With 2:09 left in the third quarter, the Bills had a 16-0 lead over the Texans and a 96.7 percent win probability. Barely 15 minutes of game time later, Houston had turned that into a 19-16 advantage and a 94.1 percent win probability with 95 seconds left in the game.
So, naturally, 2020’s playoff opener headed to overtime.
Those are insane numbers, but somehow they don’t convey how unlikely, unexpected, and ugly-beautiful the end of the Texans’ Wild Card Round win really was. Houston coach Bill O’Brien kept trying to hand the win to Buffalo, only for Josh Allen and the Bills to somehow hand it right back. Both teams wanted to win so badly they became unhinged, thereby playing like neither wanted to win.
The final 20 minutes of Saturday’s playoff showdown was a drug-addled interpretation of a Monet painting; all splotches and brief explosions of color up close, giving way to a baffling, vaguely promising finish whose smears may or may not ultimately be crap. Let’s talk about how we got there, starting with the six drives that ultimately decided the fate of the Bills and Texans.
Drive 1: 4:37, fourth quarter. The Bills, with their season potentially on the line, go -36 yards in two plays
To their credit, the Bills did not panic. They had every reason to.
They’d just seen a 16-0 lead disintegrate into nothing over the course of 15 minutes. They were playing on the road. They were entrusting their two-minute drill to an overachieving quarterback who’d been good that evening, but who’d also completed just 16 of his 62 deep balls in 2019.
Allen wasn’t fazed by the big moment. His first pass, a screen to rookie tailback Devin Singletary, pushed Buffalo to the Houston 37-yard line. A third-down QB sneak three plays later set up first-and-10 from the 25. Even three straight incompletions would give the Bills the chance to trot out Stephen Hauschka (who’d made 22 of 23 field goals this fall) for a game-tying kick.
This is not what happened.
Instead, Frank Gore lost three yards to bring up a third-and-13. Singletary whiffed as the Texans brought pressure on third down and Allen held on to the ball too long, before dumping off a pass to no one (save one of his ineligible offensive linemen) and drawing a 10-yard intentional grounding penalty. Suddenly the Bills faced fourth-and-27 from the tip of Texan territory. They went for it.
It went almost as badly as it could have.
with their season on the line, the Bills stepped up on third down in field goal range and ...— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 5, 2020
promptly lost 36 yards in 2 plays pic.twitter.com/WahG2f0ejg
Not only was it Texans ball — Allen’s awful sack set up Houston in field goal range..
Drive 2: 1:35, fourth quarter. The Texans, with the chance to ice the game, run directly at the Bills’ biggest run-stoppers
That gave Deshaun Watson the chance to effectively end the game with one first down. Three runs managed to drain the Bills of their remaining timeouts, but had only gained nine yards. That convinced O’Brien to lunge for the throat; rather than kick a 48-yard field goal with a kicker who’d already connected from 41 yards Saturday night, he’d go for it on fourth-and-short.
That led to a fourth-down sneak from Watson ... who ran directly at the 656 pounds of run-erasing girth carried by defensive tackles Jordan Phillips and Star Lotulelei.
He was stuffed a solid half-yard short of the line to gain. The result was a turnover on downs. The Bills had the ball back and the Texans’ close-out drive had taken only 19 seconds off the clock.
Drive 3: 1:16, fourth quarter. Josh Allen attempts to fumble, INT away the game and is rebuffed
That meant Allen would take the field with the chance to redeem himself after thoroughly botching his last attempt at a comeback postseason win. His first play saw him scramble his way to midfield ... and then very nearly throw the game away with a baffling lateral attempt.
the Josh Allen experience, in one play pic.twitter.com/jWob9LfNHL— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 5, 2020
Those were only 20 of Allen’s 92 rushing yards in this game, but they were by far the most exciting and/or rage inducing.
The good news: Allen would go on to convert two different third-and-10 situations to put his team in position to kick a game-tying field goal. The bad news: his four other pass attempts in that stretch were all incompletions, including one awful decision that bounced off Bradley Roby’s chest instead of serving as a game-ending interception.
Instead, Stephen Hauschka kicked a 47-yard field goal to tie the game at 19-19 and sate the masses by delivering more of this awful, amazing game. The Texans received the ensuing kickoff with four seconds remaining in the game and kneeled out the clock.
(Oh, also! Punter Corey Bojorquez got a chance to clock the ball because Bills head coach Sean McDermott didn’t want to waste any time between a Cole Beasley first down and Hauschka’s field goal by swapping out personnel. The Bills had three different players throw a pass tonight.)
The extra frame was no panacea for the 60 bizarre, occasionally inexplicable minutes that preceded it. The Texans made bad decisions. Allen threw bad passes. It was ugly and entertaining and occasionally beautiful, too.
Drive 4: 15:00, OT. The Texans go three-and-out
Pretty boring; the only notable thing to happen this drive was a false start on Laremy Tunsil — his 13th false start of the season! That meant a 10-yard completion to DeAndre Hopkins only set up third-and-short (Houston’s Waterloo) instead of granting the home team a first down. Instead of scoring a decisive touchdown that kept the Bills offense off the field in overtime, the Texans meekly punted the ball back to its playoff foe.
Drive 5: 13:26, OT. The Bills sniff field goal range, march backward (again)
Allen muscled up once more to complete a pair of key third-and-long situations, erasing his ineffectiveness in the early downs and setting his team up near midfield. That swung the win probability back to Buffalo’s side, but it wouldn’t last.
Allen got the call to run into field goal range on a designed draw on first-and-10 from the Houst 43. He had the linemen and space to dial up a massive run. Instead, his blockers forgot linebacker Zach Cunningham, who led the Texans in tackles this fall, existed and nearly got their QB killed.
probably shoulda blocked Zach Cunningham pic.twitter.com/IuNyQRgdzh— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 5, 2020
An incomplete pass kept hopes’ for a long field goal attempt alive, but Cody Ford’s blindside block turned fourth-and-5 from the 38 into third-and-24 back in the Bills’ territory.
O’Brien gave Buffalo the opportunity to gain those yards back by playing prevent defense and storing his defensive backs 25 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Allen countered this by throwing a quick pass over his tight end’s head. Punt.
Drive 6: 9:02, OT. Deshaun Watson. My god, Deshaun Watson
Watson’s next game-winning drive appeared dead in the water after a safety blitz forced third-and-18 deep in Houston territory. Nope! He’d escape pressure and throw to Duke Johnson, who’d rumble upfield for just enough to earn a first down. The following three plays pushed the Texans into the shallow end of Buffalo territory, and then this happened.
yes, Deshaun is GREAT. but shouldn't we also consider how extremely cursed the Bills are? pic.twitter.com/5zZGMzM2Ae— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) January 5, 2020
O’Brien didn’t even press his luck with a play after this. Two timeouts later, Ka’imi Fairbairn kicked a 28-yard field goal. Texans 22, Bills, 19. For the 24th straight year, Buffalo failed to win a playoff game.
Now the Texans will bring this ramshackle road show to either Baltimore or Kansas City in an effort to repeat this magic in the Divisional Round.