. It seems like everyone is canceling, and if we’re following the trend, I’m not very optimistic at all. How can you stay safe? If they’re not letting colleges play…basically, every college around us is canceling their seasons.”

Turnbull graduated from high school in the late 1990s, and still is not too far removed from competitive sports to remember the feeling he had playing sports.  He was asked how he would have felt if extracurricular activities were taken away

“As a kid, personally, I participated in everything,” Turnbull said. “I was in band, I was in choir, I played sports. I was in all sorts of stuff. If it was yanked, for me, I’d probably be disenfranchised, angry, and looking for things to do.”

Extracurricular activities, Turnbull said, were not just vehicles to keep a busy person occupied. They were also a means to develop as a person.

“I went to a small school, but I used the extracurricular activities as socialization and to meet with friends,” Turnbull said. “It would have really affected me mentally and socially. I wouldn’t have had that crutch to depend on – an outlet for activity.

Turnbull is also concerned that the absence of activities could bring an end to some sports as some school activities that are already hurting for numbers. 

“We have some kids that are just squeaking by, and without sports, they’ll seek other avenues to occupy their time,” Turnbull said.  “Some sports we have were already hurting for numbers. If we miss a whole season, will those sports be able to survive?”  Up-to-date guidance on New York scholastic sports is available online at http://www.nysphsaa.org/, and the most recent updates on the sports season are available on the COVID-19 Info link at http://www.nysphsaa.org/COVID-19-Info.

A Norwich treasure: Remembering Mr. Chirlin

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Tornado logoThe Norwich community lost longtime teacher Don Chirlin on Saturday. Below are my recollections of Don over a 40-year period:

I learned yesterday that one of Norwich’s finest, Mr. Don Chirlin, passed away after a brief illness. Don celebrated his 84th birthday about four weeks ago, and until my mom emailed me last week, I was totally unaware he was sick. As recently as this past basketball season – before the virus shut things down – I knew Don was still attending Norwich games.
I have a connection to Don, his wife Sally, and children Christy and John dating back over 40 years.
My parents moved to our King Settlement road home in the late 1970s. We lived about a half-mile beyond the Chirlins’ home, but there were only three houses between our house and the Chirlins’ old farmhouse.
We were neighbors.
My presumption is that my parents knew the Chirlins to some degree. One of our first babysitters – and one of the last for that matter – was Christy.
The following year, I began my first year playing golf at Canasawacta Country Club. At some point, I connected with John, and for that summer and the next, John was a regular golf partner.
In retrospect, John was doing me a big favor. He was an older kid already in high school, and it was clear that he had some experience playing golf.
I was just a beginner.
During those two years, many times John and I got rides to the course from our parents. Sometimes it was my mom, but equally, Sally served as our chauffeur.
There were a couple of humorous experiences from those occasional rides – and if Sally reads this, she’ll know exactly what I am referencing. Sidenote: Sally reminded me of one specific occasion one of the last times I spoke to her.
We’ll leave that story off this page, but maybe I’ll tell that story in my memoirs.
During those two summers, I rode with John and Sally to and from the golf course countless times. But, I never actually met Don.
I saw the Chirlin patriarch all the time working on his property. There was at least a quarter-mile of open fields to the left and right of the Chirlin house. There was also an old barn and silo, likely the remnants of a one-time working farm.
Don was always outside working. Often, I saw him on his riding mower, and many other times I saw him driving around the property in a rusted-out, nearly-broken Jeep that had not been road-worthy in years.
Yet, I had never actually said a word to Don until my senior year in high school when I took his course: Problems in American Life. It was a social science elective, and Don lectured for an entire year on what he saw as the problems in American life.
Don was particularly passionate about the unit in which we discussed alcohol and drug addiction He confessed to his own addiction and recovery, and it was a rare instance where I saw a teacher exposing his own flaws and failures.
I didn’t appreciate that honesty while I was taking his class. In truth, it was a class credit I earned toward my high school graduation. Years later, when I got to know Don as a adult, I realized how thoughtful and complex Don was.
What I always found interesting about Don was his ability to turn it on and off. My impression of Don was that he was innately an introvert. His default setting is reserved and quiet. However, the moment the bell rang, and class started, he immediately sprung to life.
Anyone that heard Don speak publicly knew how passionate he was about the things he found important. He embarked on a professional career teaching social studies because of his deep interest and concern for history and social issues.
He was also deeply committed to his city and his alma mater. He served multiple stints on the Norwich City School Board, and was one of the most faithful and dedicated supporters of Norwich athletics.
Perhaps 10 years ago or more, Norwich started a sports hall of fame. Don was a staunch advocate of so many of his contemporaries’ inductions. He also spoke at several induction ceremonies, and he had few peers in his knowledge of Norwich sports history.
Many years after the start of the hall of fame, Don was inducted into the Norwich High School athletics Hall of Fame.
Because I didn’t come to know Don as a friend until he was already 60 years old, I had no idea he had any sports acumen. The Evening Sun published a biographical article of Don two years ago. Don was quoted in that article stating he was a good player on some really good teams.
Perhaps Don was a being a tad modest.
He was a two-way starter for Norwich’s last unbeaten and untied football team; he was the leading scorer on the 1952-’53 sectional basketball championship team; and he started on a baseball team that lost just one game.
A three-sport starter, the teams Chirlin played on went 40-4 overall his senior year. Describing himself as a good player and a really good team is like saying Scottie Pippen was a good player on the Chicago Bulls’ six NBA championship teams.
Pippen is in the NBA Hall of Fame, and Chirlin earned his NHS Hall of Fame induction.
Ten years removed from taking Don’s social studies class, I started the most important job of my life: sports editor at my hometown newspaper.
Over the course of 20 years, I talked with Don countless times, and he also wrote emails to me on many occasions. He and Sally were just incredibly supportive, positive, and informative influences during my career.
Second sidenote: I also had Sally as a teacher. She was my English and Comp II teacher when I was pursuing my two-year degree at Morrisville. I know my writing in this formal setting was garbage, but somehow, I finagled a B out of it.
I had great respect for Don and Sally who combined had at least 65-70 years of teaching experience. If my articles passed muster with the Chirlins, then I knew I was doing my job.
It’s been nearly five years since I moved from Norwich, and I only saw the Chirlins maybe two or three times in my visits home. One of my last communications with Don was an email he wrote to comment on a blog post. I always appreciated his insight and perspective.
Norwich lost one of the great ones on Saturday, and there are not many like him left.

