You had an inkling it wasn’t going to be a good night for Josh Allen or the Buffalo Bills on the third play from scrimmage.
Allen threw a pass that was a little behind Andre Roberts. The ball bounced off Roberts’ shoulder pads and into the hands of Malcolm Butler, who returned it 29 yards to the Bills’ 16. Two plays later, Ryan Tannehill tossed a 16-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Brown and the Tennessee Titans had a 7-0 lead that would blow up into a shocking 42-16 victory Tuesday night in Nashville.
The stunning part of the outcome wasn’t so much that the Bills, who had been 4-0, lost to the Titans, who had been 3-0. It was Allen not looking anything like the quarterback who had performed so well in getting the Bills off to their best start since 2008 and getting himself named the AFC’s Offensive Player of the Month for September.
He threw not one, but two interceptions to Butler, who escaped what looked like a sure a tackle to return the second 68 yards to the Bills’ 12. With the help of a roughing-the-passer penalty on Quinton Jefferson, the Titans took a 28-10 lead on a four-yard Tannehill touchdown throw to Jonnu Smith.
Consider this a learning opportunity for Allen, who gets a chance to rebound against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night at Bills Stadium.
"We got punched in the mouth early on," Allen told reporters on a video call. "I can't do that to our defense, put them in vulnerable situations and allow their offense to have short fields. I did it twice and I take that heavily upon myself.
"We've got to come out, we've got to be faster starters in the game and understand that we can't do that, throwing that interception there. And even the one down there in the second half, I got a little greedy on that one and made a bad decision, bad ball."
The Buffalo Bills didn’t have Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano and John Brown, three critical starters inactive because of injuries. They also have no excuses for what transpired Tuesday night in Nashville.
The other shocker was that the Titans, who had barely practiced for two weeks after being hit with a Covid-19 outbreak that forced the closure of their training facility and caused the game to be postponed from Sunday, looked far sharper and ready to play.
Despite having extra time on the practice field, the Bills were sloppy in all phases. They committed foolish penalties. They dropped passes. They blew coverages. The interior of their defense, which had already been suspect, was no match for Derrick Henry, who led the Titans' power running game that generated 149 yards and ran for two touchdowns.
But no phase looked as uncharacteristically bad as the Bills' passing game.
Allen, who entered the game with only one interception this season, was off the mark on many passes. He forced throws and didn’t show the added running dimension that had made him such a threat from the beginning of the season. Allen finished 26-for-41 for 263 yards and two touchdowns, and ran only four times for 18 yards.
"I don't feel like I got fooled too many times, but it is what it is," he said. "We're not going to let this one off define us. You can't win them all. But, again, we've got to be better disciplined. Turnovers, decision making on my part, penalties, costly penalties, drops early on ... we've got to be better and it starts with me."
"There's some throws, obviously, he'd like to have back," coach Sean McDermott said of Allen. "I thought he was patient and then, at times, he may have pushed the ball into coverage there (on the second interception). The first turnover, right away, changed the game."
This was easily Josh Allen’s worst game of the season. He did not look in sync with his receivers from the start, writes Jay Skurski.
But there were some bright moments from Allen, even when things weren’t going particularly well.
On the Bills’ second possession, Allen wasn’t on the same page with tight end Dawson Knox, throwing way behind him and setting up a third-and-13. But Allen then rolled right and hit Gabriel Davis for a 15-yard gain to the Titans’ 33. Then, the Bills used a quick snap to draw a penalty to move to the 28.
On third-and-15, Allen found Roberts for 16 yards to the Tennessee 12. After a 9-yard pass to Davis, Allen flipped the ball to Isaiah McKenzie on an end-around for a 3-yard touchdown to knot the game at 7-7. That made McKenzie the ninth different player to catch a touchdown pass from Allen this season.
Allen displayed good composure after the punch to the gut from the early turnover that turned into points for the Titans. He was 4-for-4 on third-down conversions on the drive.
After forcing a three-and-out, the Titans seemed to get a huge lift when Kalif Raymond had a 40-yard return to the Bills’ 30. Then, they found themselves in a third-and-20 hole. No problem. Tannehill connected with Raymond for a 20-yard completion over the middle to the Bills’ 20. Taron Johnson didn’t have a prayer in coverage.
Johnson again was victimized when Tannehill hit Brown for a 16-yard gain, setting up Henry for a 1-yard touchdown run up the middle to give Tennessee a 14-7 advantage.
Allen managed to make another big third-down conversion in the first half when, on third-and-8, he scrambled to buy time while under pressure and found Stefon Diggs for a 12-yard gain to the Titans’ 32. But the Bills wound up settling for a 43-yard field goal to make it 14-10.
The game's other No. 17 was the quarterbacking star Tuesday nigh. Tannehill completed 21 of 28 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran four times for 42 yards and a TD.
With linebacker Matt Milano out of action, the Titans had little trouble exploiting the middle of the Bills’ defense. They pretty much did whatever they pleased. And Tannehill made it look ridiculously easy when he made an Allen-like run for a 10-yard touchdown to increase the Titans lead to 21-10.
The Buffalo Bills’ defensive struggles can no longer be covered up.
With John Brown missing from the lineup with a knee injury and Cole Beasley not a factor in the first half, Allen was far too dependent on Diggs. He forced several throws to him. At one point, he tried to hit him between three defenders and was nearly intercepted.
Beasley didn’t catch his first pass until the start of the second half. When he became more involved in the offense, the Bills’ passing game started to click, allowing Allen to regain some of the form of his previous four games and lead the Bills on a 14-play, 90-yard scoring drive that, even with repeated Buffalo penalties, ended with a 22-yard touchdown throw to running back T.J. Yeldon to cut the margin to 28-16.