Josh Allen was forced to win a game with his arm, and he came through.
The Buffalo Bills’ rookie quarterback didn’t come anywhere close to approaching 100 rushing yards for the first time since returning from an elbow injury that robbed a month of his season.
But trailing in the fourth quarter, Allen hit undrafted revelation Robert Foster in stride for the game-winning 42-yard touchdown with 10:26 minutes to play to deliver a 14-13 victory against the Detroit Lions on a cold and rainy December afternoon at New Era Field.
“It was a perfect pass,” Foster said. “That’s what practice is for. We practice that play over and over and over again, and we came down with it in the game and it played a big factor.”
Of course, plenty of time remained. But after the Lions missed a field goal and went three-and-out on their subsequent possessions, Allen was tasked with protecting the slimmest of leads. He took the ball at his own 24-yard line with 2 minutes, 50 seconds to play. And he didn’t give it back.
Allen helped salt away the victory by putting an ideal arc and touch on a 25-yard pass to tight end Jason Croom along the right sideline, giving the Bills a first down at midfield. From there, they ran out the clock, with Allen converting a fourth-and-1 with a quarterback sneak to seal the outcome.
Allen’s mobility factored into the win, as it always should.
When your 6-foot-5, 237-yard quarterback can bound down the field like a gazelle, you allow it.
But the Lions weren’t about to let Allen take rushing yardage in chunks. They were going to try to keep him in the pocket, and they did, limiting Allen to a career-low 16 rushing yards on nine carries.
One was a three-yard touchdown, but only after cycling through his reads.
“Zay (Jones) was a primary and we felt that (Darius Slay) matched him all day. He’s a pretty good corner,” Allen explained. “Isaiah McKenzie was coming over, I think he was just a little shallow. I was waiting for Robert on the in-cut, saw some open grass, just kind of took it and was able to get to the corner before anyone else.”
Allen outraced defenders to the right pylon, giving the Bills a 7-6 lead in the second quarter.
His final two carries were kneels in victory formation.
Allen had rushed for 335 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries the previous three games combined.
“He’s a great player,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “Obviously, he’s very athletic and dangerous in moving out of the pocket. He can make a lot of plays with his feet, and we knew that going into the game. Certainly, he’s one of the guys that you have to try to defend against. From that standpoint, we knew we couldn’t afford any big plays with him getting out.”
To be sure, this was no Hall of Fame-worthy passing performance.
Allen completed just 13 of 26 passes for 204 yards, the touchdown and an 89.3 passer rating.
His poor career completion percentage actually dropped.
But progress is incremental, and context is required to fully appreciate Allen’s day.
Consider the “skill position” players he had to work with in his ninth career start.
Running backs LeSean McCoy and Chris Ivory were inactive with injuries, and the Bills for a time didn’t have any healthy running backs after Marcus Murphy left the game with an arm injury and undrafted rookie Keith Ford was slow to get up.
The only receivers to catch multiple passes were Foster, an undrafted rookie who spent the bulk of the season on the practice squad, and the 5-foot-8 McKenzie, a former fifth-round pick by Denver who was claimed off waivers last month. McKenzie was carted off at one point and then returned.
Allen’s passing statistics would have looked much better had Deonte Thompson managed to catch a bomb when he was wide open deep down the middle in the fourth quarter. It would have been a difficult, diving catch, but the ball bounced off his hands and it was a play that could have been made.
Jones dropped a deep pass on the very next play. He managed one catch on six targets for 11 yards.
But Allen continued to air it out, connecting with Foster for the go-ahead score on the next possession.
“I thought he made some big plays,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “The growth that I saw at times, he threw it away when he needed to throw it away and (it was a) big time throw to Robert there to bring us from behind.”
Allen missed on several passes. At least two were nearly intercepted.
And he made some other mistakes that could have cost the game.
He took a bad sack on third down on the opening drive, knocking the Bills out of field goal range. And he failed to protect the ball on a fourth-down scramble in the third quarter, fumbling deep in Lions territory. It was slapped from his hand by defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson and recovered short of the sticks by Ryan Groy. Another scoring opportunity wasted.
“I was nowhere near perfect, so I have to (get) better on my end,” Allen said.
But with the game on the line, Allen delivered a fourth-quarter comeback victory with his arm.
On a day he had limited success on the ground, that counts as a step forward.