Throw records out the window with this year’s Norwich team

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I’m home sick from work today – I guess whatever bug is coming through New Mexico, attached itself to me. But my fingers still work, and I had some additional thoughts about Norwich girls’ basketball’s season.

First, man, I wish I was there to cover this team in person.

Second, I covered the first eight seasons of Josh Bennett’s coaching tenure. He had some super talented teams, but there was always a Seton Catholic, a Sus Valley, or an Oneonta standing in the way.

As good as Norwich was, the opposition was simply exceptional. By my count, there were three times where Norwich lost competitive playoff games to the eventual state champion.

The disappointment of those losses laid the groundwork for the breakthrough of Norwich’s last two seasons.

A year ago, Norwich was just dominant from the opening tip of the first game, to the eventual blowout win in the Section IV championship.

This year, adversity struck on and off the court.

The Hess sisters, MacKenzie and Jordan, lost their father about a week before the season opener. Everyone that has ever competed in team sports knows that your teammates become your extended family. So, when members of your family are hurting, you hurt just as well.

If playing with heavy hearts wasn’t enough, two games into the season, Norwich lost perhaps its most important component, Halea Eaton, to injury.

Shortly before the start of the basketball season, Eaton inked a college basketball scholarship to LeMoyne. With Eaton guiding the Norwich offense, the Purple Tornado were the presumptive favorite to repeat as Section IV Class B champion.

Eaton is a do-everything type of a player who created opportunities for her teammates on offense, but also served as the hard-nosed first line of defense in Norwich’s full-court press.

If Norwich wanted to play at a 100 mile-per-hour pace, Eaton set the tone playing at 110 miles per hour.

We’ve all seen teams rally when a key player is lost. Perhaps the most obvious example I can point to is Loyola Marymount’s basketball team in 1990.

Loyola Marymount lost its best player, Hank Gathers, on the eve of the NCAA Tournament to a tragic heart ailment. Gathers, a consensus all-American, was irreplaceable as one the nation’s leading scorers and rebounders.

But, as prohibitive underdogs, Loyola Marymount willed itself to the NCAA west regional final achieving above and beyond expectations.

When you’re working with high level athletes – at the college or professional level – you’re replacing a high-level athlete with another high-level athlete.

That’s not as easy to do for a medium- to small-sized public high school. When you lose arguably your best player, the talent gap between that person and the replacement is substantial.

But, Norwich and Coach Bennett figured it out.

During the season, Norwich lost to Elmira, the Section IV AA champion, lost a close game to Class A champion Maine-Endwell, and lost twice to Oneonta, which came into the sectional tournament as the top seed in Class B.

The other two losses came to teams outside Section IV in tournament games designed to test the limits of the team. Those were losses to Saratoga Springs and Rome Free Academy. The former, Saratoga Springs, a school three times the size of Norwich, just lost in the Section 2, Class AA final to Shenendehowa.

While Rome Free Academy had a strong Section III season – also a AA-sized school – that ended in the playoffs.

Every Norwich loss was to above average to superior team. Other than Elmira and Saratoga Springs, Norwich was in every game deep into the fourth quarter.

Norwich went 14-6 during the regular season, which is certainly a fine record, but not one that portends of an upcoming championship.

As fans of our particular team, the overall record is the first detail we notice. It’s where we initiate some sort of rationalization; a starting point to forecast that team’s chances in the playoffs.

Coach Bennett, probably earlier in his career, placed some emphasis on the team’s record. He was a young coach, and he needed to produce a winning program.

A few years into his tenure, you started to see regular non-league dates against much larger schools. The wins and losses weren’t nearly as important as testing his players, and developing the team’s growth.

Undoubtedly, those six losses were the best lessons Norwich learned this season.

More than any year in his coaching career, Bennett needed “this” team to test its limits. In his post-game comments following Sunday’s sectional championship win over Newark Valley, Bennett said (following Eaton’s injury) that they had to reinvent and remake their team.

It was a 3 ½-month reinvention, and the fruits of that development have Norwich in the same position it was a year ago against the same team it lost to in the state playoffs: South Jefferson.

