Bills take good, bad and ugly with Josh Allen en route to AFC East title

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It was the Miami Dolphins’ division to lose. And that’s what they did. The Buffalo Bills came away with a 21-14 Week 18 win in Miami, with Buffalo overcoming three turnovers from Josh Allen.

And for the fifth straight season, the Bills are the AFC East champs.

Even after starting 5-5. Even after getting to 6-6. Even with the Dolphins coming out of the gate firing with a historically prolific offense at the beginning of the season. 

Buffalo proved it’s a long season. The Bills seem to have peaked at the right time. In the wild-card round of the playoffs, Buffalo, now the No. 2 seed in the AFC, will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, while the Dolphins will have to travel to Kansas City to face the Chiefs.

For Allen, this game was the same story as the rest of the year (and maybe his whole career). There have always been two versions of the quarterback. Crazy Good Josh Allen and Crazy Bad Josh Allen. But one quarter of the Crazy Good was enough to wipe away the Crazy Bad in this pivotal Week 18 matchup.

But before we talk more about Allen’s performance. Let’s talk about defense.

Who saw a defensive battle coming?

Not I.

The Dolphins have boasted one of the NFL’s most explosive and prolific offenses. The Bills also sat atop the league in most offensive categories, particularly looking at the second half of the season when they changed offensive coordinators, promoting Joe Brady.

It felt like a high-scoring game in the making. But scoring felt like an absolute battle given all the turnovers (5 total).

Both defenses have dealt with a tremendous volume of injuries, both in the game and during the season. Both defenses have had their low points in the season. But I think they will both look at the film and see impressive performances, even the Dolphins, whose offense had multiple chances to win but let them down in the fourth quarter. For Buffalo’s defense, Tua Tagovailoa made a handful of turnover-worthy throws and was lucky to walk away with just two interceptions. His late-game accuracy wasn’t what it needed to be — nor was his decision-making. Tua should never have thrown his final pass of the game, an interception from Taylor Rapp who — warning: dad joke incoming — called it a “rapp” on the game.

It was oddly symbolic for Tua to crumble in the fourth quarter and Allen to come alive. It was the tale of their seasons. For three-quarters of the year, the Dolphins were the NFL’s most impressive team to beat. And then it got messy, with Miami declining. Buffalo did just the opposite: stumbling and bumbling to start the year only to peak and get their act together, even in the face of the toughest stretch in their schedule.

So let’s look at Allen’s night, which was as sensationally good as it was shockingly bad.

In the first quarter, Allen missed a pass to a wide-open Stefon Diggs, who completely shook cornerback Jalen Ramsey. A pass in-stride would’ve been a long touchdown. 

Allen later missed a touchdown opportunity at the end of the first half, with a throw to Ty Johnson short of the goal line as time expired. McDermott had burned all the Bills’ timeouts — a mistake in my opinion. But Allen needed to play with that in mind. He threw to Johnson at a spot where he needed to either get into the end zone or the Bills wouldn’t score points. When Johnson was short, Buffalo didn’t have time to spike the ball. So they ended the first half on the 2-yard line without scoring points. 

“That ball can’t be thrown in the field of play. It’s got to be in the end zone,” McDermott told NBC during the halftime break.

But then there were the takeaways, where the Dolphins exploited Allen’s propensity for risky play. Take Christian Wilkins’ forced fumble and recovery. It was a remarkable one-man show, a reminder that even defensive tackles can have a quarterback-like impact on a game. Wilkins beat his blocker, attacked Allen’s hands, knocked the ball free and held onto it for the recovery.

Allen’s first interception was a miscue between him and receiver Gabe Davis in the endzone, with Allen throwing for one route and Davis running another. In turn, cornerback Eli Apple easily fielded the ball in the end zone. Something similar happened on Allen’s second touchdown, with the quarterback tossing up a prayer on fourth down — but safety DeShon Elliott fielded what was essentially a punt from Allen.

It’s not like Allen didn’t have the explosive plays that make him so dangerous in the first half. He and Diggs were on the same page for the rest of the night (except the costly overthrow). Diggs finished with seven catches for 87 yards and his 36-yard reception was a jaw-dropper with Allen throwing a fadeaway pass and Diggs somehow bodying his defender away for a finger-tip grab. But then Allen’s pass-catchers let him down, just like he let them down, at times. Allen hit James Cook in the hands for what should’ve been a sensational touchdown. Cook’s drop came on the drive at the end of the first drive that yielded zero points.

In that fourth quarter, however, Allen put together the go-ahead drive when he was 5 of 5 for 64 yards and a passing touchdown. It was a slice of perfection, admittedly mired in a mess of his earlier drives. 

Then we saw the strangest side to Allen of all: Game Manager. Not Crazy Josh Allen. 

He was checking the ball down. He rushed the ball and dove in bounds to keep the clock running. He snuck the ball up the middle for first downs. He did whatever he could to win the game and protect the Bills’ lead, including rushing for a first down on third-and-13 — a clutch play that was a massive effort in killing the clock and bringing the game to an end.

When Allen couldn’t convert the ball on fourth-and-1 to ice the game in the final two minutes, the defense stepped up for their QB in a display of complimentary football. And while the Bills continue to win ugly, they continue to win — which is why they look as dangerous as anyone in the field in the AFC. It’s not a pretty product in Buffalo. It’s rough. It’s wild. But maybe it’s enough for them to finally break their Super Bowl cold snap.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.


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