Give thanks. A win is a win, right? Or should I say, two wins is two wins? The bottom line is, the Bills played in Detroit twice in five days, in the aftermath of one of the worst snowstorms in Buffalo history and won both games.
On a nervous Thanksgiving at Ford Field, the Bills gutted out a 28-25 victory over the plucky Detroit Lions, as Josh Allen played like an MVP in the final two drives, the defense persevered despite a rash of injuries, and Tyler Bass put a missed point-after behind him and drilled the game-winning field goal.
They’re 8-3, alone in first place in the AFC East, at least until the Dolphins play Houston on Sunday. As they like to remind us, it’s tough to win in the NFL. But it has become a lot tougher for a team that used to win routinely in routs but has struggled to live up to its dominant reputation for a month now.
“When you win, it goes in the win column as one,” said head coach Sean McDermott. “When you lose, it goes in the loss column as one. So, no matter how you win, you’ve got to find a way to win.
“People want us to score 40,” McDermott said, “and that would be great. But the nature of this league, these are close games every week.”
This from a man whose team set an NFL record with 20 consecutive wins by 10 points or more in the regular season. The Bills became famous for avoiding those close games. Suddenly, every game is a struggle. Thursday was their fourth one-score win since the start of October.
So yes, a win is a win. But the Bills raised the standard to the point where they were the Super Bowl favorite after the first six weeks of the season. Every team has its flaws in a sport designed to promote parity, but they were supposed to be a level or two above the Jets and Lions of the world.
Detroit has improved a great deal under Dan Campbell. They came in on a three-game winning streak. But the Lions’ defense was dead last in the league in points allowed, so it wasn’t unreasonable, as McDermott suggested, for fans to expect a breakout game and maybe 40 points.
Instead, Allen and the offense sputtered for much of the day. The Bills punted on three straight possessions in the second half — the first time that happened since last season’s finale. They hadn’t even punted on two straight possessions with Allen at quarterback since the Baltimore game.
“Second half, we didn’t play great football,” Allen said. “But we found a way. Guys were resilient. The ups and downs of an NFL game. That’s a good team. They’re playing good football … sometimes those games happen. It’s tough to win in this league. I’m just proud of our guys for battling through it.”
It’s maddening at times, the ebbs and flows in Allen’s play of late. On the first possession after the three successive punts, he drove the Bills 90 yards to a go-ahead touchdown, completing 7 of 8 passes and running twice for 17 yards. The TD was a 5-yard TD dart to Stefon Diggs.
Then, after the Lions tied it on a 51-yard field goal by Michael Badgley, Allen and the offense took over with 23 seconds on the clock. The Bills had three timeouts left. I imagine most Buffalo fans, painfully aware of what can occur in just 13 seconds, believed that was more than enough time for a score.
On first down, Allen wired a 36-yard pass to Diggs, putting him at 84 catches for 1,110 on the season and comfortably ahead of pace to break his own franchise records for catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535) in a season.
Allen then ran for 3 and 9 yards, putting the football well within range for kicker Tyler Bass. McDermott used his third timeout and Bass, who had missed the extra point after the Bills’ last touchdown — his first after 104 straight PAT makes — drilled the 45-yard field goal to give the Bills the win.
“I tell the guys, ‘Everything in the past is the past,’” Diggs said. “We didn’t get off to the best start, but you keep rolling with the punches. Things aren’t going to be perfect. Every week is different. It’s like re-inventing yourself.”
Those last two drives reminded you how dominant the Bills can be, and why they have far and away the largest point differential in the NFL (plus-304) since the start of last season. It’s an impossibly high standard.
Injuries complicate matters. The Bills have been compromised all season, especially on defense. Tre’Davious White played two possessions at cornerback and sat down for the day. Tremaine Edmunds and Greg Rousseau were out again. It was a good thing that defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who was the best player on the field, had a dominant afternoon.
Now, the Bills and their fans are holding their breath about star defensive end Von Miller, who went down with a knee injury.
The news looks promising. Multiple outlets reported Friday afternoon that Miller didn’t tear his ACL, as feared. NFL Network said Miller had an issue with his lateral meniscus and would miss a week to 10 days while determining if he’ll have surgery now or after the season.
It’s admirable how the Bills have persevered through adversity this season. But after awhile, you wonder if they’ll ever be close to full health this year. An NFL season can be a war of attrition, where it’s often the teams with the best physical health who are left standing at the end.
“We’re 8-3,” Allen said when asked if he was still playing through an injured elbow. “That’s it, I’m out there. If anybody is playing injury-free in this league, they’re probably lying to you. Everybody’s battling injuries, battling bumps and bruises.
“If I’m going to be the guy that I think I am, that I say I am and that my teammates think I am, I’ve got to go be that guy. That’s all there is to it.”
Allen hasn’t been that guy often enough over the last month. In the last four games, he has completed 60 percent of his passes for 985 yards, with four TDs and five interceptions. Hardly MVP level. Allen had another regrettable interception in the red zone, where the Bills continue to have major problems.
The Bills move on to a primetime date next Thursday at New England, which lost to the Vikings to fall two games back in the AFC East. Who would have imagined that Buffalo would hit December without a win in the division?
They night need to run the table in the division to get the top seed in the AFC, home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs. They’ve shown they can win at Kansas City, but it would be nice to be home in the likely event they meet the Chiefs (8-2) again in the postseason.
After the last month, it’s hard to feel confident about the Bills’ chances of winning four playoff games in a row. The pass defense continues to be an issue. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 65 percent for 1,075 yards in the last four games. Amon-Ra St. Brown had nine catches for 122 yards, becoming the third straight wideout to go over 100 yards.
If they can’t shut down Jared Goff and Jacoby Brissett — or even Zach Wilson, who had his best game against the Bills and got benched two weeks later — how are they going to stop Patrick Mahomes, who has been one of the best postseason quarterbacks in NFL history (and 2-0 against the Bills) since becoming a starter?
We’re well past the stage where you could argue that the Bills had the top offense and defense in the league. Maybe they can get on a run like last year, when they won four in a row to close the regular season and were playing their best football heading into the playoffs.
At times, it seems the Bills need a crisis to inspire them to be their best selves. The standard is very high. Their three losses are by a combined eight points. It says a lot that they could be that close to unbeaten and still seem like they haven’t been themselves for more than a month.
It’s Patriots week. You know Bill Belichick’s boys willl be primed to atone for last year’s playoff humiliation. To borrow a phrase from Allen, it’s about time for the Bills to be the team everyone thought they were.