The most illustrative comparison we have to these two teams is last year’s playoff game. South Jefferson rallied in the fourth quarter to hand Norwich a 66-59 defeat. Norwich led a good chunk of that game, and South Jeff struggled to adjust to Norwich’s frenetic style of play, but settled in just enough to pull out the win.

As for this year, the two teams have one common opponent: Saratoga Springs. While Norwich lost by 21 (much of that disadvantage established in the first half), South Jefferson lost to that same team by 38 points.

Playing the comparison game isn’t usually a reliable tool for analysis. Especially at this point of the season when every team is playing its best basketball. What I did infer from the comparative box scores is one significant difference.

Bennett’s teams are the embodiment of himself. I’ve known Josh since he was a young teenager, and one thing you could count on to this day is his effort. You see it now in his coaching; he’s gives 100 percent from tip-off to final horn.

South Jefferson and Norwich were in similar situations entering the fourth quarter against Saratoga Springs. South Jeff was down 26, and Norwich trailed by 22.

In games like these, the benches are seeing most of the minutes on the floor. South Jefferson was outscored 14-2 in that last quarter. The outcome was conceded, and Saratoga Springs’ reserves played much better.

Conversely, with the game’s outcome no longer in doubt, Norwich won the fourth quarter against Saratoga Springs.

Maybe that doesn’t really mean that much. But what it means, from the outside, is that Norwich will compete hard for every minute of every quarter of every game.

That’s why I like Norwich’s chances in this weekend’s state playoff game as much as last year.

Highlights from Norwich’s win over Newark Valley are available at the following site.

The Norwich game highlights start at the 1:47 mark:   https://wbng.com/2020/03/08/class-a-and-b-crown-section-iv-champions/

5 things we learned from the Buffalo Bills’ playoff loss to Houston

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Bills logoAs long as Deshaun Watson is taking the quarterback snaps, Houston is never out of a game.

Watson rallied the Texans from a 16-0 hole, and his elusiveness in the pocket led to a 34-yard completion to Taiwan Jones inside the Buffalo Bills 10.

From there, the Texans kicked the game-winning field goal in a 22-19 overtime win over the Bills on Wild-Card Saturday.

Watson did virtually nothing against the Bills’ defense until he capped the team’s first touchdown drive with a 20-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Watson also threw a short TD pass in the fourth to Carlos Hyde that gave Houston its first lead of the game.

But it was Watson’s escape of an apparent sack at midfield that will define his playoff-winning performance.

Buffalo blitzers Siran Neal and Matt Milano each had their arms around Watson, who shrugged the two tacklers off on a scramble to the right. There, he found the little-used Jones on the right side near the first-down marker.

Jones, with his only touch of the game, reeled in the pass, made Bills safety Micah Hyde miss, and he rumbled down to the Buffalo 9.

The Bills, seeking their first playoff win since December 1995, will have to wait another season to break its 24-year playoff victory drought.

With the season now over for the Bills, what did we learn today? Here are five things:

The good and the bad Josh Allen

In four quarters plus 12 minutes of overtime, we saw both sides of the Allen coin. He was nearly flawless in the first half with an excellent quarterback scramble, a touchdown reception on a throwback from receiver John Brown, and he completed the passes he needed to make.

The second half was nearly the opposite. He lost a fumble early in the fourth that led to a Houston field goal, he took ill-timed sacks, and on a good quarterback run on the Bills’ drive for a tying field goal, inexplicably flipped a lateral over the head of teammate Dawson Knox while he was falling to the ground.

Yes, that’s a good sandlot play – if it worked – but the lateral nearly cost the Bills a penalty, and worse, the ball.

Playing it safe – too safe

As has been a theme all season for Buffalo, when it gets a lead, the offensive play-calling tends to lean towards the ultra-conservative.

Late in the first half, the Bills wasted valuable time as the clocked ticked down. With over a minute left in the half at the Houston 32, Allen completed a short pass to Cole Beasley. The clock continued to run, and fortunately, Buffalo completed a first-down pass to Devin Singletary for three yards to the Houston 23.

During those two plays, the Bills lost 47 valuable seconds, and inexplicably, after calling a timeout, with 30 seconds left ran Frank Gore for one yard. With the clock running, again, Allen had to spike the ball on second down to stop the clock. Then, Allen threw a low percentage pass to Duke Williams toward the right corner of the end zone.

That incompletion led to one of four Stephen Hauschka field goals.

Yes, the Bills put points on the board, but touchdowns will always trump field goals. The clock management and play-calling was not championship caliber, and the Bills’ mentality on offense – next season – should be redirected toward scoring touchdowns.

The Bills averaged 19 points a game on offense this season, and that will not get it done in today’s NFL.

Pass rushers had their best game

Forget about the missed sack in overtime – Watson did that to every team this season. The Bills had a season-high seven sacks, pressured Watson throughout the game, and forced the Texans to change their game plan.

If not for Watson’s superlative individual effort to evade Buffalo rushers, the Bills would be moving on to the divisional round of the playoffs instead of the Texans.

Jerry Hughes, the Bills’ most tenured player, had three sacks and three tackles for a loss in his best effort this season. Trent Murphy, who had two sacks last week, had a second straight two-sack game.

Where was Beasley? Knox?

It was a good move to elevate Duke Williams to the active roster, and he was the Bills’ most targeted receiver today with 10 targets.

