Sullivan: Bills a bright spot in 2020, but new year full of potential

Jerry Sullivan

One of the most overrated notions in sports is “which team needs it more.” There’s a myth that says you’re wise to put your money behind the team that’s fighting for its playoff life, the team that has more on the line in a late-season game.

Still, you never know what motivates a team, and how dangerous a squad can be when it supposedly has less to play for. The Bills had already clinched a home playoff game entering Sunday's season finale against the Dolphins, who needed to win to clinch a playoff spot.

The Bills still had incentive, of course. They were looking to get the second AFC seed, and a possible second home playoff game, maybe three. But they sat four starters, including both defensive ends, top cornerback Tre’Davious White and star slot receiver Cole Beasley.

It was safe to assume Sean McDermott would play quarterback Josh Allen for only a half, maybe less, and that keeping guys healthy for the team’s first home game in 25 years the following week was the primary objective.

But as I said last week, there’s a merciless quality to this Bills team. If this is how they play when they’re easing into the postseason, when they’re not going all-out for a win, God help anyone who stands in their path in January. This team, to borrow a phrase, is “scary good.”

Maybe Miami needed it more, but that was irrelevant once the Bills got rolling. They dominated in every aspect and embarrassed the Dolphins, 56-26, putting up the second-most points in a game in  franchise history and the Bills' most since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 — and on the 28th anniversary of the Houston comeback game.

They also swept all six games in the AFC East this season, the first time in history they’ve accomplished that, making it clear that they’re the power in the division, now and maybe for years to come.

“This is a different Buffalo Bills football team,” said left tackle Dion Dawkins. “We don't have to get in on anybody's back, this is all our doing. It feels good to kick that front door down and sweep the East. The Dolphins came out and played hard but the Buffalo Bills just played a little harder. We're a different team where we play to kill.”

It showed. The Bills finished the season 13-3, equaling the record of the 1990 and ’91 squads, which both got to the Super Bowl. They won their last six games by 10 points or more, tying a team record set in 2004. If not for the Hail Murray play in Arizona, they’d be on a 10-game win streak.

They scored eight touchdowns against a Miami team that led the league in fewest points allowed entering the day. The Dolphins hadn’t lost a game by more than 10 points all season. For the second time this year, the Bills carved up the Dolphins like a Christmas ham.

In Week 2, they won, 31-28, and Josh Allen threw for 415 yards. In the finale, with a playoff spot on the line, the vaunted Miami defense was overmatched again. Allen passed for 224 yards and three touchdowns, and he only played the first half.

Overall, Allen played six quarters of football against a team that came into Sunday ranked first in scoring defense and third-down defense. In those six quarters, he completed 42 of 60 passes (70%) for 639 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception.

Allen finished the regular season with 4,544 yards, 37 TDs and 10 interceptions. He broke Drew Bledsoe’s team record for passing yards early in the game. Several times, it seemed Sean McDermott was ready to replace him with Matt Barkley and save him for next weekend.

But when an offense is rolling the way the Bills have been over the last 10 weeks, it must be hard to shut it down. For much of the season, it seemed no one could stop this offense, which had the fewest punts in the NFL and shattered the team scoring record with 501 points, becoming the 24th team in NFL history to reach 500.

Allen became the first player in NFL history to finish a season with 4,500 passing yards, 35 passing touchdowns and five rushing TDs. But for all that, he wasn’t the story Sunday. The story, once again, was how the “marginal” players on the roster continue to rise up and give powerful testimony to the depth and versatility of this amazing team.

Where do you begin? How about Isaiah McKenzie, thrust into a larger role with Beasley’s absence. McKenzie, who was seen as a possible cut in preseason, had two TD catches and an 84-yard punt return for a third TD. He’s a gadget player, a favorite of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and he seems to make big plays at opportune times.

“He was awesome,” Allen said. “Guys stepping up with Cole going down, you see the things Isaiah can do. He's just one of those guys that's such a team guy. He makes the most of his opportunities."

Offense, defense, special teams — everyone got into the act, and into the end zone.

Josh Norman, the veteran cornerback, has struggled at times since coming to Buffalo. But he picked off rookie Tua Tagovailoa and ran it back for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to give the Bills a 35-13 lead — shortly after the Dolphins had marched to a TD on the opening possession of the second half to gain a little life.

Safety Dean Marlowe had the first two interceptions of his career, and nearly a third. Antonio Williams, an undrafted rookie running back out of North Carolina, had 63 yards rushing and two touchdowns in his first NFL game. Williams was on and off the practice squad early this year and was considering going into coaching at one point.

Williams ran like a man who was determined to make the most of his opportunity. That’s the sense you get from the entire Bills team, that from the biggest star — Allen — to the last guy on the roster, they’re not taking anything for granted and are unified in their desire to carry this season all the way to the Super Bowl.

It’s hard to stop a team with such remarkable depth, when each guy seems ready to make the next big play. Allen said he was disappointed that the Bills didn’t get a 14th different player to catch a TD pass this season, which would have set a new NFL record.

They lead the AFC in defensive players with at least a half-sack on the season. Being down three defensive starters wasn’t an issue. Over the last two months, the Bills’ D has been as good as any in the league. Tagovailoa, who was reluctant to throw the ball downfield as a rookie, was over his head. He passed for 361 yards, but it was mostly in garbage time, a common occurrence against the Bills of late.

If Bills fans were looking for promising long-term signs, Tua hardly looks like the budding star who was supposed to battle Allen for supremacy in the AFC East over the next decade. To be fair, he’s only a rookie, but Allen is miles ahead of him at this stage of the game.

Now it’s about the playoffs. Allen said none of this will matter if they don’t win a playoff game. Losing in the wild-card round would be a huge letdown, to be sure, but it wouldn’t erase what this team achieved this season, or douse the enthusiasm for what promises to be a long and entertaining run with Allen as the franchise QB.

It would be a shame, though, if the Bills didn’t make a playoff run. I can’t recall a team that was so deep and bonded and seemingly ready to go deep in January, to validate the belief that has been so evident over the last 10 games, and especially in a stunning finale.

They’ll have a lot to play for next week. Now, they have the burden of a rising team with high expectations for big games. You never know what can happen in the playoffs, but they seem supremely confident, and ready for bigger things.

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 scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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