ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills have played the bulk of the season without two of their best players, wide receiver Sammy Watkins and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, and Sunday's 28-21 victory over Jacksonville showed just how important they are to the success of this team.
It was the first time Dareus and Watkins have played together in the same game. Watkins dressed for the first two games while Dareus was serving a substance abuse suspension, and then Watkins went on injured reserve before returning to action against the Jaguars.
Watkins was given a limited role and played only 25 snaps Sunday, but he was responsible for two of the biggest plays on offense.
His 62-yard reception, where he beat rookie cornerback Jalen Ramsey one-on-one, came with the Bills trailing 14-13 in the third quarter and set up Tyrod Taylor's go-ahead 7-yard touchdown run. Early in the fourth quarter, on a third-and-5 from Jacksonville's 43, Watkins drew a pass interference penalty on Prince Amukamara to nullify an interception by Tashaun Gipson. After the first down, the Bills scored the winning touchdown when Taylor threw a 16-yard pass to Justin Hunter four plays later.
"Sammy Watkins is the real deal," said Bills running back LeSean McCoy.
Buffalo's receiving corps was barely functional with Watkins sidelined. Robert Woods did his best, but he's really not a No. 1 type. When he suffered a knee injury last week in the fourth quarter at Cincinnati last week, the Bills had no passing game whatsoever. Woods will be out at least two more weeks, so getting Watkins back was vitally important.
"The foot is no issue," Watkins said after the game. "It's just the course of how many plays. I'm going to be out there (seeing) how fast I can go. Right now, I'm feeling great. My first game back in eight weeks, I played pretty well. Some things I need to fix up and clean up, but other than that I think as a team and coming back with the chemistry, I think I played okay."
Taylor, who has struggled all season in the passing game, said it was great to get Watkins back into the flow.
"Absolutely," Taylor said. "Missing Sammy early in the season definitely hurt our offense. Of course, we have other playmakers. But Sammy's presence and what he's been able to do in this league is incredible. It's great to have him back out there making plays. We've got to continue building this chemistry moving forward."
Dareus, who missed four games after his suspension ended with a groin injury, played his third game, and this was by far his best. He was in on eight tackles and made two sacks as the Jaguars really had no answer for him in the middle of the line.
Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles was under pressure often and he wound up with just 126 yards passing, partly because the Bills -- with Dareus leading the charge -- flushed him out of the pocket and he tucked the ball away and ran. Bortles finished with 81 rushing yards and that was the most useful facet of Jacksonville's offense.
After the game, though, Dareus was dealing with yet another injury, and it may create a questionable status this week leading up to a huge game in Oakland on Sunday. In addition to his suspension, Dareus has missed time because of hamstring and groin injuries, and late in the Jacksonville game he had an abdominal issue that caused him to miss the final two defensive series.
Bills coach Rex Ryan said he's not sure how serious it is, but Dareus looked to be in some discomfort in the locker room afterward. Obviously, taking on the Raiders (9-2) in the Black Hole, the Bills need their best players. and while it appears that Watkins came out of the Jaguars game fine and ready to build on the performance, the possibility of not having Dareus would not be ideal.
REPORT CARD VS. JAGUARS
PASSING OFFENSE: D -- Tyrod Taylor had another inconsistent day where he made plays with his legs, but very few with his arm. His lone big play was a 62-yard pass to Sammy Watkins, and he did have a 16-yard TD pass to Justin Hunter, but overall he threw for just 166 yards. Taylor continues to struggle reading the field and taking shots down the field as he misses open receivers far too frequently. The offensive line didn't have a great day and Taylor was pressured on several drop-backs and absorbed five sacks. Watkins played only 25 snaps, but in addition to his deep reception, he drew a key pass interference penalty on third down that set up the Buffalo's last TD to Hunter.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- This was a case where the stats were a bit deceiving. The Bills finished with 153 yards and a 5.3 average per attempt, but 75 yards came on one play -- LeSean McCoy's TD run on the first play of the second half. He finished with 103 yards and two touchdowns, but on his other 18 carries, he had only 28 yards. Jonathan Williams contributed a key fourth-and-1 conversion that set up McCoy's first TD late in the first half. Taylor added 38 yards and a TD to the ground game.
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- Blake Bortles hurt the Bills with his scrambling, but he was ineffective as a passer as he threw for just 126 yards on 13-of-26 accuracy. The Bills, even with CB Ronald Darby out after suffering a first-quarter concussion, did a nice job on the Jaguars trio of Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, and Marquise Lee. Though Hurns and Lee caught TD passes, that threesome combined for just seven catches for 73 yards. The Bills sacked Bortles twice, both by DT Marcell Dareus, but there were other times when he had way too much time to throw. The Bills had to start newcomer James Ihedigbo at safety in place of injured Robert Blanton, and he had an up and down day.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus -- Chris Ivory was gouging the Bills in the first quarter as he had 44 yards and a TD, but when he injured his hamstring, Jacksonville's running game stalled. The Bills did a good job shutting down T.J. Yeldon and Denard Robinson as Dareus (eight tackles), Kyle Williams (nine) and Preston Brown (12) were constant nuisances. The guy who hurt the Bills was Bortles, who scrambled eight times for 81 yards, some of those converting third downs. Thanks to Bortles, the Jaguars piled up 183 yards rushing.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C -- Brandon Tate made one of the biggest plays of the game, with his 43-yard punt return late in the first half setting up the struggling Bills offense for a touchdown. After that TD, Dan Carpenter missed the extra point, his third of the year, and that point loomed for a long time in a back-and-forth game. Jordan Gay is back on the team and he had two touchbacks, but one of his kickoffs was returned 36 yards. The punt coverage team allowed 10- and 14-yard returns, and punter Colton Schmidt had an average day with a 40-yard net average and no punts inside the 20.
COACHING: C -- It was not a great day for offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, who didn't have many answers in the first half when the Jaguars dominated the Bills offense. The passing game remains under-developed, even with the return of Sammy Watkins, and Lynn has to get Taylor to trust the play call and deliver the ball. On defense, the Bills were inconsistent throughout; they struggled on third down and were not sharp in the red zone. As for a coaching blunder, sending backup QB EJ Manuel out to try to draw a hard-count offside in the fourth quarter, then calling a timeout when the Jags didn't bite, was beyond dumb, though as it turned out that wasted timeout did not matter.