As for free agent signee Cole Beasley, he’s a first down waiting to happen every time he is targeted, but his usage went silent for long stretches today.

In the slot, he is virtually uncoverable, and he caught a 10-yard pass for a first down with under 30 seconds to play leading to the Bills’ tying field goal.

He had one pass thrown his way in overtime – a low throw from Allen that went incomplete. Beasley is a weapon in the mold of the Patriots’ Julian Edelman, and he was vastly underused today.

Buffalo’s tight ends were also a non-factor. Dawson Knox had one catch in two targets, and veteran Lee Smith had one catch for eight yards. That was it for the Buffalo tight ends.

Knox, as we found out this season, is also a weapon and a mismatch for opposing defenses. But the tight ends were clearly not part of today’s offensive game plan.

Bills offense needs to get better

The Bills have put a championship caliber defense on the field the past two seasons. They finished in the top three both years, and it’s reasonable to expect the Bills will maintain a top-line defense in 2020.

Head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane fixed the defense fairly quick, but three years into the McDermott regime, the offense is still a work in progress.

In McDermott’s three seasons, the Bills’ offense has finished 29th, 30th, and 24th out of 32 NFL teams.

If Buffalo didn’t have a top-three NFL defense this season, it’s possible Buffalo could’ve finished with another six-win campaign.

Off Buffalo’s seven losses this year, six of those were one-score games. But in those losses, Buffalo scored two touchdowns or less. And, in all of its losses, it scored less than 20 points.

Some of this offensive inefficiency could be related to the first point: playing it too safe. It appears the offensive directive is to plays its cards close to the vest with Allen, and instead of making aggressive play calls on early downs inside the opponent’s 30, opts for low-risk, low-reward running plays.

The Patriots didn’t win six Super Bowls over the previous 18 years by playing it safe. To paraphrase Patriots coach Bill Belichick, “find an opponent’s weakness, and attack it without mercy.”

Follow the writer on Twitter @PatrickLNewell

Five things we learned from the Buffalo Bills’ loss to the Jets

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Bills logoWith a playoff spot already in the bank, the Buffalo Bills played it safe Sunday in the season finale against the New York Jets.

With most Bills starters either taking a seat or only seeing cameo playing time, the surging Jets sent the Bills to their third loss in four games taking a 13-6 win at New Era Field.

The Jets, not the Patriots, Bills or Dolphins, had the best second half of the season in the AFC East winning six of their final eight games to finish with a 7-9 record.

Buffalo had an opportunity to reach 11 wins for the first time in 20 years, and the defense, despite using mostly reserves in the second half, played well enough for the Bills to win.

Buffalo’s offense, though, failed to eclipse 17 points for the ninth time in 16 games, and if not for a big drive late in the fourth that yielded a field goal, the Bills would have finished with under 300 yards of total offense a fourth straight game.

Anemic offense aside, here are five things we learned about the Bills

Williams shines again

Rookie receiver Duke Williams did drop a pass that cost Buffalo a likely first down, but the rookie receiver more than offset that with a six-catch, 108-yard performance. In the few opportunities he has had this year, Williams has delivered for the Bills.

He’s a big receiver with good hands, and he gives Buffalo a dimension at receiver that it doesn’t have, otherwise. Every game the rest of the way is “win or go home.” It would be a disservice to the Buffalo offense to deactivate Williams again, who is obviously a playmaker.

Yeldon over Gore?

You know what you’re going to get from Frank Gore. The durable 36-year-old Gore will run between the tackles, probably not fumble, and if there is any sort of daylight, he’s good for a three- or four-yard gain. Yeldon, though, offers more speed on the outside, he’s also a big back that can get the tough yards inside, and Yeldon is a far more dynamic pass catcher out of the backfield.

As much as we like Gore, Yeldon (like Williams), is much more of a playmaker for a Buffalo team that struggles to put points on the board.

Let’s hope Allen doesn’t get hurt

Matt Barkley showed some mettle in the fourth quarter driving Buffalo for a late field, but he limits Buffalo’s offense.

Barkley is strictly a pocket passer who usually makes quick decisions. But, he does not present nearly the arm strength, scrambling ability, and elusiveness of Allen.   Whenever he was hurried by the Jets’ pass rush, bad throws and inaccuracy cropped up. Barkley had two interceptions and one lost fumble, and that negative turnover ratio allowed the Jets to kick a clinching field goal.

Home field not an advantage; scoring insecurity

It’s a testament to Bills’ tough-mindedness and focus that they finished with a 6-2 record on the road, one of the better marks in the NFL.

However, at New Era Field, the Bills finished with same home record as a year ago when they finished 6-10 (a 4-4 home mark).

Three of those four losses were one-score games, and all but the Philadelphia loss were very winnable games. Again, a common theme was lack of scoring output.

One stat to note, and it’s quite revealing. The Bills scored more than 17 points seven times this season. In those seven games, the Bills were 7-0.

Bills punting game weak

Sorry Corey Bojorquez, but this will probably be your final season with the Bills. The Buffalo punter had two punts inside the 20 (he was punting at or near midfield on those two), but for the day, he averaged a mere 35.8 yards per punt.

Conditions were not the greatest today in Buffalo, but this is the professional level, and that quality of punting does not meet the NFL’s professional standard.

Next week: Buffalo will play at Houston next weekend in the AFC Wild Card round. Houston was locked into the fourth seed after Kansas City beat San Diego.

