1. Knox notches record
Many were hoping for a breakout year for Dawson Knox as he entered his third season with Buffalo. Through the first six weeks of the season he established himself as a true number one tight end. Six weeks later he set a team record for single season touchdowns by a tight end.
Knox pulled in a pair of touchdown passes from Josh Allen giving him his sixth and seventh scoring plays of the season. It eclipsed a Bills record previously shared by Pete Metzelaars, Jay Riemersma and Scott Chandler, who had all logged six touchdown receptions in a season for Buffalo.
"He's just confident," said head coach Sean McDermott. "I think over half this game is mental and I think his confidence is where it needs to be this year. He's had success and been able to bounce back from some moments where he needed to reset. I think that shows how mentally tough he is."
The on-field chemistry between Knox and Josh Allen has been steadily building all season, but finding the end zone had proven elusive for the Bills tight end of late. After scoring five touchdowns in his first five games, Knox went scoreless over the next three games.
On Thanksgiving however, Allen first went to Knox on what proved to be the final play of the opening drive. The Bills quarterback flipped a pass out to a releasing Knox in the left flat. The tight end had an angle on the nearest defender and reached the end zone from seven yards out to give Buffalo an early 7-0 lead.
"He continues to get better when the ball is in the air, especially just making plays on the football," said Allen of Knox. "He's going to be bigger than most DBs and faster than most linebackers and shoot maybe even faster than most DBs. I mean he's got unreal athleticism and he's putting it together right now. It's really fun to be playing with him."
Knox, however, would catch only one pass over the next two quarters of play until the Bills faced a 4th-and-2 at the Saints' 24-yard line. Buffalo chose to go for it and with six linemen up on the line of scrimmage and gave indications of a short yardage run play. Knox leaked out on the right side of the formation escaping from his defender.
Allen was able to get the pass off to Knox, who was all by himself at the 14-yard line. Knox took it the remaining 10 yards leaping over a diving defender to cross the goal line for the single season record breaker.
"On that second one, he made an incredible play," said Knox of Allen. "We drew it up like I was going to block the defensive end then release but there was no one there. So, I was like, 'Oh, gosh, what's going to happen?' There was added pressure. So, I'm like 'I've got to get out (in my route) quick. I know Josh is going to have someone in his face.' And then as soon as I turn, I look and he's throwing like a fadeaway jumper to me. Of course, he's doing just MVP things. But the ball is in the air and I'm just like, 'You've got to catch this one.' So thankfully, I secured it, Gabe (Davis) gave me an awesome block and got to the end zone."
2. Oliver, Addison lead pass rush effort
Facing a depleted Saints offensive line on Thanksgiving, the Bills defensive front led by Ed Oliver and Mario Addison feasted. Oliver was a menace for much of the night for New Orleans offensive line as he was consistently knifing into the offensive backfield. At times Addison was the beneficiary, but more important for their side of the ball was getting off to a fast start.
"We knew the way we played the last game it wasn't us," said Addison. "So, getting off to a fast start, it just gives us more momentum and we feed off each other. Offense feeds off the defense, defense feeds off the offense. Special teams feeds off both groups. We feed off special teams, so when guys make big plays, everybody jumps up."
Mario Addison kickstarted the effort as he teamed with practice squad call up Brandin Bryant for a sack on Saints QB Trevor Siemian on a 3rd-and-2 to force a punt.
Addison would surface again when the Saints chose to go for it on their third possession of the game on a 4th-and-2. Oliver's penetration forced RB Tony Jones to run laterally allowing Addison to get an angle and hang on for a five-yard loss and a turnover on downs.
"Siemian snapped the ball and it happened so fast, some guys didn't move," said Addison of the Saints offensive linemen. "So, we thought somebody was offsides. Then I saw Ed shoot the gap and Ed made him bounce to me and while I was going in for the tackle, he kind of stiff-armed me a little. But I kept crawling and scratching and when he fell to the ground, I was happy as hell."
Addison finished with four tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit.
On the fourth Saints drive, it was Oliver ending the possession with one of his two quarterback hits on the night as he forced an incompletion from Siemian. New Orleans ended up punting.
And on New Orleans last possession of the first half, his split sack with Efe Obada led to a 3rd-and-18 and eventually another punt.
"It felt great," said Oliver of finally posting a sack, even if it was a half sack. "They've taken so many away from me... I thought they were going to take that one away because I hit him kind of low and I said, 'Oh well there goes another one.' So just to get one on the board was a monkey off my back. Last week when I got one and it didn't count, I was like, 'Man forget it. I'm not even going to worry about it anymore.' Then lo and behold I got another one and it counted."
Although Oliver finished with just four tackles, a pair of quarterback hits, a pass breakup and a half sack, it was his consistent penetration that wreaked havoc on the timing of the Saints passing game. Siemian was routinely moved off his spot wit Oliver and others collapsing the pocket from one side or the other.
It rendered the Saints offense ineffective as they managed just 64 total net yards on their first seven possessions combined.
"Ed is a stud man," said Jordan Poyer. "He comes to work every single day with high energy, a high motor, and he came in and he balled so props to him. And he's going to continue to do that. He's a guy who you can see that he wants it."
Buffalo's defense did not surrender any points until a fourth-quarter touchdown drive by New Orleans.
"It's fine when you jump on them fast versus when we've got to come from behind," said Addison. "We've got a good team, got a damn good team. But sometimes we don't play like it. The thing we've got to do is play more consistent ball. We've just got to find a way to play consistent ball."
3. Run game finds life
Buffalo's ground game has been searching for consistency all season. Earlier in the week head coach Sean McDermott gave clear indication they needed effective production when the run game was called upon. On a short week, McDermott tweaked the lineup with Zack Moss a healthy inactive and Matt Breida made his first start in a Bills uniform.
Seven of the first 10 plays on Buffalo's opening touchdown drive were run plays. Breida gained 19 yards on four carries. Allen had a pair of carries for 14 yards and Devin Singletary had a two-yard carry. It wasn't eye-popping production, but six of the seven carries gained positive yardage and helped set a tone for the game.
The yards per carry average wasn't pretty by the end of regulation with Buffalo trying to shorten what became a lopsided game, but it was effective at the right time and forced the Saints defense to respect it.
"I thought both backs ran well," said McDermott. "I thought we had a couple opportunities in the first half overall as an offense where we didn't come away with points or we should have come away with more points, so we've got to look at that, but overall we were able to overcome the turnovers in the first half. I thought both backs in the second half in particular ran strong."
Breida again provided a spark to the offense and took a screen pass in late for a touchdown as he got upfield in a hurry with his trademark speed for a 23-yard scoring play.
"It was just a simple screen play," said Breida. "Once again, shout out to everyone else blocking, receivers, offensive line. Josh threw me a good ball that was easy to catch. And I just set it up, cut back and scored."
Buffalo came into Thursday's game calling passes on more than 61 percent of their plays. Against the Saints they ran the ball more than they threw it with 32 total carries to 28 pass attempts. It was just the third time this season when the Bills had more run plays than pass plays (Houston, Kansas City).
"To the receivers and the O-line, the tight ends all did a great job of blocking and that makes it easier for us," Breida said. "I feel like in this game, of course we're going to throw it, but you've got to be able to run the football. I still remember the year when I was in the Super Bowl, we ran the ball really well. It makes it easier for Josh. He doesn't have to go out there and make every miraculous play. So, I think if we continue to do that we're on the right path."