Sitting in front of the microphones following Sunday’s 17-point victory against the hapless New York Jets, Josh Allen appeared antsy, more ready to move on than to celebrate. Yes, the franchise quarterback was grateful his Buffalo Bills had repeated as AFC East Champs — no small feat, considering they hadn’t won back-to-back titles since 1991, five years before Allen was born. But the Bills megastar seemed more preoccupied with history yet to be written than history just made.
“Nobody at the end of their career looks back and really figures out how many times you won your division,” he told reporters. “I think the main goal is the Super Bowl, and winning the division just gives you an opportunity to do that. So, that’s really our focus. It’s great. It’s fine. Hats and shirts (celebrating the Bills consecutive titles) are cool. But at the end of the day, we got a lot of work to do.”
You got the sense that Allen was foregoing the 24-hour rule that says you should celebrate your victories for that length of time before moving on to your next opponent.
That next opponent, of course, is the big, bad New England Patriots, who were dethroned by the Bills these past two seasons after two decades of divisional dominance. Once Tom Brady left Massachusetts for the Sunshine State, the Patriots were supposed to fall off a cliff and not be heard from again, perhaps for years to come. They did, indeed, stumble last year without their G.O.A.T. quarterback, but their G.O.A.T. Coach Bill Belichick made them competitive again this season, as the Bills rudely discovered on December 6 when the Patriots rushed for 222 yards in a 14-10 win on a night when gale-force winds off Lake Erie wreaked havoc any time the football was in the air at Highmark Stadium. Buffalo would exact revenge three weeks later, in Foxboro, Mass., as Allen had his way, throwing for 314 yards and three scores and rushing for another 64 yards in a 33-21 cakewalk.
And, so, here we go again. Act III, with everything on the line between two rivals who know an awful lot about one another. In a Super Bowl-or-bust season for Buffalo, a one-and-done would be about as easy to swallow as a football.
The Bills were listed as early 4.5-point favorites, and I like their chances. I realize Belichick has made a career of bamboozling opposing quarterbacks and coaches — even Hall of Fame ones. And Allen has endured some struggles, completing just 49 percent of his passes the past two weeks and 63 percent for the season — six points below his 2020 average. But he is such a gifted and gritty athlete. He is so difficult to defend because of his size, quickness and ability to make throws no one else can, as well as his penchant for gouging even the most disciplined of defenses with killer runs.
Fortunately for the Bills, his occasional bouts of passing inconsistency have coincided with a revived ground game. The offensive line has stabilized, now that guard Ryan Bates has become a starter, and Devin Singletary has become the running back Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane hoped he would, rushing for 323 yards and five touchdowns during Buffalo’s season-ending, four-game win streak. And Allen continues to be a huge part of that rushing attack, too, with a career-high 763 yards this season on 122 carries, a robust 6.3-yard average.
Even more encouraging has been the play of the defense, which has made life miserable for quarterbacks (nine sacks vs. the Jets) while leading the league in fewest points (17) and yards (273) allowed per game.
Familiarity can breed contempt — and close games — but the Bills are the more talented team and hold a distinct advantage at quarterback, with Allen (36 TDs passing; 6 rushing) squaring off against rookie Mac Jones. In the first meeting, the Pats relied on Mother Nature and their ground game rather than Jones, who threw all of three passes. In their second meeting, Jones was picked off twice and completed just 43.8 percent of his passes. The foolish hype about him being a young Tom Brady was quelled considerably by the Patriots’ 1-3 stretch run.
If Allen, the first quarterback in NFL history with at least 4,000 passing and 750 rushing yards in a season, can’t out-play Jones, then the Bills don’t deserve to win.
Should the higher seeds advance during wild card week, the Bills will face the Chiefs in Kansas City in a divisional round game that will be a replay of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Buffalo won by 18 points in Arrowhead Stadium on October 11, as Allen out-played the great Patrick Mahomes. Josh threw for 315 yards and three scores and ran for 59 yards and a TD in that matchup as the Bills proved something to football world and themselves.
Since then, the Chiefs defense has improved dramatically, but their offense doesn’t appear to be as dangerous as in previous years. Wide receiver Tyreek Hill spent most of the regular season finale on the sideline, and if his heel continues to hamper him their offense could be impeded.
There’s a decent chance Buffalo advances to the title game, presumably on the road against top-seed Tennessee. The Titans are expected to have bruising running back Derrick Henry back from injured reserve, and we know how much he punished Buffalo the first time around, rushing for 143 yards and three scores. Despite his dominance, that game still came down to a failed fourth-down quarterback sneak, when Allen slipped on the grass. Had the Bills converted, they would have won and perhaps secured the top playoff seed.
Buffalo has proven it can beat anyone in the AFC, including nemesis Belichick, who has dropped three of his last four meetings between the teams. Despite losing All-Pro cornerback Tre White to a season-ending injury several weeks ago, the Bills enter the postseason in great shape. They have the league’s top-ranked defense and a top-five quarterback, and have discovered a serviceable ground game at an opportune time.
So, the goal remains the same. It’s Super Bowl. Or bust. And the laser-focused Allen will have a huge say in how this next chapter is written.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.