Follow the writer on Twitter @PatrickLNewell

Five things we learned from the Patriots’ division title victory over the Bills

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Bills logoFor the 11th straight season, the Patriots will reign over the AFC East. Led by a vintage Tom Brady performance, the Patriots rallied past the Bills, 24-17, at Gillette Stadium on Saturday night.

Rex Burkhead, who had a big game last week against Cincinnati, followed that up with another clutch effort. He led the Patriots with 77 receiving yards, and scored on a 2-yard TD run with just over five minutes left for the winning points.

Buffalo entertained division title hopes if it was able to beat the Patriots, but the loss doesn’t hurt Buffalo’s playoff standing. The Bills are locked into the AFC’s 5th seed with tiebreaker advantages over the Steelers and Titans (the sixth- and seventh-seeded teams).

So, what did we learn from the Bills’ fifth loss of the season? Here are five things.

New England outcoached Buffalo today

Instead of outcoached, perhaps a better term is that the Bills were out-schemed today. More than any other game this season, the stingy Buffalo defense struggled to get off the field.

The Patriots moved the ball up and down the field most of the game, and finished with 414 total yards.

The Belichick-led Patriots struggled to move the ball in the previous meeting with Buffalo, but learned a few things from that hard-fought 16-10 win. They mixed in a power running game with crafty misdirection in the passing game.

There were few deep passes by Brady, but he consistently found wide-open receivers thanks to pre-play motion, play-fakes, and decoys.

It’s not something you would expect to work the next time around – Buffalo’s defensive staff has consistently shown its ability to adjust – but for a game, when the Patriots needed a spark, they got it done.

Ill-timed sacks taken by Allen

Bills quarterback Josh Allen has developed a reputation as a comeback kid, of sorts. He has five comeback wins this season, and has had Buffalo in position in its last two losses to tie the game on its final drive.

One theme, apparent in the losses to the Patriots and the Ravens two weeks ago – by the same 24-17 score – is Allen taking sacks in critical situations. Today, he held onto the ball on 3rd down giving up a sack. That put Buffalo in a desperate 4th-and-goal from the 15.

Allen has been criticized for his hero ball, which have led to some bonehead passes in his first two seasons. But that hero ball, many times, has also paid off with great improvisational plays.

We tend to forget all the times Allen has scrambled out of danger to make a great play.

The turnovers for Allen are way, way down since early in the year, but it almost seems like Allen has reined in the improvisational plays too much.

Given the enormity of the moment, on the 3rd-and-goal play, it would’ve been nice to see Allen scrap the called play quickly since it was obvious his first look wasn’t there, tuck it down, and get Buffalo into a more manageable fourth down.

Too many times this season Allen has held onto the ball too long on big third -down plays. One of the oldest truisms in football – on third down – is to not throw an interception, and do not take a sack. The latter has happened all too often for Allen in big moments.

Running game absent

Allen scrambled for over 40 yards, but aside from a couple good first-half runs by rookie Devin Singletary, the Bills were one-dimensional today.

The Bills’ generally conservative offensive approach is dependent on a good running game, and that running game was shut down by the Patriots in the second half.   The Patriots were the more physical team at the line of scrimmage today, and that hasn’t happened much this season for the Bills.

Buffalo finds the big play

The big plays for the Buffalo offense have come few and far between. Most Buffalo scoring drives this season were the culmination of well-executed possessions mixing good runs with short, high-percentage passes.

Late in the first half, Allen showed excellent touch on a 33-yard completion to Dawson Knox that led to a nifty TD pass from Allen to eligible lineman Dion Dawkins. (Dawkins caught a TD from Matt Barkley last year as well).

In the third quarter, Allen had a brilliant hookup with John Brown for a 53-yard TD connection. Brown beat all-pro Stephen Gilmore with a move to the outside, then turned to the middle of the field where he blew by safety Devin McCourty.

In the face of pressure, Allen dropped the ball in perfectly to Brown giving Buffalo a 17-13 lead. With a playoff game pending in two weeks, it’s nice to know Buffalo can execute a big play when it needs to.

Brady barely touched

You can count on one hand the number of times Brady was hit today on drop-backs. According to the game statistics, Brady was only hit four times, and the Bills registered zero sacks against the Patriots for the second time this season.

In recent weeks, the Bills’ rushers have shown the ability to get to the quarterback, but Brady had more than enough time today to pick out an open receiver.

Unlike the first meeting with the Bills when Brady failed to complete 50 percent of his passes, he hit 26 of 33 today for 271 yards. It was certainly the best individual passing performance of any quarterback to face the Bills this season, and much of that was due to superb pass protection.

Follow the writer on Twitter @PatrickLNewell

Buffalo Bills clinch playoff spot

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The Buffalo Bills are headed to the postseason for the second time in three seasons.

The Bills’ defense picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Devlin “Duck” Hodges four times – the clincher an interception by Levi Wallace with under 10 seconds to play – as Buffalo held on for a 17-10 win over the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday night.

The Bills (10-4) also reached 10 wins for the first time in 20 years when they went 11-5 in 1999. That season, of course, ended with the Music City Miracle in a loss to the Tennessee Titans.

The Buffalo win sets up a showdown with division leader New England next Saturday afternoon, who hold a one-game lead over the Bills in the AFC East.

