The consensus about 2020 is that people can’t wait for it to end. Between the pandemic and the racial unrest, it has been a long, brutal year, one that Americans will look back on with sadness and regret.
A football team can seem like a trivial matter alongside all the suffering and political turmoil. But Buffalo fans will reflect on 2020 with fondness and joy, as the year when the Bills made a long-awaited return to Super Bowl contention and Josh Allen arrived as a legitimate star.
Imagine, just three days from the New Year, the Bills went into a Monday night game at New England as seven-point favorites. It was their fourth straight appearance in a national game, further evidence that they’ve become prime-time players, worthy of the big stage.
How times have changed. The Bills had never beaten the Patriots in a prime-time night game. They were 0-8 overall, 0-6 during the Bill Belichick era. They hadn’t won a game of any real consequence in Foxboro in 20 years.
When was the last time anyone worried about the Bills suffering a letdown against the Pats? Well, there was no letup Monday as the Bills hammered the Patriots, 38-9, raising their record to 12-3 and maintaining their edge over the Steelers for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
There’s a merciless quality to the Bills these days, an audacity that you see when a team is approaching its peak and having loads of fun doing it. They’re a deep, talented and confident bunch, one that seems to be getting better with each passing week.
They’ve also been doing it for the last month before a national TV audience, which has the world taking them seriously as a Super Bowl contender and acknowledging Josh Allen as an MVP candidate — in a three-way race with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
Allen had another sensational night, completing 27 of 36 passes for four touchdowns. He broke Jim Kelly’s team record with his 34th TD pass and is now 40 yards shy of Drew Bledsoe’s team record of 4,359 passing yards. It was his fourth four-TD game of the season.
If you’re making a MVP case for Allen, you have more than stats to go on. You can point out how he has lifted his teammates and become their competitive heart, while getting every member of his offense involved. It’s said he’s as close with the last man on the roster as the stars, which goes a long way for locker room unity.
Midway through the second quarter, 10 different Bills had already caught at least one pass. They were without John Brown — this time in COVID-19 protocol. Stefon Diggs had one catch for 2 yards at that point. It didn’t matter. The offense had scored on its first three possessions and taken a 17-9 lead.
It might as well have been 47-9 at that point, the way the Bills defense has been playing over the last two months. For the fifth straight game, they didn’t allow a pass of more than 20 yards in the first half. They simply don’t allow teams to beat them down the field; no quarterback has had a big game against them in ages.
The Bills swept the season series from the Patriots for the first time since 1999, the first time any AFC East team has done it in 20 years. At times, it felt as if they were getting payback for two decades, for all the Bills players who had suffered those annual indignities in the Brady years.
On their second possession, the Bills had a fourth-and-5 at their own 35. They pulled off a fake punt (remember, a blocked punt by the Pats turned the game in Buffalo around a year ago). Jaquan Johnson, a lefty, threw a pass to Siran Neal for 13 yards. Yes, defensive back to defensive back for the first down. Jaquan Johnson? I’d forgotten he was on the team.
That’s the beauty of this team. Everyone contributes. If Taiwan Jones hadn’t dropped a pass in the end zone, they’d have broken the NFL record by having 14 different guys catch a touchdown pass this season. Lee Smith caught his second TD pass — on his third catch of the year.
Of course, it’s the stars who have lifted the Bills to a new level, and it starts with Allen and Diggs, who also deserves some MVP consideration of his own for the way he has elevated the Buffalo passing game after Brandon Beane acquired him from the Vikings.
Diggs wasn’t a factor early Monday night. Belichick, after all, has a history of taking the top Bills receiver out of games. Then, late in the first half, Allen gave one of his patented shoulder fakes, froze a defensive back and threw a crossing route to Diggs, who ran by the stunned New England defenders for a 50-yard touchdown.
Early in the third quarter, Allen threw down the middle to Diggs, who eluded a couple of indifferent defenders for an 18-yard touchdown. Just like that, it was 31-9, with nearly a full half to play.
The Bills Mafia community had to be loving it. It felt like redemption for all those gut-wrenching losses, from the McKelvin fumble to the botched Bledsoe bootleg to the humiliation in ‘07. The only thing that could have made it more satisfying was if Tom Brady had suffered, too.
During the week, the ESPN crew had talked up Allen as an MVP candidate with Belichick. The Hoodie pushed back, saying the Pats had defended Josh well in the earlier meeting this season.
True, and Allen had struggled in three earlier starts against the Pats, too. It’s a different time, a different team, a different Josh Allen.
So despite having clinched the AFC East title a week earlier, despite the Pats being out of the playoffs for the first time in a dozen years, the Bills still had something to prove to Belichick, and to the world. They needed to dominate their former tormentors in front of the entire country.
After awhile, any neutral observer (which excludes any Buffalo fan) might have felt sorry for Belichick. Still, I suspect he recognized and admired the way this Buffalo team is playing its best ball late in the season, the way so many of his great New England teams did during their run.
The Bills seemed to be toying with the Pats. At one point, Allen floated a pass to a wide-open Lee Smith. On the next play, Allen rolled to his left, stopped and zipped a pass to Diggs in the left corner of the end zone — the third touchdown catch of the night for Diggs, who broke Eric Moulds’ team record for receiving yards during the game.
You know what I thought about then? Randy Moss catching four TD passes from Brady in the first half of a 56-10 win on a Sunday night in Buffalo in 2007. Those are the sort of comparisons that fit right now. Football fans around the country would probably agree.
There’s no telling where it will end. But at this point, not getting to the AFC title game would be the real letdown. It was a year to remember for Bills fans, but like the rest of America, they can’t wait to see what 2021 has in store.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.