As Green Bay’s offense took the field with just less than two minutes left in Sunday’s game at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it was tough not to think something really, really bad was about to happen to the Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo’s defense had delivered its most dominant 58 minutes of football of the season, harassing Aaron Rodgers into the worst performance of his professional career. The secondary had flustered the Packers quarterback with a smorgasbord of coverages, while jumping his receivers’ routes well enough to come up with the first non-deflected interception he had thrown all season and just missing on a second, while also snagging one of the tipped variety.
While the pass rush had not registered a sack, it got close enough to Rodgers often enough to keep him from getting too comfortable. The home crowd had also come up big, augmenting the disorienting effect Bills defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s schemes were having.
Green Bay came in averaging almost 33 points per game, but had scraped out just 13 as of the two-minute warning. Marcus Thigpen’s 75-yard punt return and Dan Carpenter’s four field goals had produced 19 for Buffalo, even without much meaningful input from Buffalo’s offense.
Rodgers and the Packers needed to cover 91 yards, and do it against the NFL’s No. 1 pass defense.
Maybe it was the years of seeing the Bills finding new and increasingly painful ways to lose.
Or knowing that in four of Buffalo’s six losses this season, the defense had played well enough to win.
Or finding it hard to believe that an offensive showing as wretched as the one led by Kyle Orton could possibly be enough to beat a Super Bowl contender.
Or having seen Jordy Nelson drop a likely 94-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers late in the third quarter, demonstrating that the Bills were one breakdown away from letting a brilliant effort in two phases of the game go to waste.
Thanks to Mario Williams, though, the looming dread did not last for long.
On Green Bay’s first snap after the two-minute warning, Williams bulled backup Green Bay tackle J.C. Tretter and swatted the ball from Rodgers’ grip. After a weird moment where the ball lay on the turf in the end zone, Packers running back Eddie Lacy tried to get it back onto the playing field, but a rule change forced by an infamous Oakland Raiders touchdown 36 years earlier gave the Bills a safety, and the win.
It was fitting that Buffalo sealed the game with Orton’s offense safely on the sideline, where it had been when just about every other good thing happened.
Unlike the losses to Denver, Miami, Kansas City and Houston, when even a minimally competent offensive showing would have flipped the outcome, the Bills did not even need that much against Green Bay.
Excellent catches by Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods led to Buffalo’s first field goal. The second came on the Bills’ best sustained drive of the day, which not coincidentally involved Orton handing off on nine straight running plays. The third resulted from a blown coverage that left Bryce Brown wide open for a 40-yard romp.
Almost all of Buffalo’s offense came from Brown, Fred Jackson and Boobie Dixon, who combined for 117 rushing yards and made five catches for 75 more, meaning the three runners accounted for 76 percent of the unit’s production.
The defense and special teams scored or set up the other 12 points, including Williams’ clinching sack and strip.
Williams also blocked Mason Crosby’s 53-yard field goal attempt and deflected a pass, one of 10 by Buffalo’s defense.
The most telling statistics, though, were Rodgers’ passing numbers — 17-of-42 for 185 yards and the two interceptions by Baccari Rambo. This from a guy who had thrown 35 touchdown passes and just three picks, all of them off his receivers’ hands, in the previous 13 games. His 34.3 passing rating was easily the lowest of his career.
As out of sync as Rodgers and his receivers remained all day, Green Bay still had 333 total yards to Buffalo’s 253, and 21 first downs to the Bills’ 13.
The enormous plays by Williams, Rambo, and Thigpen — along with Buffalo getting just about every break and bounce — rendered most of the numbers meaningless, though, guaranteeing the modest achievement of a .500 season for the first time in 10 years and sustaining hope of breaking the franchise’s 15-year postseason drought.
For at least one more week.