Bills end roller-coaster regular season with AFC East title
No one ever said the Buffalo Bills like to do things the easy way.
While a fourth consecutive AFC East division title may hardly be a surprise from a team that entered the season with high expectations, the way the Bills got here certainly is.
Not many division winners suffer losses to five non-playoff teams in a season. But that’s exactly what Buffalo did in dropping games to the Jets, Patriots, Jaguars, Broncos and Bengals.
In fact, their only loss to a playoff team all season came on the road, in overtime against the Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 26.
At that point, the Bills were 6-6 with a schedule that included the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins among five remaining games, with Miami holding a three-game lead in the AFC East with a 9-6 record.
And yet, as unlikely as it may have once seemed, the Bills arrived in Miami this past weekend with a chance to steal the division crown, then overcame a 14-7 half-time deficit to do exactly that.
As a result, the Dolphins are headed on the road to Kansas City next weekend while the AFC East champion Bills will host the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at 1 p.m. at Highmark Stadium.
The Bills are heavy favourites in that game (the line opened at Bills -9.5 on FanDuel Sunday night), in part because they’ve been a much better team at home than on the road this season, having suffered just one loss at Highmark Stadium.
All of which highlights the importance of what they were able to do in Miami Sunday night.
A loss to the Dolphins would have put the Bills back in Miami this coming weekend, with a playoff date to follow in Baltimore if they advanced. Now, if the Bills can get past Pittsburgh they’ll be at home for at least another week, with the possibility of hosting the AFC Championship Game should Baltimore lose in the divisional round.
There is lots to like about the direction the Bills are heading, beyond the obvious point of being the only team entering the postseason on a five-game winning streak.
For weeks, even as they’ve been stringing wins together, there’s been serious concern about the state of the Bills offence, particularly when it comes to their once-vaunted passing game.
In fact, the Bills headed into Miami with Josh Allen having averaged fewer than 200 yards passing over his previous four games, which seemed like an absurdly low total for one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks on a winning team.
Allen re-established himself against the Dolphins, completing 79 per cent of his passes for 359 yards, with three of his targets – receivers Khalil Shakir and Stefon Diggs, and tight end Dalton Kincaid – all exceeding 80 yards.
Diggs’ performance was especially noteworthy given that he’d failed to haul in 50 yards worth of passes in six of the Bills previous seven games, making “What’s wrong with Stef?” the No.1 talking point in Western New York headed into the game.
More significant than Diggs going off for 87 yards is the fact that he caught seven of the eight balls thrown his way, the only incompletion coming on a play where he blew by Jalen Ramsey to get wide open, but Allen simply missed the throw.
It was one of the few regrettable moments for Allen, despite throwing two interceptions on the night. One of those came via a miscommunication with receiver Gabe Davis and another when he fired a pass into the endzone on a fourth-down gamble that ended up working out better for Buffalo than had it fallen incomplete.
He also ran for 67 yards on a night the Bills run game, for the first time in a long while, was held in check.
All of those positive signs for the offence aside, it was the defence that rose to the occasion once again for Buffalo, and it’s that side of the ball that makes them such a daunting playoff opponent.
After surrendering 14 points to the Dolphins during the first half, Buffalo held Miami to four punts and an interception on five possessions in the second, limiting the Dolphins’ ability to run the ball with effectiveness.
The Dolphins entered Week 18 as the NFL’s highest-scoring team at 30.1 points per game. But in two contests this season the Bills held them to a total of just 34.
Miami superstar receiver Tyreek Hill had seven catches for 82 yards and a touchdown on Sunday, but that came with a catch rate of just over 50 per cent of the 13 balls thrown his way.
And when Bills safety Taylor Rapp intercepted Tua Tagovailoa as the Dolphins were driving towards a potential tying score, it marked the fourth time in the past five weeks that the Buffalo defence came up with a late-game stop to secure a win.
Yes, the Bills’ win over Miami was a game with lots of ups and downs and wasn’t always pretty. But that’s how the Bills got here.
And of their playoff run, be it short or long, we should expect nothing less.