The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Buffalo for a Wild Card matchup, a game that was delayed by a day due to weather conditions. On Monday afternoon, Josh Allen added another stellar game to his already impressive playoff resume, as the Bills move one step closer to the Super Bowl.
Bills Jump to Early Lead
The weather was cold, but the Bills started out hot, letting up just one first down before forcing the Steelers to punt on their opening drive. Buffalo’s offense faced an early 3rd and 1, but a successful tush push from Allen moved the chains. On the next play, Allen found Dalton Kincaid down the field for a 20 yard gain, with the rookie making a phenomenal catch against tight coverage to reel in the pass. Completions of 10 and 12 yards to Stefon Diggs moved the Bills deep into Pittsburgh territory. On 2nd and 7 from the 12 yard line, Allen threw a dart to the corner of the endzone, which was caught by an open Dawson Knox for the score. The Bills were up 7–0 early, and they made it look easy.
Both teams’ subsequent possessions resulted in three-and-outs. A nice punt by Sam Martin pinned the Steelers inside their own 20. Mason Rudolph’s first pass was complete to George Pickens along the sideline, but his effort to move upfield resulted in him fumbling the ball, which was recovered by Terrel Bernard. The Bills wasted no time capitalizing on the turnover and field position, with Allen throwing a strike down the middle to Kincaid for a 29 yard touchdown.
“Ball Don’t Lie”
After another three-and-out from both teams, the Steelers were finally able to move downfield. Facing a blitz, Rudolph found a wide open Pat Freiermuth for a 33 yard gain. However, the tight end fumbled as he was tackled by Christian Benford, and Baylon Spector looked to recover the ball in bounds for the turnover. The referees initially ruled that the ball was recovered out of bounds, so Sean McDermott challenged the play. Although no angles on the TV broadcast showed that Freiermuth or Spector touched the ball while out of bounds, the call on the field stood.
Facing 2nd and 23 after a Greg Rousseau sack, the explosive Jaylen Warren ran for a 12 yard gain to set up 3rd and manageable. Rudolph found an open Freiermuth in the flat, who trucked through Kaiir Elam for a first down. Two plays later, Elam was called for pass interference after he was beat by Diontae Johnson on the play. However, Elam got his revenge, and avenged the “non-fumble” two plays later, intercepting Rudolph in the endzone for a momentum changing turnover.
Josh Allen the Unicorn
Allen connected with Diggs on a timing route for eight yards on 3rd and 5 to keep the drive alive early. Runs of nine and four from James Cook moved Buffalo to midfield. On 3rd down, from his own 48, Allen dropped back to pass against a heavy Steelers blitz. Allen escaped the pocket up the middle, hesitated as he crossed the first down line, ran through a tackle attempt, and sprinted in between two defensive backs the remaining 30 yards for an electric 52 yard score. The only player in the NFL that can run through linebackers, outrun safeties, and throw lasers to anywhere on the field, Bills Mafia was witnessing the full Josh Allen experience.
Steelers Finally Score
After another Pittsburgh three-and-out, the Bills had the chance to extend their lead even further. A 13 yard comeback route by Deonte Harty turned into a 34 yard gain after he showcased his speed through the Steelers defense. Consecutive incompletions from Allen, including an endzone shot to Diggs that was nearly intercepted, forced the Bills to kick a field goal on 4th and 7. The 49 yard attempt by Tyler Bass was blocked, with the ball bouncing all the way back to Buffalo’s 33 yard line.
A delayed handoff to Warren resulted in a 10 yard gain, and back to back five yard completions to Pickens moved the Steelers inside the 15 yard line. On 2nd and 7 from the 10, Rudolph found Johnson on a slant across the middle to break the shutout and capitalize on the blocked kick.
Trading Field Goals
Allen was sacked by Alex Highsmith for a loss of nine on their opening drive of the second half, forcing a punt two plays later. Rudolph found Johnson down the middle for a 19 yard completion to move across midfield. Completions of 13 and nine to Pickens and Freiermuth moved the Steelers into field goal range. Consecutive runs to Najee Harris were stuffed by DaQuan Jones and Shaq Lawson, and an incomplete pass on 3rd down forced a field goal. Chris Boswell drilled the 40 yarder, and brought the score to 21–10.
Buffalo answered with a field goal of their own on their next drive, which started with an 11 yard run by Cook. Gains of five and four from Cook brought up 3rd and 1, and Allen’s attempted QB sneak was stuffed. The Bills, from their 45, elected to go for it on 4th and inches. Allen’s tush push was initially denied, but Reggie Gilliam (the tush ‘pusher’ on the play) pushed Allen across the line to gain on the second effort to keep the drive alive. On 3rd and 9, Allen rolled right and found Diggs coming back to him for a 12 yard completion, once again extending the drive. A two yard loss from Cook on the ground set up 3rd and 12, and this time the Bills failed to convert. Bass’s 45 yard field goal attempt was good, extending Buffalo’s lead back to 14 points.
Steelers Claw Back
Pittsburgh got within one possession of the Bills on their second touchdown drive of the game. On 3rd and 11, Rudolph evaded pressure and rifled a pass downfield for Pickens, who made a ridiculous adjustment to come down with the 19 yard catch. Pickens gained another 15 yards on the next play, moving the Steelers across midfield. Completions to Johnson for gains of 11 and eight helped set up 1st and Goal, in which Harris ran to the seven yard line. On 2nd down, Rudolph threw to Calvin Austin over the middle, who had found a soft spot in between three Bills defenders for the score. Suddenly, it was a one possession game with still over 10 minutes to play.
