Josh Allen donned his superhero cape and delivered once again, leading a seven-play, 78-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes Sunday at New Era Field to help the Bills capture a 21-17 comeback victory against the Cincinnati Bengals and their first 3-0 start since 2011.
But the quarterback’s postgame press conference was less than celebratory.
“I was trying to do the right thing,” Allen said, explaining another one of his maddeningly senseless interceptions, this one having breathed life into the dead-on-arrival Bengals offense. “I was trying to throw the ball away. I wasn’t trying to get intentional grounding, and it’s just one of those plays that lasts a split-second where I made a bad decision.
“It’s something that’ll be fixed. It’ll be taken care of. I know it’s happened a couple of times, but it’s just one of those things that it’s got to be put through my head. It can’t happen. I’m moving on from it. I’ve learned from it. I can truly say that. And it’s not going to happen again.”
Bills fans have heard this before. And recently.
After the preseason victory at Detroit, when he fired across his body into the middle of the field for an easy pick that was negated by a penalty: "Obviously, I wish I was a little smarter with the football tonight," Allen said. "I wanted to take a shot, and I can't go with that mindset. But I'm glad it happened in the preseason. It was just a little reminder of what I can and can't do."
They heard it after four turnovers in the first half of the season-opening victory against the New York Jets, which weren’t all his fault, though he used the words “careless” and “miscommunication" before adding: "That's something that I've got to clean up."
Allen’s late-game heroics — and the victory — might make his errors more palatable, and perhaps for some, even forgivable.
But that attitude is not conducive to long-term success.
“It comes down to accountability and everyone’s accountable,” coach Sean McDermott said. “So we’ve got to learn from it. And you’ve got to be man enough to learn from it.”
Officially, the Bills are 3-0 heading into next week’s home game against the 3-0 New England Patriots.
Officially, Allen orchestrated his fourth fourth-quarter comeback and fifth game-winning drive in 14 starts.
But to put it bluntly, it’s absurd the Bills were trailing against the Bengals to begin with.
Yes, the winless Bengals are an NFL team, too.
Yes, their players get paid, too.
Blah, blah, blah. Let’s be real.
There is no good reason this should have been a game.
The Bills were smothering Cincinnati in the first half, and the statistics were absurd.
The Bills had 18 first downs to the Bengals' one, and that didn’t come until after the two-minute warning.
The Bills had 257 yards of offense, the Bengals 76.
The Bills were 4-for-8 on third down, the Bengals 0-for-5.
Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton didn’t complete a pass until the second quarter, and when he finally did, John Ross fumbled it away.
The Bengals’ first seven possessions: punt, punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt, fumble, as the Bills’ outstanding defense continued to dominate. That was no surprise.
But the best part?
He looked confident and patient, making the kind of stellar plays that you want to see a veteran, mobile quarterback make.
He was buying time with his legs, rather than scrambling for yards and taking hits.
And he was finding open receivers, with eight players catching at least one pass.
Allen’s rollout and completion to John Brown on third-and-17 on the second possession of the game was a thing of beauty. But after advancing to the Bengals’ 30, Allen took an intentional grounding penalty when he wisely attempted to throw the ball away under pressure, but failed to get the ball back to the line of scrimmage. It knocked the Bills out of field goal range.
That’s three points they left on the field.
There were plenty more.
The Bills led just 14-0 at halftime, and McDermott didn’t mince words after the game, when asked whether Buffalo should have been winning by more.
“Yes,” McDermott said. “With all due respect to the Bengals, I did. That’s one of the areas we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot to learn from when we turn on the film.”
The miscues weren’t entirely on Allen — T.J. Yeldon fumbling the ball away in the red zone was just brutal — but many were.
And his sloppiness has become worrisome.
Allen began the Bills’ final drive of the first half by fumbling on a designed run. Nick Vigil appeared to recover deep in Bills territory, but he was fortunately ruled out of bounds on video review.
The drive ended with Allen overthrowing Zay Jones on what would have been a touchdown. Instead, Stephen Hauschka lined up for a 62-yard field goal attempt, which was missed.
“There’s a lot of things we need to clean up,” Jones said, “but we’re a good football team with good players, and everybody believes in each other. Everybody rallies around each other.”
But the fact that the Bills needed to rally to win this game is insane.
The third quarter, for the second week in a row, was terrible.
“We’ve got to understand that the game’s not over at that point,” Allen said.
That quote looks even stranger in print than it sounded coming out of his mouth.
But the third quarter is when Allen, and this game, really began to unravel.
Allen, under pressure, tossed that inexcusable interception in the middle of the field to set up the Bengals’ first touchdown. Darius Phillips returned it to the Buffalo 22, and moments later, Dalton walked in for a 1-yard score.
“You’ve got to be smart,” McDermott said. “You can’t throw the ball over the middle of the defense like that. I thought that was a play that changed the momentum of the game. Before that, their offense really hadn’t done much, and I thought our defense did well. And then that really, to me, changed the momentum of the game. In particular, turning the ball over on our side of the field. So we’ve got to learn from that and play smarter football. That’s really what I’m looking for, is to play smart.”
A few minutes later, Allen uncorked another reckless throw – this one a deep ball to Robert Foster – that should have been picked by William Jackson.
Please understand – this isn’t to pile on Allen, who is incredibly talented, clutch late in the fourth quarter, beloved throughout the locker room and has yet to start a full seasons’ worth of games.
But these are the things that he needs to pay attention to in film study.
This is what Allen needs to correct for the Bills to become the playoff team that they expect to be, and for Allen to become the franchise quarterback he seems capable of being.
“We know what we’re capable of if we just do what we’re supposed to do,” left tackle Dion Dawkins said, responding to a question about the game-winning drive. “Coach preaches, ‘Do your 1/11th and that’s all we had to do.’”
Allen’s final stats look just fine. He completed 23 of 36 passes (63.8%) for 243 yards, one touchdown, the pick and an 81.1 passer rating, making him the first Bills quarterback since Jim Kelly to pass for at least 200 yards in eight consecutive games, for whatever that’s worth. He also rushed for 46 yards on nine carries.
“Obviously, being 3-0 is great,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “ But teams that seem to separate themselves over a period of time when they’re up and have a game — I’ll say semi-under control — they know how to put teams away, and so that it’s not going to come down to two minutes at the end like it did.”
Here’s what we know about the Bills through three weeks: They are a resilient team with an outstanding defense and an extraordinarily talented young quarterback who is too often careless with the ball, a group that keeps doing just enough against terrible opponents to get out of its own way.
Allen and the Bills have overcome sloppy play to defeat the Jets, Giants and Bengals, which own a combined 1-8 record.
They can’t continue to get away with it.