The Bills beat the Steelers, 26-15, Sunday night in Orchard Park. It wasn’t pretty. It was a slugfest.
It was playoff football.
The Bills and the Steelers are two of the best teams in the NFL, at the top of their divisions in the AFC, and on their way to the playoffs. A win was important to both teams, for the division race and for playoff seeding.
A win was important, too, because a game like this, a late-season matchup with a team you may face in the playoffs, often is a dogfight. It’s time to establish psychological seeding as well as playoff seeding. It’s a chance to look a quality opponent in the eye and say “I’m the big dog here.”
The Bills came out of the game bloody, but there’s no question they are the big dog. The Bills are tough.
The Bills and Steelers snarled and growled, clawed and snapped at each other for most of the first half. Neither gave much ground. It was supreme football toughness. First downs were really hard to get, and when the ball was in the air, it was as likely to be a punt as a forward pass. It was a nasty, give-no-ground fight.
The Steelers made the first big play, hitting Josh Allen as he released a pass and intercepting. The Bills responded forcing a three and out.
The Steelers made another play, forcing a Dawson Knox fumble (gotta be better kid, this is playoff football) and this time putting together a three-play, thirty-yard drive for a touchdown on the 11th possession of the first half. First blood.
A couple of punts, and then the Bills responded with a field goal. The biggest gain on the drive came on a close roughing the passer penalty. Everything else was dinking and dunking, mostly throws to Beasley and Diggs. The Bills had clawed back into the game.
Ben Roethlisberger, the quintessential big dog, knew it was time to take charge of the game, to put up a drive and touchdown before the end of the half. Two passes and a penalty got the Steelers close to midfield. When Ben threw slightly behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, Taron Johnson pounced, snatching the ball away and sprinting to the end zone. Tyler Bass missed the extra point, but it didn’t matter. The Bills, not the Steelers, had taken charge. The Steelers were wounded.
After halftime, the Bills mercilessly drove for two consecutive touchdowns and forced two three-and-outs. The drives weren’t pretty – the Bills fought for yards on every play. Allen and Diggs led the fight. It was the middle of the third quarter. There was still some football to play, but that was just football. The dogfight was over.
If there were any questions at all among football fans around the country, there are no questions now. The Buffalo Bills are for real. And if that wasn’t enough to make Bills fans happy, there’s also this: The win mathematically eliminated the New England Patriots from the AFC East race. Two dogs with one stone! In a couple of weeks, the Bills will play another more-or-less meaningless late-season game in Foxboro, but this time it will be the Patriots licking their season-long wounds.
You win a dogfight by being tough. Who was tough?
1. The offensive line. Those guys were getting beaten up, badly, for most of the first half. They were getting pushed into the offensive backfield. They were unable to move the Steelers off the line of scrimmage. They were in trouble. But they fought, they regrouped, and in the second half they took control of the line and game. Tough. Toughest of all may have been Daryl Williams, who held up all night, sometimes with help, against TJ Watt, the Steelers’ sackmeister.
2. Josh Allen. Pressured and pounded from the start, Allen could have squealed and limped way into the darkness. Instead, he took the beating and stood in, always looking downfield and delivering completion after completion during the two third-quarter drives that put the game away. It was fun watching Allen bomb away last week against the 49ers, but his game against the Steelers showed he’s an NFL winner.
One of Allen’s best plays will be forgotten in all of the other highlights. The Steelers had managed a touchdown and two-point conversion to make it a one-score game early in the fourth quarter. The Bills needed a drive and a score. After one first down, Allen threw incomplete deep to Davis. It was a low probability throw at a bad time. On second and ten, under pressure Allen threw incomplete to Moss. Now it was third and ten, and the Steelers were threatening to take the ball back and take charge. Pressured once more, Allen hit McKenzie on the run over the middle, and McKenzie made the run after catch to get the first down. Seven plays later, Bass’s field goal iced the game.
3. Diggs and Beasley. Diggs had the better numbers, but both of them are scrappers. Play after play they come back for more.
4. Andre Roberts. He’s no ballerina wanna-be, tiptoeing around field. He’s all “gimme the ball, gimme a seam and get out of my way!” He wanted every yard he could get. Toughness is contagious; tough players feed off tough players around them. Roberts is tough, and his teammates see it.
5. Special teams are tough. Kickoff and punt coverage has been solid all season, but the last few games they’ve cranked up the intensity. It’s a big mistake to take kickoffs out of the end zone against the Bills.
6. The Bills defense is some special kind of tough. Their stats won’t be great this season, because they gave up a lot of yards and points early in the season, but game by game this defense has been coming together to become one nasty unit. There isn’t a star – not a JJ or a TJ or a Bosa or a Honey Badger. Just eleven guys doing their jobs. The announcers made a big deal about Smith-Schuster plowing into Edmunds, but the real point was that Edmunds was in position and made the tackle. Then he got up and did it again. The Bills defense is like that – not pretty, not spectacular, but they make the tackle and come back for the next play. You have to be good to get yards against the Bills, and then you have to be good again, and again. The Bills give you nothing. It’s quintessential toughness.
One play it’s White on a delayed blitz and knocking down a pass. Then it’s Poyer on a blitz and making a tackle. Then it’s Hughes chasing down a ball carrier. Then it’s Milano, then Klein. The whole defensive line kept collapsing the pocket and pressuring Ben. Play after play, relentless toughness.
Not just play after play. It’s game after game. Everyone in the league knows it now. You might beat the Bills, but it isn’t going to be easy. The Bills are tough.
On to Denver.
Editor’s babble: Still pinching myself after this terrific game by the Bills. Thanks, as always, to Mark Korber for his contributions to our blog. You can’t find Mark on Twitter but you can find him posting on twobillsdrive.com’s Stadium Wall Message Board.