You could just see it on their faces in pre-game photos.
The Buffalo Bills – a team that’s typically jovial, that has fun playing football and likes to let people know about it – did not look at all happy as it entered Gilette Stadium for its Week 16 matchup with the New England Patriots.
Players looked focused. Determined. As though they understood what they had to accomplish.
Just a few weeks after losing to the Patriots on national television, Buffalo now had the opportunity to retake control of the AFC East on enemy turf. It couldn’t let the opportunity pass it by.
And it didn’t.
The Bills took care of the Patriots in their second and final matchup of the season, leaving Foxborough with a 33-21 victory. With the win, Buffalo moved back into first place in the AFC East, its divisional fate now lying in its own hands.
Here are four takeaways from the team’s potentially season-defining win over New England.
Finally look like themselves
It’s something that Bills fans have heard throughout much of the team’s recent stretch of success:
“Sure, they’re good, but they haven’t beaten anybody.”
And for much of this season, the aforementioned statement wasn’t necessarily false. Entering Buffalo’s Week 16 matchup in Foxborough, its best win of the season was a Week 5 victory over a struggling Chiefs team.
Its other wins were against the likes of the Washington Football Team, Houston Texans, and New York Jets. Before Sunday’s contest, the Bills had struggled mightily in every game they had played against above-average competition this season, perhaps most glaringly in their first matchup with the Patriots.
But it looks like the second time was the charm.
Buffalo dominated throughout much of its Week 16 win. The 33-21 scoreline could’ve been much more lopsided had the team been able to execute on a few more of its opportunities, i.e. getting any number points on a second-quarter drive in which they were set up with second-and-goal from the one-yard line, or scoring a touchdown as opposed to a field goal on a 14-play third-quarter drive in which they continuously set themselves back with penalties.
It would be a bit foolish and cynical to focus on the points they didn’t score, however, as the Bills still put up 33 points in a game in which a win would allow them to rip the division lead from their opposition. Josh Allen was strong, despite a few errant throws, completing 30 of 47 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns. He looked to Stefon Diggs often throughout the day, with the Pro Bowl wideout reeling in seven passes for 85 yards and one touchdown. Diggs celebrated the score by telling a group of Patriots fans to “shut the [expletive] up” – a clip that Bills Mafia will undoubtedly use when interacting with Patriots fans on social media for years to come. The defense showed up, as well, largely making Mac Jones look pedestrian while limiting New England to 288 net yards.
This game can perhaps best be described as a sigh of relief. After what was an incredibly frustrating Week 13 loss and subsequent media cycle, Buffalo needed this win, not only to take back control of the AFC East, but to take back control of the narrative. After losing to the Patriots in a wind storm, many national media members questioned the core of the Bills, questioned whether or not the team had what it took to live up to both internal and external expectations, or if it would fizzle out as the Patriots reclaimed the division throne.
And in Week 16, Buffalo showed that it’s not a one-year wonder, that it can still put together a relatively complete game against good opposition, and should still be considered the favorite in the AFC East.
Have a day, Isaiah McKenzie
With Cole Beasley stuck on the Reserve/Covid-19 list, the Bills asked Isaiah McKenzie – a returner/utility player who hasn’t seen much of a role offensively all season – to step up in the slot.
He rewarded them with the most productive performance Buffalo has seen from a slot receiver in some time.
McKenzie was targeted a total of 12 times, catching 11 of those targets for 125 yards and one touchdown. Allen looked to him in high-pressure situations, with four of his 12 targets coming on either third-or-fourth down (with all of these targets resulting in conversions).
He showed prowess as a receiver that Bills fans have yet to see from the gadget player, making a number of beautiful diving catches throughout the game. Simply put, he was Buffalo’s most productive receiver in its biggest win of the season: not bad for a player who had only played on 23% of the team’s offensive snaps entering the contest.
Though McKenzie’s value as a special teamer and utility player has long been known, whether or not he could take that next step and develop into a legitimate slot receiver has long been questioned.
He answered that question on Sunday.
Offensive line holds up
Had you asked any Buffalo fan to point out a position group that concerned them ahead of Sunday’s game, they likely would’ve looked to the offensive line.
The unit has struggled to find consistency for much of the season, with Allen running for his life on numerous occasions throughout each game. Combine this with the uncertain game statuses of Dion Dawkins and Jon Feliciano (who were both on the Covid-19 list Saturday morning), and you had the makings for what could’ve been a serious issue.
Thankfully, the offensive line was hardly noticeable in Buffalo’s Week 16 win, which is really all you can ask for.
The unit got back to relative full strength midway through the second quarter, ironically due to an injury. Guard Ike Boettger suffered an Achilles injury and left on a cart, forcing Dion Dawkins – who was activated from the Covid-19 reserve Saturday evening but did not play throughout the first chunk of Sunday’s game – to slide back into the lineup. Placing Dawkins at left tackle allowed Buffalo to kick Spencer Brown back to the right side and slide Daryl Williams inside to guard, giving the team a more ideal offensive line than what it started with.
And the unit played well from that point forward, giving Allen protection throughout much of the day. They largely kept him on his feet, as he was hit just four times. He wasn’t sacked once.
It wasn’t a flawless game from the offensive line, as it struggled to consistently create lanes in the running game and Allen, at times, was forced to break a shrinking pocket, but it was serviceable. The group didn’t fold against the likes of Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy, as many feared it would. It instead held its ground, something it will need to do if Buffalo’s offense wants to continue outings like these into the postseason.
Devin Singletary is the back of right now
After tallying 22 carries for 86 yards against the Carolina Panthers last week, many fans were eager to see what Devin Singletary’s role would be against New England.
It was greatly reduced, but perhaps more impressive.
Singletary ran the ball 12 times for 39 yards, finding the endzone on one of those carries. He also caught five passes for another 39 yards, good for a total of 17 touches with an average of 4.9 yards per touch.
He ran with low shoulders and a purpose, showing strength that few typically associate with the 5-foot-7 back. This was perhaps most evident on Buffalo’s second play of the game, when Allen found him near the line of scrimmage on the sideline. Singletary was immediately met by Patriots safety Kyle Dugger, who he carried 11 yards down the field for the first down.
He ran with this same passion, this unwillingness to be taken down, throughout the entire game, resulting in a performance that only reaffirmed his status as the Bills’ No. 1 back. If Buffalo wants to continue establishing the run as it moves toward the postseason, expect it to do so through Singletary.