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The Hot Read, Week 12: The Buffalo Bills Are at a Tipping Point

When they’re at their best, the Bills can beat anyone. So how are they 6-6? And what happens if they miss the playoffs? Plus: the Broncos’ misleading turnaround, the Jaguars’ suddenly hot offense, the Steelers’ offensive bounceback, award picks, and more.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

This is the Hot Read. In this column, you’ll find everything and anything I found interesting from the NFL Week 12 Sunday action. There’s the stuff that everyone’s talking about, and the stuff that nobody’s talking about; the stuff that makes football incredible, and the stuff that makes football fun. I hope you enjoy it and learn something cool—and if you do, I hope you’re back next week, when we do it all again.

The Big Thing: Where Do the Bills Go From Here?

A lot happened in the NFL on Sunday. If there’s one thing you need to know, it’s this.

The Buffalo Bills have a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs.

That cold, hard reality—enumerated by The New York Times’ playoff predictor—does not jibe with what I witnessed Sunday. I saw Josh Allen play one of the best individual games a quarterback has played this season. Through the air: 29-for-51, 339 yards, two scores. On the ground: nine carries, 81 yards, two more scores. The Bills faced 22 third downs and converted 13 of them. On their final go-ahead drive in regulation and on a go-ahead drive in overtime, Allen converted on third-and-4, third-and-4, third-and-9, and third-and-9.

Then third-and-6 came.

This feels like the story of the Bills’ season: so close, but still so far. The loss to the Broncos in Week 10 after putting too many players on the field to block the game-winning field goal. The overtime loss in Week 1 to the Zach Wilson–led Jets. And now, a 37-34 overtime loss to the Eagles in which Jake Elliott had to make a 59-yard kick in the pouring rain to keep Philadelphia alive. So many games that could have and should have been won, but weren’t.

It’s OK to have a season like that. But having multiple seasons like that starts to wear on a franchise, a locker room, a coaching staff. And that’s where the Bills are. The 42-36 overtime playoff loss to the Chiefs after the 2021 season was a game they should have won. The six overtime games that Allen has now played—he’s lost them all. For years now, the Bills have felt the joy, the strength, the hope that comes with playing great football—and they have absolutely nothing to show for it besides a couple of division trophies.

Near misses at true success break a team more rapidly and traumatically than total ineptitude. Leslie Frazier left as defensive coordinator; months later, Ken Dorsey lost his job as offensive coordinator. Neither was the problem. The defense is no better now than it was under Frazier (though injuries have muddied that comparison). The offense, over the past two weeks, has looked great—just as it did in the 10 weeks this season before the coordinator switch.

The problem was—and is—football. It’s a merciless sport. There are no seven-game playoff series, no large samples to minimize the impact of randomness. There are 22 players on the field, moving in precisely concerted designs, and one small mistake breaks the entire operation. It is so unbelievably hard to win a Super Bowl. This version of the Bills has been trying to do that for three, going on four years at this point. And at some point, you cannot live with your own failure.

This puts head coach Sean McDermott’s job in jeopardy. He’s probably one of the better coaches in the NFL, but what is there to say? He hasn’t won enough of the games he’s had to win; he hasn’t delivered what a team with Allen would expect to achieve. What is the marquee achievement of the McDermott era? Blowing out the Mac Jones–led Patriots in the wild-card round two seasons ago? Being the best team in a division that has largely deployed Tua Tagovailoa, Wilson, and Jones as Allen’s competition? Nearly beating Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs that one time? True contenders are judged by their wins—not the wins that they almost had.

They almost had this win against the Eagles. But they didn’t get it. There’s no specific analysis here. Sure, there are areas for Allen to clean things up, or for the young defense to improve—but they delivered an excellent performance in a game that (nearly) always has a winner and a loser, and sadly, they were the loser on Sunday. Now they’re behind the Russell Wilson–led Broncos and Gardner Minshew–led Colts in the AFC playoff race. So it goes in the NFL.

Stefon Diggs turns 30 in a few days. Von Miller is 34 going on 35. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are each 32; Matt Milano and Tre’Davious White both suffered major injuries recently and are approaching 30. The Bills team we know is aging, their coaches are leaving, and their clock is running out. This era of Bills football is practically done.

The good news is that there’s a clear next era. Dalton Kincaid, Khalil Shakir, and James Cook; Terrel Bernard and Greg Rousseau; maybe even Rasul Douglas. The coffers in Buffalo aren’t totally empty, and every time Allen plays as he did against the Eagles, Buffalo will have a better chance of winning than not. But Buffalo’s long imitation of a true contender is over; they need to spend the next few years building a real one.