Shakir Gets Shifty
A 15 yard unnecessary roughness penalty on Pittsburgh against a sliding Josh Allen moved the Bills into the redzone. On 2nd and 9 from the 17, Allen threw a checkdown underneath to Khalil Shakir for two yards. Shakir was immediately hit by former All Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, but Shakir was able to spin out of the tackle, prevent his knee from touching the ground by planting his hand to keep balance, and turned upfield against an array of awaiting defenders. A quick cut to his right opened up some space, and a mesmerizing juke left a Steeler with broken ankles. Meanwhile, Shakir kept his legs moving forward for the final 10 yards, as he scampered into the endzone for the highlight reel score.
Game, Set, Match
The Steelers would go four-and-out on their next drive, with Rudolph’s 4th down pass to Pickens falling incomplete. Ty Johnson checked in for Cook to help close out the game, chewing the clock with his 23 yards over four carries. Once inside the 10, Johnson was stuffed three plays in a row, with the Steelers using their final timeouts to preserve the clock. Bass massively shanked his 27 yard field goal attempt, which was almost impressive considering how short the kick was. Rudolph strung together a couple garbage time completions, and a 15 yard roughing the passer penalty moved the Steelers into Buffalo territory. But with no timeouts and everything being funneled by the Buffalo defense through the middle, the clock expired after a 10 yard Rudolph run, with a final score of 31–17 in favor of the Bills.
Already missing Gabriel Davis, Tyrel Dodson, Rasul Douglas, and Taylor Rapp, the injury bug continued to plague the Bills throughout the game. It seemed as if every drive a new player was down on the field in need of medical attention. Christian Benford left with a knee injury and didn’t return. Baylon Spector left with a back injury and the cart was needed to escort Terrel Bernard to the locker room. Sam Martin appeared to pull his hamstring while chasing down the ball after the blocked field goal, but did return to punt on the opening possession of the second half. Taron Johnson left with a head injury and didn’t return, while Connor McGovern and Stefon Diggs both returned quickly after what appeared to be abdomen injuries for both. Micah Hyde was limping after getting hit in the shin, and Leonard Floyd left the game with an apparent shoulder injury. Wow, is this a long, depressing paragraph or what?!
And through all of these injuries, Sean McDermott’s defense accounted for five drives without a first down, and two turnovers, while only allowing 17 points. Many backups were forced to step up, including Shaq Lawson, AJ Klein, Dorian Williams, Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elam, Cam Lewis, and Damar Hamlin. The good news is Dodson and Douglas should both be back next week, and Bernard’s injury appears to be less tragic than initially thought, after X-rays on his ankle came back negative.
Although the offense stalled at times, and injuries plagued the defense like a contagious disease, the Bills made enough plays on both sides of the ball to secure a playoff win. Diggs finished with seven catches, a team high, and his personal highest since Week 8 against Tampa Bay. Cook averaged a solid 4.4 yards per carry on his 18 rushing attempts. The Bills became the first team to have two tight ends catch touchdowns in the first quarter of a playoff game per @NFLonCBS. Knox has scored the first touchdown in four straight Wild Card games for the Bills, and moved into a tie for second in franchise history with six postseason touchdown receptions (tied with Gabriel Davis and James Lofton, while Andre Reed holds the record with nine). But most importantly, the Bills didn’t turn the ball over. No interceptions and no fumbles kept their lead just far enough out of reach to secure the win.
Offensive Player of the Game: Khalil Shakir
For his impressive game-sealing touchdown alone, Shakir gets the award. He finished with three receptions on three targets for 31 yards and the score. Last year’s 5th round pick has emerged as a steady option in the passing game for Allen, always seeming to make the big play when Buffalo needs it.
Defensive Player of the Game: AJ Klein
Matt Milano has been out for the season since Week 5, and the Bills entered the game without Dodson. After seeing Bernard and Spector succumb to injuries, Klein was tasked with controlling the middle of the field while also calling the plays as the green dot. He stepped up to the challenge, recording a team high 11 total tackles. What’s even crazier is Klein was signed to the practice squad just a few days ago. The 32 year old linebacker was packing his truck and RV for a family vacation when he got a call from Brandon Beane last Thursday. @Pro__Ant of Cover 1 said it best: “He knows his limitations, plays within himself, does what’s asked of him, and gives you reliable snaps whenever he’s called upon.”
MVP: Josh Allen
Allen has been known for putting together some incredible games in the playoffs. The beginning of the 2023 postseason proved no different, with four touchdowns and no turnovers. He finished 21 of 30 for 203 passing yards and three touchdowns, while adding eight rushes for 74 yards and a score on the ground. What’s even crazier, is it felt like there were points in the game where the offense completely stalled, and they still dropped 31 points (with two missed field goals from Bass as well!).
What’s Next: Bills vs Chiefs 1/21 Divisional Round
Patrick Mahomes travels to Buffalo for the first away playoff game of his entire career. What better atmosphere to show him what it’s like on the road in the playoffs than Buffalo? The Bills have many injuries to monitor, but this also isn’t the same Chiefs team from previous years. Will it be Buffalo’s turn to take down KC in the postseason, or will Mahomes and the Chiefs send home Allen and the Bills for the third time in four years?
Editor’s babble: Colin Richey writes beautiful game summaries. We are so grateful for his contributions to our blog. You can also find Colin on Xwitter @whatthef00tball.