What did we learn from the Bills’ first Sunday night prime time appearance in 12 years? Here are five things.

Bills are road warriors

Three of Buffalo’s losses this season, surprisingly, have come at the friendly confines of New Era Field. But, that 6-1 road record Buffalo currently owns? That’s tied for the fewest road losses along with the Ravens, Chiefs, 49ers, Seahawks, and Saints.

Winning at Pittsburgh, before a raucous, loud, and boisterous fan base, is no easy feat for any NFL team, and the Bills owned the fourth quarter with a playoff spot on the line.

Just as a side note, the win over Pittsburgh, was the first in 20 years (that same 1999 11-win season).

Tre’Davious White is legit

Quarterbacks throwing White’s way do so at their own peril. White did give up a couple of catches tonight, but he also picked off Hodges two times. The second he took back 50 yards to set up a tying field goal from Devlin Hodges.

White has six interceptions on the season to share the NFL lead with Stephen Gilmore of New England, and probably locked up an all-pro nod with tonight’s performance.

Bills sloppy

Buffalo took some ill-timed penalties, including a big holding penalty with 1:40 left in the fourth, which allowed Pittsburgh one more chance at the tying touchdown.

On special teams, is there ever a time when Andre Roberts executes a decent punt return or kick return, and it isn’t called back due to penalty?

Josh Allen did throw an interception, although it did come off a tipped ball from receiver Cole Beasley. And Devin Singletary ran it well, but also had a case of fumble-itis. He fumbled twice, and lost it once on a third-quarter drive inside the Pittsburgh 30.

Jordan Phillips leading the sack crew

Phillips came over to Buffalo last year as a cast-off from the Miami Dolphins. He proved a capable plug-in defensive tackle a season ago to add to the Bills’ depth. But this season has proven a breakout campaign.

Phillips had two more sacks tonight giving him a team-high 9.5 on the season. That’s four more sacks than his combined career total over his first four seasons.

Tyler Kroft appears at the big time; Brown bounces back

On a third-and-nine at the Pittsburgh 14 and the score tied at 10-10, most would assume the Bills would play it conservative, and settle for a go-ahead short field goal.

Instead, the Bills split three receivers wide left, with veteran tight end Tyler Kroft on the right side. Instead of trying his tried-and-true receivers, Allen found a wide-open Kroft in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown.

You couldn’t fault Pittsburgh for not closely guarding Kroft.

Kroft had just two catches over the previous four games, and had not caught a touchdown pass since the 2017 season with Cincinnati.

Allen didn’t look at his tight ends much tonight, but he found the right one at the right time.

Seeing John Brown take a more active role in the offense was also a welcomed sight.

Over the previous three weeks, Brown had eight total catches for 91 yards. Tonight, Brown had seven catches for 99 yards, and his 40-yard reception preceded the Bills’ winning touchdown. Brown is now in striking distance of a 1,000-yard season with 64 catches for 908 yards.

Follow the writer on Twitter @PatrickLNewell

Bills lose to red-hot Ravens

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Hosting the red-hot Baltimore Ravens, the Buffalo Bills’ comeback attempt felt a touchdown short in a 24-17 loss to the Ravens Sunday afternoon at New Era Field.

It was the ninth straight win for Baltimore, who clinched an AFC playoff spot with the road victory.

Buffalo had an opportunity to reach 10 wins in a season for the first time since 1999, while also cementing a second AFC playoff spot in three seasons.

A road date next Sunday night at Pittsburgh looms for the Bills. Here are five things we learned from today’s game:

Buffalo is in the upper echelon of the NFL

During their nine-game winning streak, the Ravens have blown out last year’s Super Bowl teams – the Patriots and Rams – and beat an excellent 49ers team at the buzzer last weekend.

Few teams have hung with the Ravens for four quarters over the last two months, and Buffalo was in position to score a tying touchdown in the final minute.

Marcus Peters broke up a Josh Allen pass to John Brown on a fourth-down throw with just over a minute to play to wrap up the Baltimore win.

Baltimore had to work for this one, and in contrast to previous wins where the offense gained the spotlight, it took a supreme defensive effort to knock off the Bills.

Although it was Buffalo’s fourth loss of the season, its stock should not take a hit at all among NFL pundits.

Jackson can throw it

Other than a couple of nice first-down runs, the Bills held Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in check with just 40 yards on 11 carries. But Jackson’s improvisational skills benefit his ability to throw the ball.

He made excellent decisions, bought time with his legs, and just narrowly missed some deep connections to his tight ends that were  off fingertips. The fact that his passing ability is rapidly catching up to his ability to run it could make him nearly indefensible in the near future.

Ravens’ pressure the difference

The Baltimore defense had six sacks of Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, forced a fumble, and tacked on numerous other hard hits on the second-year quarterback.

Seldom did the Buffalo line give Allen the requisite time to find open receivers, and perhaps Allen was a bit shell-shocked as he often scrambled out of the pocket before he was in imminent danger of a sack.

The only other game where Allen was this rattled was the 16-10 loss to the Patriots. The Patriots also pressured Allen regularly, and picked him off three times.

In fact, you can point to the opponent’s pass-rushing effectiveness as a common thread in all four of Buffalo’s losses.