The Little Things

It’s the little things in football that matter the most—zany plays, small victories, and some laughs. Here’s where you can find them.

THE BIG FREE AGENT deal that works out

The MVP of the Atlanta Falcons this season is Jessie Bates III. He has three forced fumbles and four picks on the season—one of each came in Sunday’s win against the Saints, which gave the Falcons control over the NFC South. Here’s the forced fumble—a high-difficulty Peanut Punch with the Saints threatening in the red zone.

And then, the interception: a 92-yard pick-six that put the Falcons on the board.

This is an extremely heady play. Bates is supposed to be the middle-of-the-field safety—yet the moment the ball is snapped, he’s flying to the bottom of the field. Why? Because cornerback Jeff Okudah is there.

Okudah had been targeted early in the game by Saints quarterback Derek Carr, especially on in-breaking patterns. Bates made an educated guess that Carr would be targeting Okudah on an in-breaker again. So Bates jumped the entire play. Just watch Okudah—he had no idea he’d be getting safety help from Bates on the inside.

This is what $64 million over four years buys you. Game-tilting plays against a divisional rival. Often, huge free-agent deals are risky propositions—there are so many stories of second-contract players losing their magic on new teams. Such is not the case with Bates. He’s a star, and the deal was a home run for Atlanta.


The greatest physical achievement displayed by the world-class NFL athletes this Sunday is below.

Jordan Davis—all 336 pounds of him—hoofing it in overtime to drive Josh Allen to the sideline. Look at that big man move.

As always, I want to add context to Davis running 16.96 miles per hour, because mph always feels a little abstract. According to the internet (which has never lied), a Tyrannosaurus rex likely had a top speed of 17 mph.

So think about a T. rex coming after you, and how you’d have no chance to outrun him and you’d likely be eaten. And now think about Jordan Davis hunting you down, and how you’d have no chance to outrun him either, and while he wouldn’t eat you, it would likely be just as terrifying of an experience anyway.


The return of Kyren Williams to the Rams’ starting lineup could not have gone better. The Rams dropped 37 points on the Cardinals without ever leaving first gear; Williams accounted for 143 yards on the ground, another 61 yards through the air, and two touchdowns. It was the easiest offense has looked for the Rams since … well, since before Williams went down in Week 6 (also against the Cardinals). Williams serves as a good reminder that while it’s true that you can find good running backs just about anywhere in the draft, and accordingly shouldn’t spend premium picks on them, that doesn’t mean that all backs are interchangeable.

But why is Williams in the Little Things if he has such a big impact on the Rams offense? Well, Kyren is a staggering 5-foot-9, and his 140-yard-rushing, 60-yard-receiving day makes him just the eighth player in NFL history to produce such a day at 5-foot-9 or shorter. Aaron Jones did it once in 2020; Ray Rice once in 2010. Before them? Priest Holmes did it five times in the early 2000s.

Thank you, Kyren Williams, for the short king representation.


Let’s check in on the 1-10 Carolina Panthers, who just gave the Titans (who are also starting a rookie quarterback) their fourth win of the season.

All righty then!

The Zag: The Denver Broncos’ Turnaround Isn’t Real

I tend to be a little contrarian. It’s not so much a personal choice as it is an occupational hazard. Here’s where I’ll plant my flag.

After Week 5 of the season, the Broncos were 1-4. They had just lost to the Zach Wilson Jets, which was about the worst thing an NFL team could do, if not for the fact that two weeks prior, the Broncos had given up 70 points to the Miami Dolphins. Any and all hope that Sean Payton would magically fix Russell Wilson went down the drain. One year after being a leaguewide laughingstock, the Broncos were about to be exactly that, again.

They lost to the Chiefs on Thursday Night Football. It was actually a respectably close game, but ho-hum. 1-5. So it would continue.

Since then, the Broncos are 5-0. They’ve beaten Green Bay, Kansas City, Buffalo, Minnesota, and Cleveland—as it currently stands, three playoff teams, a Packers team that’s right on the bubble, and the Bills (who are somehow not a playoff team; see above). In that winning streak, they’ve allowed just about as many points as they gave up to the Dolphins on that horrible day that now seems so long ago.

With a manageable remaining schedule and Uncle Mo well and truly on their side, it feels like things have been fixed in Denver. I’m not sure they have.

