With San Francisco "hosting" Buffalo in Arizona Monday night following new public health guidelines put in place by Santa Clara County, Josh Allen and the Bills dazzled the 49ers as uncertainty swells within the organization.
Fans expecting some unconventionality in an odd home game in Arizona would not be disappointed or even made to wait very long.
On the first drive of the evening, the Bills marched 64 yards down field before turning the ball over on downs to a stingy 49ers defense on the 1 yard line. The 49ers, in mirrored fashion, would do the same with their first possession, taking the ball the entire length before being stuffed on a goal line fourth down and handing it back to the Bills.
The next play from scrimmage saw a Bills fumble recovered by 49ers LB Fred Warner, setting up a touchdown reception for WR Brandon Aiyuk three plays later and putting the 49ers ahead seven to nothing. Aiyuk finished the game with five receptions for 95 yards and one TD, the sixth of his standout rookie season.
This would turn out to be the 49ers’ only lead of the day, as Bills QB Josh Allen was spectacular throughout, throwing for four touchdowns and no interceptions, extending plays and punishing the 49ers for 375 total yards.
Allen came alive in the second quarter, throwing two TDs and leading a late drive to set up a Bills field goal to end the first half. The Bills entered the locker room at halftime up 17-7 and would never look back.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said earlier in the week that he expected this game might turn into a shootout, and the difference between the two teams Monday night became most apparent in quarterback play.
With all eyes on the backup QB, 49ers' Nick Mullens looked promising on his first drive to begin the 3rd quarter, connecting on quality completions through tight windows. However, Mullens suffered from inconsistency and could not maintain his form, missing Jordan Reed deep on 3rd and 12 and having to settle for a field goal to bring the score to 17-10, rather than extending the drive and pushing for a touchdown. It is this lack of stability that has plagued Mullens all year.
After another Bills TD, Aiyuk bobbled a catchable toss from Mullens that was intercepted, setting up another Bills field goal, all but stymieing the 49ers momentum and hopes of a comeback. The next 49ers drive saw a long, acrobatic completion to Aiyuk followed by a 4 yard catch-and-turn touchdown reception by FB Kyle Juszczyk to bring the score to 27-17.
Down ten points with one quarter left to play, the 49ers looked resilient and motivated to grit out a victory. However, following another Bills score, Mullens would throw his second interception with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
The run game never got going for the 49ers, who were able to muster just 86 rushing yards from five different ball carriers. WR Deebo Samuel was largely neglected in the first half, registering just 3 yards on two targets, and was unable to have much effect on the game until the 49ers were chasing it late in garbage time.
With numerous injuries to core defensive positions, the Niners defense played tough and battled Allen and the Bills all night. Despite surrendering 34 points, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh did everything he could to keep it close and give his offense a shot at winning the football game.
The 49ers were not able to sustain Mullens’ up and down play. Mullens has been relatively disappointing this season, despite being third all time in NFL history in total passing yards through his first 13 starts (behind only Andrew Luck and Patrick Mahomes).
“I feel like we could have had a big game and we didn't," Mullens said after the game. "I don't think it was one thing. Just got to go back to work. Next week we're focused on the details and I'll just keep striving to get better. That's all you can do.”
The 49ers would not give up, but were unable to find a way to secure the W.
“No excuses, no excuses.” said RB Jeff Wilson Jr. in his postgame interview. “This is the NFL, we all know what’s at stake, we all know what we have to do, and just flat out we didn’t get it done.”
“I come away from this game feeling frustrated,” Aiyuk told reporters. “We left a lot of stuff out there.”
General manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan will have to look long and hard at the quarterback position in the upcoming weeks, as both Mullens and Jimmy Garoppolo have fallen far short of expectations despite myriad chances and offensive weapons, and neither QB has seemed capable yet of turning the corner.
With the loss, the 49ers fall to 5-7 and are staring straight uphill at the road to the playoffs, currently sitting at 8th in the NFC standings. “We’ve got four more games that we can account for that we're in charge of and we've got to win all of them,” Shanahan said about their future.
What’s worse, a number of head coaching vacancies have accumulated in the NFL, with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said to be topping each list.
The 49ers continue their quest for a playoff berth this Sunday against the Washington Football Team in Arizona.
Top image: Christian Petersen/Getty Images