Someday, if the Bills become a genuine contender and Josh Allen the sort of quarterback who truly warrants those comparisons to Jim Kelly, we might look back on this as the moment when it all began to turn.
Look, it’s only one football game. Years of harsh circumstance have taught us not to overreact, one way or the other. But Sunday’s remarkable, season-opening 17-16 win at the Jets is the kind you point back to, one that can help forge a young team’s winning culture.
It wasn’t an artistic triumph by any means. For much of the day it was a grisly reminder of so many road losses in the recent past, when a heroic defensive effort went to waste because of a bumbling, dysfunctional offense.
After all, the Bills had scored in single digits in opening road losses in their previous three seasons — at Baltimore in 2016 and ’18, and in a 10-3 loss at Carolina in Sean McDermott’s first season as Bills head coach in 2017.
When they fell behind, 16-0, midway through the third quarter, I could hear fans howling and asking if backup Matt Barkley might actually be a better option than Allen, who had coughed up the ball four times in the first half and summoned the ghost of Nathan Peterman past.
But this time, a stout defensive effort, led by a persistent line and mostly impervious secondary, did not go to waste. Allen, like Kelly in some of his worst moments, put the turnovers aside, maintained his poise and led the Bills to a couple of fourth-quarter TDs and a stunning win.
It was the first time in 22 years that the Bills rallied to win after trailing by 13 points in the fourth quarter. Considering the caliber of quarterbacks in the intervening decades, it’s not surprising. Todd Collins was the guy who led them back over Indy that year, the first post-Kelly.
So this was a rare and astonishing event, regardless of how ugly it was or how dreadful the Jets had to perform for it to happen. The main thing is they went on the road and beat an AFC East foe that most national observers expect to be better than them this season.
It’s not likely to scare the Patriots, who now have Antonio Brown in the Tom Brady arsenal, but it’s a significant development just the same. There are plenty of things to question, of course, starting with why it took them so long to make Devin Singletary a big part of the offense.
Singletary was the difference, providing 98 yards on just nine touches, most of it during the comeback. He had 55 yards on four plays in the drive that cut the Jets’ lead to 16-10. He had 19 on the winning drive, including a 12-yard catch one play before Allen’s 38-yard game-winner to John Brown with 3:00 to play.
But Singletary wasn’t a factor early. In fact, the Bills ran 18 pass plays before they had their first running back carry — by Frank Gore — at the end of the first quarter. At one point in the first half, Allen had three turnovers and his running backs four combined touches.
It was encouraging to see coordinator Brian Daboll show an attacking mindset early through the air, as he did in the first preseason game. But he got a little carried away and would have been wiser to mix in more runs, especially when you consider how dynamic Singletary was when he finally got a chance.
“It was good to get him in the mix,” McDermott said. “A lot of our young guys stepped in and did some good things. I know some of these guys are probably a little nervous for the first game of their NFL careers.”
Allen seemed like a nervous rookie for much of the day. He lost two fumbles, threw two interceptions and could have been picked off on a couple other errant throws. He threw behind receivers a couple of times.
“I was just trying to stay calm out there and trust my eyes,” Allen said. “I felt in the fourth quarter I started to calm down. I was letting things come to me, rather than trying to force things.”
“We tried to keep our composure there," he said. "Our defense was playing fantastic and we knew we’d have a shot in the second half.”
For the most part, the defense was fabulous. Say what you will about Allen, but Darnold was abysmal. There was talk of the Jets wanting to “make Allen be a quarterback.” The Bills didn’t toss any such insults, but they were determined to contain Darnold and made him seem like some raw rookie in the pocket.
Darnold was sacked four times and averaged a measly 4.3 yards per pass attempt. The Jets didn’t have a 20-yard completion, mainly because Darnold was afraid to test the Buffalo secondary down the field — especially cornerback Tre’Davious White.
Still, for three quarters it looked like another of those days when the defense plays its tail off in a futile effort, leaving the defensive veterans to stand at their lockers afterwards and refuse to throw the offense under the bus, saying the D should have played better.
But for once, the offense rose up and bailed out its counterpart. The refurbished offensive line struggled early, but held up in pass protection during the comeback. Brandon Beane’s new wideouts, John Brown and Cole Beasley, made big contributions.
You still have to wonder about Allen, who showed signs of regression before pulling it together for the biggest comeback of his brief career.
Allen can’t play that way against the better teams in the NFL and get away with it. The Jets have one of the worst secondaries in football, and it took him more than three quarters to take full advantage. Still, he perservered, and he will be better for this.
“You always want to be able to say you’ve done it one time,” McDermott said. “To bring a team back, not only at home but on the road, against a division opponent. It’s a resume-builder, if you will.
“Yeah, that’s good stuff."
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.