The Buffalo defense played well enough to win

If you told Buffalo fans before the game that the Ravens’ powerful running game would amass only 118 rushing yards (more than 80 below their average), and pick up only 3.6 yards per carry (nearly 2 yards below their season average), you would have some ecstatic fans.

Two of Baltimore’s touchdowns came with short fields – one after the Bills’ lone turnover, and the other after a poor punt.

Baltimore entered the game as the NFL’s highest scoring team, and second in total yards. Buffalo held the Ravens well below both numbers, but didn’t get the complementary play – today – from the offense.

Buffalo punting a glaring weakness

As mentioned earlier, Buffalo punter Corey Bojorquez’s poor punt in the second half led to Baltimore’s third and deciding touchdown.

Bojorquez has been near the bottom of the NFL all season in gross punting average, and after a 67-yard punt that went for a touchback on Buffalo’s first drive, he was extremely inconsistent.

Over his final six punts, he averaged just 38.8 yards, and if not for some fortuitous rolls, would’ve averaged in the low 30s.

Heading into this week, there were only two other full-time NFL punters averaging under 44 yards a punt aside from Bojorquez.

This is an area of weakness for Buffalo, and a position it will need to upgrade in the offseason – if not sooner.

Follow the writer on Twitter @PatrickLNewell

Buffalo Bills have a chance to crack the NFL elite

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Last Thursday, the Buffalo Bills proved to a national television audience that they are a legitimate AFC playoff contender.

This Sunday, we’ll get to see just how legitimate the Bills are when they host the red-hot Baltimore Ravens.

Led by dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have won eight straight games, and during that streak, took down the top two ranked defenses: The New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.

Buffalo, the third ranked defense in the NFL, will attempt to do what the Patriots and 49ers could not – stop Jackson.

It’s a foregone conclusion that Jackson will eclipse the 1,000-yard rushing mark, and may well do it in the first quarter of Sunday’s game at New Era Field.

He has 977 rushing yards, and has averaged multiple chunk running plays per game. On the flip side, while the Bills’ defense has typically adjusted to its opponent’s offense, before the adjustments kick in, there is usually a chunk running play or two.

From an outsider’s point of view, this is not a good matchup for the Bills. The Ravens’ strength — running the ball – is the known weakness of the Buffalo defense

While on offense, the Bills’ fifth-ranked rushing offense faces a Ravens defense that is the seventh-best against defending the run.

Too, if it comes down to which team can consistently put points on the board, the Ravens have the NFL’s number one scoring offense, while Buffalo is currently ranked 19th.

Given these potential shortfalls for Buffalo, here are some of the biggest keys to victory:

Contain the Ravens’ rushing offense

This is probably the number one key to Buffalo’s chances of beating the Ravens.

Baltimore averages more that 200 rushing yards per game, a statistic that hasn’t been achieved in a full season in over 40 years.

Everyone knows Jackson is an explosive runner, but running backs Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards are also dangerous.

Make no mistake, no matter what Buffalo does on defense, the Ravens will have their share of big runs. If the Patriots and 49ers could not slow down the Baltimore running game, we can’t expect Buffalo to magically conjure the antidote to that rushing attack.

However, the 49ers, perhaps, laid the blueprint for a successful run defense. In the second half, the 49ers moved more men up near the line of scrimmage, and virtually dared Jackson to beat them with his throwing arm.

If the Bills adjust on defense – like they have in previous games – and make Baltimore more of a passing team, that will be their best hope of slowing the Baltimore offense.

Maximize points

You’re not going to beat the New England Patriots kicking field goals, and the same can be said of the Ravens. When the Bills move the ball into scoring territory, they have to cash in with touchdowns.

Until last week’s trick play in which receiver John Brown threw a TD pass to rookie running back Devin Singletary, the Bills have played it pretty much by the numbers in the red zone. (First-down run, pass, pass, hope for a first down or TD).

Buffalo has reach 20 points in three straight games, which may not seem like much, but it only reached 20 points in four of the first nine games this season.

The Bills’ offense is getting better, and it will need to ratchet it another notch this weekend. Offensive coordinator showed he isn’t afraid to dig deep into the playbook. Let’s hope he maintains that aggressive play-calling this week.

Special teams has to be better

Stephen Hauschka was arguably the offensive MVP in 2017 when the Bills ended their 17-year playoff drought. He has become much less reliable this year, and it’s almost a certainty, now, that he won’t make a long field goal in the clutch.

Meanwhile, the Ravens sport the NFL’s all-time most accurate field goal kicker in Justin Tucker. Tucker was clutch, as usual, nailing a 49-yard winning field goal in a driving rainstorm to give his club a 20-17 win over the Niners.

Every point will matter against the Ravens, and “Hausch Money” needs his A game.

As for the punters, the Ravens rarely punt, so it’s hard to forecast how longtime veteran Sam Koch will perform in Buffalo – especially if conditions turn adverse.

But we do have enough data to predict how Buffalo second-year punter Corey Bojorquez will perform. And that data tells us that we “can’t” predict how Bojorquez will do.

It’s no picnic punting in Buffalo in the late fall; however, Bojorquez is among the bottom two in gross punting average, and net punting average – which is also a reflection of punt return coverage – is also among the bottom two in the NFL.

Koch, who averages about two boots a game, is in the top-10 in gross and net punting.

In the return game, neither club has broken a return for a touchdown, although Buffalo seems to have the advantage there with Pro Bowl returner Andre Roberts.