By success rate, Denver has the 30th-ranked defense this season. On offense, only the 22nd ranked—better, but still below average. If we look at expected points added per drive, the offense hops to just above league average (14th), but the defense is still 29th.

Of course, these season-long numbers account for that putrid 1-5 start. If we consider only the 5-0 run, the defense is third in EPA per drive; the offense is … still 14th?

That’s right. On the season, the 6-5 Broncos offense is 14th in EPA per drive. And over the past five weeks, the 5-0 Broncos offense is still 14th in EPA per drive.

By success rate? On the season, the 6-5 Broncos offense is 22nd in EPA per drive; the 5-0 Broncos are in the same spot—22nd.

The offense is performing just about as it was to start the season. They rely heavily on the running game, Wilson checks it down a ton in the passing game, and the occasional shot play gives them a quick score. Without a truly difference-making quarterback, a dominant offensive line, or a cadre of dangerous skill position players, their offense peaks at middling.

So the defense is responsible for all the improvement, right? As I said: third in EPA per drive, way up from 29th. But by success rate, it has jumped from 30th up to only 21st. The defense is a step better, but still not average.

How is this possible? Easy answer: turnovers.

Since Week 7, the Broncos have taken the ball away from their opponents 16 times; they’ve given it back only three times. A plus-13 turnover differential is wild—five more than second place (the Giants, at plus-eight, a number inflated by a 6-0 turnover game against the Commanders) and more than double that of third place (the Steelers and Ravens, both at plus-six). Consider the total EPA generated by turnovers, which contextualizes not just how many giveaways and takeaways happen, but how much they actually affect a team’s win probability.

Over 60 expected points added for the Broncos in five games—that’s 12 points a game! A touchdown, a field goal, and (most of) another field goal added to the Broncos’ score by their takeaways.

To get this much juice out of turnovers in just five games is astronomical. For perspective: In 2022 and 2021, the 49ers and Cowboys, respectively, led the league in turnover EPA with about plus-70 points added—that’s in a 17-game season! In 2020, the league leader in turnover EPA didn’t even break plus-50. The Broncos’ turnover luck will come crashing down to earth.

And when it does, the truth will come out about their offense (it’s largely what it was) and their defense (it is better than it was but not by that much). This won’t prevent the Broncos from making the playoffs; they still have a winning record and a soft schedule, after all. But I won’t be buying stock in the sudden ascent of the Sean Payton–Russell Wilson Broncos. This isn’t a sign of what’s to come. It’s a fiction. And the Broncos will still spend this upcoming offseason figuring out answers to the hard questions about their future.

(Mostly Real) Awards

I’ll hand out some awards. Most of them will be real. Some of them won’t be.

Tough Guy of the Week: Las Vegas Raiders DE Maxx Crosby

Please don’t read Tough Guy here as sarcastic. I really mean it. Crosby is an absolute iron man: He’s played at least 90 percent of the defensive snaps in every Raiders game this season and has played in 100 percent of the snaps (something that no defensive lineman does) in seven of their past eight games. Unreal.

Crosby was listed as doubtful on Sunday with a knee injury. Not only did he play—he told reporters after the game that he was hospitalized on Thursday. Not only did he play—he played 48 of a possible 58 snaps. That’s one tough dude.

Coach of the Year (of the Week): Indianapolis Colts HC Shane Steichen

If the season ended today, the Colts would be in the playoffs after their 27-20 win over the Buccaneers.

Your seventh-seeded, 6-5 Colts are on a three-game win streak thanks primarily to head coach Shane Steichen, who is a favorite among football nerds. His offense melds around the available weapons, asking everyone to do what they do best. It’s an unselfish offense, too: One week is the Michael Pittman Jr. week, then the Josh Downs week, then the Zack Moss week. The Colts’ offensive talent is nothing to write home about, but Steichen is making it work.

Throw in the fourth-down aggressiveness—how about the play-action shot to Mo Alie-Cox on fourth-and-1?—and you have the makings of a strong offensive head coach. One whose offense, once fully equipped with dangerous weapons and captained again by dual-threat quarterback Anthony Richardson, can power a truly playoff-caliber team.

Steichen probably won’t get the votes for the real award, but he deserves his day in the sun, and I’ll give it to him here.

Whatever the Opposite of Coach of the Year (of the Week) is: New England Patriots HC Bill Belichick

I’ve been happy to defend Bill Belichick all season long. Decades of success in the NFL, spanning different eras and styles of offensive and defensive football alike, far outweigh the past few years of poor performance from the Patriots. An easy argument to make, and I gladly made it.

