Sullivan: Bully Bills reverses the scenario of the mid-season crisis | Buffalo Tickets
Following up on our theme from a week ago, that Sunday football game against the Falcons was definitely not the reason the Bills gave Josh Allen the $258 million contract extension over the course of the summer.
Sometimes, even in today’s NFL, it has to be the other guys. There will be days when even the best quarterback will be a little out of his game, the gun will misfire, and the lesser-known cogs of a winning team will have to prevail.
Allen had a terrible day in the snow at Highmark Stadium. He was 11 for 26 for 120 yards and no touchdowns. He threw interceptions on three straight possessions. His passer rating of 17.0 was the lowest of his four-year career.
Still, the Bills persevered. They got rid of a dismal first half and beat Atlanta, 29-15. Combined with the Ravens’ loss to the Rams, this gave them their fourth playoff berth in five seasons under head coach Sean McDermott.
There was a lot to celebrate on Sunday night and that included the reassuring knowledge that the Bills could win on a day when their star quarterback was statistically having the worst day of his career.
“It takes all three phases to win a game,” center Mitch Morse said, “and today it seems like at some point each phase had to pick up on the others.”
For once, it’s the racing game that won, and the attack. The racing game has been heavily criticized at times in recent years. Why rely on running backs at all, some people say. Do what you do best. Let Allen attack defenses in the air and beat the team with his legs when things fall apart.
But at some point, a team that aspires to the championship must prove that they can run the ball in a conventional way, by passing the baton. That’s especially true in the winter, and in Buffalo, when the elements can conspire against even the most heavily armed quarterback.
So, with a playoff spot on the line and Allen struggling, the Bills fell to the ground in the second half. Down 15-14, they had back-to-back touchdowns that accentuated the run and essentially sidelined the Falcons. They went for 80 yards on 11 plays, then 70 yards on 12 plays, and 19 of those 23 plays were points.
The Bills rushed 44 times for 233 yards, the second-most rushing yards in a McDermott-era game (they had 244 against Denver in 2019). Allen rushed for 81. Devin Singletary, who finally earned his belated recognition as a star back, set career highs in carries (23), yards (110) and touchdowns (two).
The Bills play bully ball? The same players who had critics – including their head coach – questioning their physicality after losses to the Jaguars, Colts and Patriots? Maybe that was just what they needed, a chance to show a more physical side in the new year. What does that say about them?
“It says football is tough,” left tackle Dion Dawkins said. “That’s really it. Over the course of a season, you go through ups and downs. But when it comes time to push all your chips, you need to make sure you’ve made the right bets. It shows that if we need to get Josh back, we can do it with the other guys.
Morse said it sometimes seemed like Allen had the entire weight of the organization on his shoulders. It comes with work. Quarterback is the most vital position in all sports. As Bills fans can happily attest, once you have the right quarterback, you’re never really out of the hunt for the playoffs.
In a championship run in any sport, a team often needs to score an inartistic triumph or two along the way. When finesse doesn’t work, you switch to your power game. It’s the mark of a truly great team, that they can win in more ways than one.
“Every game from now on is like a playoff game,” Allen said. “Not everything can be pretty, and that was the case today. No matter how we got it, we had to get it and we did.
Let’s not forget, the defense had another solid outing. The defense was vulnerable in the trenches. He tends to give up long-lasting games. But after Allen threw those three picks (in a four-pass streak), the Bills D responded to a crisis and shut down the Falcons in the second half.
The standard is very high for the defense, which is No. 1 in the NFL in yards allowed. But the numbers are hard to dispute. Since McDermott took over in 2017, the Bills have the best pass defense in the NFL, in both yards per game (202.5 as of Sunday) and opposing quarterback rating (78 ,6).
The quarterback rating is a fairly reliable gauge of a pass defense’s ability. Going into Sunday’s game, the NFL team’s average passer rating was 90.8 (the Bills were at 95.5). The Bills were by far the league leader defensively with an opposing QB rating of 64.4 and 5.0 yards per pass attempt.
Only once in 16 games — in the overtime loss to Tom Brady and the Bucs — has a Bills opponent finished a game with an above-league average passer rating. They rarely give up a big passing game. Atlanta 61-yard tight end Kyle Pitts was just the second 28-yard plus reception they’ve allowed since October (the other was the Bucs’ 58-yard overtime winner).
“We gave up some big passes today,” safety Micah Hyde said. Defensive backs don’t seem happy if they don’t play a perfect game.
But they only gave up 15 points on Sunday. Early in the third quarter, after Allen threw his third interception, they stoned the Falcons, stopping them for negative yardage on consecutive plays and forcing a (questionable) punt from the Bills’ 37. They held Atlanta to 1 of 4 in the red zone.
“It’s part of our mentality,” defensive tackle Harrison Phillips said of red-zone saves. “We will defend a blade of grass there. Other times we had trouble with it. But it’s something we celebrate and hang our hats on.
It wasn’t a perfect performance, far from it. How many times have we said that after a double digit win? It was reminiscent of the home win over Miami in late October, when the Bills struggled to a 3-3 halftime draw and ended up winning by 15.
The Bills have flaws, like any team. But the average score of their 10 wins is 35-13. They have a league-leading plus-177 point differential (the Pats are second). They beat a lot of patsies, but they won in Kansas City and New England and were one game away from winning in Tennessee and Tampa Bay.
After going two months without a win streak, they’ve put together a three-game winning streak and can claim their second straight AFC East title with a win at Highmark next Sunday against the Jets. That would guarantee at least a playoff home game – at this point the likeliest opponent is New England.
This is when they will need Allen to be at his best, as he was at Foxborough last week. He is entitled to a week off. It’s nice to know you can win by two touchdowns when your franchise quarterback is having one of the worst games of his career.
“It was tiring,” Morse said of the busy second half, “but it showed the evolution of this football team.”
jerry sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years of experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or reply via email at [email protected]