Roberts had two return TDs last year for the Jets, so wouldn’t it be fitting if he breaks one Sunday against the Ravens?

Allen has to be Allen

Allen, and his counterpart Jackson, are arguably the two most improved quarterbacks in the NFL this year.

Over the past three games, Jackson has had otherworldly stats, but Allen has been as good as any other NFL quarterback not named Jackson.

He has completed 67 percent of his passes, thrown six TDs and added two TD runs against just one turnover.

While not in the same mold as Jackson, Allen is nearly as dynamic an offensive player. He has one of the NFL’s strongest throwing arms, and only Jackson has exceeded his rushing yards from the QB position over the past two seasons.

Unless the Bills find themselves in a big hole, Allen should maintain the consistency he has developed the second half of the season, and not try to one-up his fellow 2018 draft classmate.

Summary: The Bills opened last year with a 47-3 loss to the playoff-bound Ravens. It was about as ugly a game as one could imagine as nothing went right for Buffalo. Fast forward 27 games, and the Ravens are an even better version of the club that hammered the Bills a season ago.

But the Bills are much better, too.

Buffalo was a .500 club the second half of last season, and has was 13 of its last 20 games. That’s a playoff caliber performance, but if the Bills hope to crack the upper echelon of the NFL, they will need to beat one of the league’s elite teams,

Playing the always-fun “if game,” If Buffalo pulls off a victory Sunday, and “if” the Chiefs beat the Patriots Sunday night, Buffalo will be tied for the best record in the AFC.

Bet no one would have predicted that.

Follow the writer on Twitter @PatrickLNewell

Buffalo Bills shine on national stage

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With what was likely the largest viewing audience to see a Buffalo Bills game in years, the Bills proved the stage wasn’t too big beating the Cowboys, 26-15, at AT&T Stadium Thursday afternoon.

It was the third straight double-digit victory for Buffalo (9-3), who clinched a second winning season in three years under head coach Sean McDermott.

The Bills already had a two-game lead in the AFC Wild Card chase, and with four games to play, are in the driver’s seat for a second postseason berth in three years.

The schedule won’t do Buffalo any favors with three straight playoff contenders looming over the next three weeks. What did we learn today from Buffalo? Here are four things:

Yards don’t matter

Dallas led the league in total yards per game coming into today’s game, and likely did nothing to change that status amassing over 450 total yards against the Bills’ third-ranked defense.

But total yards are kind of like shots on goal in soccer. The volume doesn’t matter if you’re not scoring.

Buffalo did a lot more with its possessions, didn’t turn it over, and didn’t leave many points off the board.

Allen took another step forward

Josh Allen may still have the occasional turnover hiccup, but he seems light years removed from the young man who coughed it up multiple times in week one against the Jets, and threw three interceptions against the Patriots in week four before getting knocked out of the game.

Allen made one good decision after another today, and CBS put up a stat in the second half after Allen completed his 11th straight pass.

Over the last seven games, Allen has just one interception, and he has at least two total touchdowns (rushing and passing) in eight straight games.

Standout day for the defensive line

Rookie first-round pick, Ed Oliver, continued his second-half surge with two sacks and one forced fumble. Oliver didn’t register his first sack until the sixth game of the season, but now has sacks in three straight games, and five for the season.

Star Lotulelei.

Okay, full disclosure, I had to look up the spelling of his last name. Not only has he not been mentioned in any piece I have written this year, I’ve rarely heard his name called in a game.

Lotulelei is the perfect example of the Buffalo defensive model. His job isn’t necessarily to make tackles. He fills gaps and occupies extra blockers to free up the linebackers such as Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds.

Today, Lotulelei sniffed out an ill-advised Dak Prescott screen pass recording the rare defensive lineman interception. On the last play of the first half, Lotulelei got a finger on Dallas kicker Brett Maher’s 35-yard field goal attempt forcing it offline as Buffalo maintained a 13-7 lead.

And Trent Murphy had the Bills’ second strip sack knocking the ball loose from Prescott’s hands on a fourth-down play.

Triumphant return for Cole Beasley

Dallas’ loss is Buffalo’s gain.

Beasley spent seven years with the Cowboys before signing a four-year deal with Buffalo in the offseason. Beasley made several pointed remarks toward the Cowboys’ coaching staff and play-calling during the offseason, and he went as far as saying “(the Cowboys) didn’t value the slot position like they do here (in Buffalo).”

Beasley is on pace for 73 catches, 840 yards, and 7 touchdowns this year (totals that would match his best season in Dallas), and today, he was virtually uncoverable.

He finished with a team-high 6 catches for 110 yards, and one touchdown. He is Buffalo’s version of Julian Edelman, and is nice complement to fellow free agent signee John Brown, who is also on pace for a career season.

The Cowboys signed Randall Cobb to replace Beasley – and he’s having a decent season – but the Bills acquired the more productive player.

WHAT’S NEXT? — The Bills try to become the first team to contain quarterback Lamar Jackson when they host the Ravens next Sunday.

The last three weeks, Jackson has led Baltimore to wins by 39, 34, and 36 points. And four weeks ago, the Ravens routed the Patriots by 17.

Something will have to give as Buffalo is one of the best – if not the best – teams in limiting big plays, while Jackson and Ravens are a big-play machine.

Follow the writer on Twitter @Patrick Newell