PITONIAK: McCoy, Watkins spark Bills victory with game-changing plays

NFL Buffalo
                LeSean McCoy couldn’t help but feel as if the Jacksonville Jaguars had 11 defenders assigned to him on every play. He zigged. He zagged. He juked. He jived. But nothing worked. Buffalo’s No. 25 was wearing a bull’s eye. A herd of Jags surrounded the running back every time he touched the ball. Not only was he going nowhere fast. He occasionally was going in reverse.  
                McCoy’s first seven carries resulted in minus-two yards. Three times he was tackled for losses.
                Then, with 20 seconds remaining in the first half, the Real McCoy showed up as he broke free for a seven-yard touchdown run. And on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, McCoy made a jump cut that jump-started the Bills second-half surge, faking out two defenders before sprinting 75 yards for a touchdown that gave Buffalo its first lead.
                Playing with an injured left thumb that had been surgically repaired just six days earlier, McCoy finished with 103 hard-earned rushing yards and two touchdowns and a crucial two-point conversion on 19 carries to go with two receptions for 31 more yards.  His explosive plays, along with a few more by so-happy-to-have-you-back wide receiver Sammy Watkins, helped propel the Bills to a 28-21 victory, keeping alive their playoff hopes.
                “It’s hard to keep a good man down,’’ McCoy yelled gleefully as he jogged up the New Era Field tunnel after the victory that improved Buffalo’s record to 6-5.
                The Bills played the first half as if they were in a turkey-induced tryptophan trance. After several frustrating series that ended with tackles for losses, McCoy finally snapped them out of it. And that didn’t surprise Bills guard Richie Incognito in the least. “He is a dynamic playmaker,’’ Icognito said. “We keep hitting them, hitting them, hitting them and one of those plays is going to pop, one of those is going to go. Luckily, it came in the second half and it gave the entire team some juice.”
                Watkins was not on the field for McCoy’s 75-yard burst, but he had a great view from the sidelines. “You don’t know what Shady’s going to do,’’ he said, shaking his head in amazement. “He sees stuff out there that we don’t see. … A guy that ran a 4.5 or 4.6 (40-yard dash), it looked like he ran a 4.3 to me on that play and they couldn’t catch him.”        
After McCoy got the Bills off and running, Watkins made a couple of plays that reminded us of what a game-changer he can be when healthy. Back, after missing eight games with a foot injury, Watkins set up one touchdown with a 62-yard reception and another by drawing a pass interference call. “We have dynamic playmakers on this roster and they stepped up today and made plays and kind of dug us out of a hole when we couldn’t get much going,” Incognito said.
                Watkins went to Taylor at halftime and told him he had a coverage matchup he believed the two of them could exploit in the second half, and they did. “Tyrod did a great job throwing the ball out there, giving me a chance, and I made the play,’’ said Watkins, who said he felt no discomfort with his foot.
                The only person happier than Watkins and Taylor to have Sammy back was Coach Rex Ryan, who said, “We’re a different team with him out there.’’
                That they are.
                When healthy – and that’s been a rare occurrence in recent seasons – Watkins and McCoy are among the league’s elite receiving/rushing tandems. And if they can remain relatively healthy, they give the Bills a fighting chance to make the playoffs. Ryan would like to increase Watkins snap count significantly next week when the Bills travel to Oakland to play the resurgent Raiders. Taylor would welcome more opportunities to target Watkins.
                The Bills QB had another efficient game, statistically, completing 12-of-18 for 166 yards and a score for a 114.6 quarterback rating. He also rushed for 38 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. But he’s still missing wide open targets and still seems too reluctant to pull the trigger and too dependent on taking off and running.
                The remaining five games will determine not only whether the Bills make the playoffs, but also whether they want to follow-through on Taylor’s $27-million, guaranteed contract extension that will kick in next season if he’s still on the roster in March. He was asked if he can be more fairly judged with his best receiver back on the field. “Absolutely,’’ he said. “Missing Sammy early on in the season definitely hurts our offense. I mean, of course, we have other playmakers that can come in here and make plays, but Sammy’s presence, what he’s been able to do since he’s stepped in this league, has been incredible. It’s great to have him back today, out there making plays. We just got to continue to keep building with this chemistry moving forward.”
                Sunday’s victory against a 2-9 Jacksonville team wasn’t overly impressive. But a win’s a win. The Raiders on the road will be an enormous challenge. Derek Carr is a far superior quarterback to Blake Bortles. The Bills defense is going to need to be much sharper.
                Unfortunately, the injury bugaboo hit Buffalo again vs. Jacksonville. Cornerback Ronald Darby left the game in the first half and is in concussion protocol, so he is doubtful this week. And defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who was having a big game with two sacks, suffered an abdominal strain in the fourth quarter and may be questionable, too.
                That will put an even greater onus on the Bills offense to play like it did in the second half Sunday. Buffalo will need McCoy and Watkins – its big-time playmakers – to come up big again.
                WROC-TV correspondent Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills for 32 years and has written five books about the team’s history. The Professional Football Writers of America has recognized his work 12 times, including the past three years when he has finished first in column writing.

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