Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press
The list of the AFC’s best teams is as follows:
1. The Kansas City Chiefs
2. The Buffalo Bills
Buffalo finally earned the right to call itself one of the conference’s elite squads with Sunday’s 26-15 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. In doing so, Pittsburgh dropped out of the conversation thanks to a two-game losing streak, while the Bills are the team to challenge the Chiefs for AFC supremacy and possibly knock off the reigning Super Bowl champions during the postseason.
More importantly, the Bills clearly have a franchise quarterback in place with Josh Allen‘s continued outstanding play. With a potential MVP candidate behind center, Buffalo took what looked good on paper this spring and has made it a reality.
After the completion of the Stefon Diggs trade, the following line appeared in Bleacher Report’s reaction column, “The Buffalo Bills are now the AFC East’s team to beat.”
Their path toward success was easy to see, though much harder to achieve. They need three things to break right to become an elite team.
First, the Bills couldn’t allow the Patriots to be the divisional bully anymore. Second, the squad had to show up against the league’s best competition. Finally, Allen’s development needed to grow dramatically after last season’s performance.
The first step might have been easier than initially expected. Sure, the Patriots lost Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason, but the organization still features the game’s best head coach and seemingly found a bargain in free-agent quarterback Cam Newton. Buffalo’s 24-21 victory over the Patriots in Week 8 set the table.
Sure, Buffalo won contests against quality opponents like the Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Rams and Las Vegas Raiders earlier in the season. Then the team faltered against the Tennessee Titans and Chiefs. But handling business within the division means more, especially when considering the Patriots had a stranglehold over the AFC East. New England’s string of 11 straight division titles ended this season due in part to Buffalo’s ascension, thus getting a giant gorilla off the franchise’s back.
Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press
From there, possibilities widened. Victories over the Seattle Seahawks and Steelers, both of whom are considered Super Bowl contenders, showed the Bills are capable of so much more. Buffalo has won six of its last seven contests, including all three of its post-bye games.
Sean McDermott’s squad struggled with some mistakes and miscues Sunday before taking over in the second half, which is no small feat considering the Steelers held the league’s last undefeated record less than two weeks ago.
The Bills countered an aggressive Pittsburgh defense with quick-hitters while taking shots downfield when available. Buffalo’s D, meanwhile, didn’t allow quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to establish a rhythm. The Bills attacked a makeshift offensive front and harassed the now near-immobile veteran. Quick drops and misfires derailed the Steelers’ entire game plan, and Buffalo took advantage.
An opportunistic approach really showed who Allen and the Bills can be moving forward.
Because of the third-year quarterback’s adjustments and ability to beat Pittsburgh’s pressure packages, the Steelers started to lay off in the second half—to their detriment, as NFL Next Gen Stats noted:
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Josh Allen came out strong in the 2nd half after struggling in the 1st half, facing less pressure and finding more open receivers.
➤ 34.8% open throw rate, 33.3% pressure rate
➤ 60.0% open throw rate, 20.0% pressure rate
#PITvsBUF | #BillsMafia https://t.co/z5zuq4IV5D
Stefon Diggs was a big part of Buffalo’s second-half success. The league’s current leader with 100 receptions feasted on quick patterns to expose Pittsburgh’s weaknesses, particularly in the middle of the field, where the Steelers’ second line of defense is decimated by injuries. Diggs finished with 10 receptions for 130 yards and a score.
A year ago, this approach wouldn’t have been possible.
Obviously, the Bills didn’t have Diggs in the lineup. As good as Cole Beasley and John Brown are, they’re not true No. 1 targets, like their counterpart. A complete wide receiver corps coupled with one of the league’s best play-callers in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is a dangerous combination.
But the right triggerman must be in place for everything to work.
Last season, Allen finished among the bottom half of the league in every major statistical category. He ranked dead last among qualifying passers with a 58.8 completion percentage. He became a target for detractors. The Bills got by with their running game and Allen’s propensity to make plays outside of structure. A top-three defense helped matters, too.
Allen is different this year. Through hard work, due diligence regarding his mechanics and a system set up for him to succeed, the Bills found something special in arguably the most unrefined yet tantalizing talent in recent memory. His size (6’5″, 237 lbs), mobility and ridiculous arm strength are only good if they’re harnessed properly, which they have been.
Adrian Kraus/Associated Press
With two touchdown passes Sunday, Allen has a franchise-record 35 total touchdowns (passing Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly). He’s consistently winning from the pocket with a completion percentage hovering near 70 percent while retaining those same qualities that made him such an intriguing developmental option.
A player’s situation matters more than most are willing to give credit. Allen has benefited greatly from working with the same head coach and offensive coordinator for the last three seasons. They’ve been patient. General manager Brandon Beane, who signed a contract extension this week, slowly built an excellent cockpit for Allen. He continues to reward the entire organization through his development.
He’ll still make a head-scratching play every now and again, but they’re fewer and further between and sandwiched between excellent performances.
Everyone saw what happened against the Steelers. The Bills didn’t play particularly well in the first half. Buffalo’s first-half touchdown came courtesy of a Taron Johnson pick-six. After adjustments, Allen and Co. took command of the game and finished with authority. The growth seen from the entire roster shows that the squad is trending toward long-term success. But the Bills had to start by overcoming situations in which they would have fallen short in recent years.
As the 24-year-old quarterback builds his resume, the Bills could easily finish 13-3 overall after upcoming contests against the Denver Broncos, Patriots and Dolphins.
The rest of the AFC playoff picture is a quagmire. Pittsburgh fell back to the pack. The Cleveland Browns must prove themselves in the national spotlight Monday against the Baltimore Ravens. The Titans and Indianapolis Colts appear to be stuck in an eternal tie for the AFC South crown. The Dolphins, Raiders and Ravens are just trying to sneak into the playoffs.
Buffalo did exactly what was expected of it this offseason. High expectations didn’t cause this team or its quarterback to falter under the pressure. The Bills are who many of us thought they would be thanks to Allen finally realizing his full potential.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.