But a man has to have a code. And once you lose to Tommy DeVito, you lose me. The Patriots are a travesty, and an offseason coaching change doesn’t just feel likely; it feels like a necessary ripping off of the Band-Aid. To kick off what should be a new era of Patriots football—new quarterback, new coach, new front office, new direction—the old guard must go.

(But also, Belichick is probably still a good coach.)

Offensive Rookie of the Year (of the Week): Baltimore Ravens WR Zay Flowers

Zay has not yet gotten the OROY(OTW) treatment in this column, which feels like an oversight. You know what else is an oversight? The Chargers passing on Zay Flowers for Quentin Johnston with the 21st pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Flowers was exactly what the Chargers needed—a playmaking, field-stretching, lightning-in-a-bottle wide receiver—and he instead became that for the AFC-leading Ravens, who beat the Chargers 20-10 on Sunday night.

Zay showed Los Angeles exactly what they were missing: five catches for 25 yards and a score, along with a game-sealing 37-yard touchdown run.

Players always care about the teams that passed on them in the draft. I’d wager Zay will always feel some extra juice on nights he prepares to face the Chargers.

The Fixing the Jacksonville Jaguars Offense Award: Me

Two weeks ago, following a harrowing 34-3 home loss to the 49ers, the Jaguars offense came into national question. Why didn’t Trevor Lawrence look the way a no. 1 draft pick was supposed to look? Where was Calvin Ridley, the star wide receiver acquired to elevate this offense?

I defended Lawrence in this column that week and put the brunt of the blame on the shoulders of offensive coordinator Press Taylor. One of my biggest complaints was how shallow the offense was. Lawrence was averaging 6.9 air yards per attempt, one of the lowest numbers in the league, and it was a function of design: No team was running shallower routes than the Jaguars.

Check out Lawrence’s air yards per attempt over the past two games.

Now, I’m not saying the offense got better just because they decided to work downfield a little more. And I’m not saying that the only place they could have gotten that idea was here in the Hot Read.

What I am saying is that the Jaguars and Lawrence are back, and who knows whom to credit? It could be anyone.

Next Ben Stats

What it sounds like: Next Gen Stats, but I get to make them up.

59 percent: That’s the percentage of Patrick Mahomes’s 17 passes thrown to wide receivers on Sunday that went directly to Rashee Rice

I hate to say, “This team lost because of X,” because it’s rarely that cut and dried. But last Monday, the Chiefs lost to the Eagles because of the drops of their receivers.

So, on Sunday, the Chiefs did the thing I’ve been begging them to do for weeks: start funneling targets. Of course, all offensive game plans are made easier when facing the Raiders defense, but Mahomes threw only 17 of his 34 passes on Sunday to wide receivers, and of those 17 passes, 10 went to rookie wide receiver Rice. While Rice isn’t a perfect pass catcher (he dropped a pass in this game), he is the only Chiefs wide receiver to provide bang for Mahomes’s buck on targets. He usually catches the ball, and he often makes even challenging catches or creates after the catch.

Throw in seven targets for Travis Kelce and five targets for Isiah Pacheco, and you have Mahomes’s primary pass catchers on the day. They should also be his primary pass catchers for the rest of the season. Skyy Moore, Justin Watson, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling each got a target in garbage time, as the Chiefs wisely used some live-game reps to see whom they can build up as Mahomes’s secondary options—but as the postseason gets closer, expect Mahomes to continue to funnel targets to Rice, Kelce, and Pacheco.

1,051: That’s how many days it had been since the Pittsburgh Steelers had at least 400 yards on offense

The last game the Steelers played in the 2020 season, they had 553 yards of offense. It was a loss in the wild-card round to the Cleveland Browns, 37-48.

For the 2021 season, they hired a new offensive coordinator: Matt Canada, promoted from quarterbacks coach. Canada would coach 18 games that season, 17 games the next season, and 10 games this season: 45 games. Not once would the Steelers break 400 yards of offense. Around the league, offenses notched at least 400 yards 333 times since the 2021 season began, and the Steelers didn’t even once.

On Sunday, the Steelers played their first game without Canada as their coordinator in the past 1,051 days. They beat the Bengals 16-10. They had 421 yards of offense.

Desmond Ridder is good enough: I never doubted

There’s no actual stat here. I just wanted to mention my appreciation for Ridder but do it somewhere very far down in the column so that nobody finds it and screenshots it and uses it against me in the immediate future.