If there’s been one recurrent theme for me during this Bills season, it’s that this team deserves to be judged by the very highest standard.
They were, after all, the consensus favorite to win the Super Bowl coming out of training camp, a status that was reinforced when they raced out to a 5-1 record and Josh Allen and the offense were sailing along at record levels.
At times, it feels unfair to hold them to that lofty standard. On Sunday, the Bills won their fourth game in a row, holding off the Jets, 20-12, to improve to 10-3 on the season and retain their hold on the top seed in the AFC.
“You know, a win’s a win, whether it’s by one or 100,” said tight end Dawson Knox, whose tumbling 24-yard touchdown grab from Allen snapped a 0-0 tie late in an unsightly first half.
There’s some truth to that. The NFL is a fickle enterprise, where no team is devoid of flaws and every win is precious. But not every win feels the same when a team is trying to validate itself as a championship team, and Sunday was one of those days that left you wondering just how good they really are.
Once again, Allen and the offense stumbled through an uneven afternoon, unworthy of a Super Bowl team and supposed MVP candidate. They had just 232 total yards, the first time they’ve been below 300 since the infamous Monday night loss at home to the Patriots last December.
Like that Pats game, Sunday’s was played in miserable conditions. It was misty and rainy all day, which made things difficult for the offenses. But there wasn’t a brutal wind, and Allen said the conditions weren’t that difficult.
“I don’t think the elements were all that out of the ordinary for here,” said Allen, who was 16-for-27 passing for 147 yards. “It’s something we’ve practiced in and played in before. We’ve just got to find a way to be better.”
He’s right. The 147 passing yards were Allen’s fewest of the season, and the fewest since he threw for 120 yards in a home win over the Falcons late last season. Yes, he didn’t throw an interception for the second week in a row and was victimized by several dropped passes.
But Allen hasn’t been the same dynamic guy since the win in Kansas City. Over the first five games, he threw for 330 yards a game. In the six games since then, he’s averaged 229 passing yards — 100 fewer.
The Bills punted on their first five possessions against the Jets. They hadn’t done that since a 22-0 loss at Green Bay in 2018, in the third start of Allen’s rookie season. They punted seven times in all (an eighth was blocked). Sam Martin had punted seven times combined in the first four games of the year.
“Early on, it wasn’t great,” Allen said. “I thought in the second, third quarter, kind of got into a rhythm. We’ve got to finish better, got to end the game with the ball in our hands and not put so much stress on our defense. But our defense played a heck of a game today.”
The defense was terrific, playing with energy and purpose, as if trying to show the world that they can be great without Von Miller. They continued to have struggles on third down, but had two takeaways, four sacks, and eight other stops for no gain or minus yardage.
Second-year defensive end Greg Rousseau was a force with two sacks, two quarterback hits, a tackle for loss, a pass defensed, and a forced fumble. Linebacker Milano, questionable with a knee injury, was dominant.
It was reminiscent of the Bills in the early days of the McDermott regime, before Allen emerged as an elite quarterback, where the defense carried the day and it was the offense’s job to play conservative and not turn it over.
Over the last two games, the formula has worked. The Bills held the Patriots to 10 points and the Jets to 12. Without Miller, they had their way against some marginal offenses and quarterbacks (Mac Jones and Mike White).
The offense did enough to win. But they were 2-for-13 on third down, 0-for-5 in the second half. As Allen said, they found a rhythm in the middle stages of the game. Allen was the leading rusher with 47 yards and a touchdown, which happens when the offense isn’t functioning at a high level.
They had trouble finishing, which has been an issue at times. Midway through the fourth quarter, Sam Martin punted from near his goal-line and the kick was blocked out of the end zone for a safety. The Bills were fortunate. If the ball hadn’t caromed straight back, the Jets could have scored a TD.
The Bills went three-and-out on their next possession. Then the Jets drove for a field goal to cut the deficit to 20-12. The Bills got the ball back with 1:18 left and went three-and-out again, as Allen’s throw for Knox on first down fell incomplete, saving the Jets from using one of their timeouts.
The defense saved the day, forcing White into four straight incompletions. But it was more harrowing than it needed to be. The more fatalistic fans might have been having flashbacks to the late fumble in the loss to the Vikings.
Head coach Sean McDermott conceded that the offense needs to get into a rhythm sooner than it has in many of the last six contests.
“Yeah,” McDermott said. “Listen, they’re a good defense. I’ll start there.
“But overall, not enough early enough for us. Fundamentally, we dropped some passes. We were off the mark early in our passing game. We’ve got to do a better job, be more consistent there.”
The Jets are a terrific defense. They entered the game ahead of the Bills in many categories, such as yards per play against, yards per pass and opposing quarterback rating.
The Bills didn’t score until Quinnen Williams, the Jets’ star defensive tackle, left the game with a calf injury. Williams was a constant torment against the Buffalo offensive linemen until being forced to leave — a boon for the Bills.
Buffalo’s offensive line is shaky. There’s still a lack of consistent production from receivers not named Stefon Diggs — who had just three catches for 37 yards, 32 on one play. Allen made very few attempts to test the Jets down the field, as if his major concern has become not getting picked off.
That’s not what made Allen one of the most feared players in the NFL. If he’s playing not to make mistakes, he’s not making the big, game-changing plays.
He was asked if the inability to find a rhythm early in games had become an issue.
“No,” he said. “We’re 10-3. We’re finding ways to win football games. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but we’re playing complementary, smart football, not putting ourselves and our defense in bad situations.
“Just trying to win football games, no matter how it happens.”
They could play smart, conservative football, win out, and get the top seed. But it’s one thing to beat the Pats and Jets, another to beat the best teams in the NFL, the ones that have a formidable defense and a high-scoring offense.
For six weeks, the Bills’ passing game has been roughly as productive as the average NFL team’s. As McDermott said, the offense needs to be better. Right now, it doesn’t measure up to the standard of a Super Bowl offense.