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What we learned from each Bills game on way to the playoffs
What we learned from each Bills game on way to the playoffs

What we learned from each Bills game on way to the playoffs

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The Bills' journey to the AFC East championship and the NFL playoffs might have been more difficult than many expected before the season began. In every win and loss, there was good and bad and a lesson to be learned.

Week 1: Pittsburgh 23, Bills 16

Sack (copy)

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) wraps up Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) during the second quarter on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021.

The good: The Bills' defense allowed just one touchdown. A blocked and returned punt provided the Steelers’ other. Buffalo had two sacks on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, holding him to just 188 passing yards. Isaiah McKenzie had a 75-yard kick return to start the game.

The bad: Despite putting up 371 yards on offense, the Bills scored just one touchdown. Penalties were a problem, particularly on the offensive line. This was one of just four games without a takeaway this season for the  Bills, and three of the four were losses.

What we learned: Just one week into the season, it was clear that this year’s Bills wouldn’t cakewalk back to the playoffs. It was easy to overreact at the time, but some flaws were exposed early, particularly on offense. 

Week 2: Bills 35, Dolphins 0

The good: The defense feasted in what would be the first of two shutouts in three games. The Bills had six sacks – two from rookie defensive end Greg Rousseau – and an interception. Running back Zack Moss punched in two touchdowns.

The bad: After two touchdown drives to start the game, the rest of the first-half drives resulted in three punts, a fumble, an interception and a missed field goal. Quarterback Josh Allen didn’t have his best day. His 179 passing yards were his third-lowest this season, and he was 17 for 33 with two touchdowns and an interception.

What we learned: The Bills' offense came right out of halftime with a scoring drive, going 75 yards in eight plays, to bounce back from a second quarter where they couldn’t sustain drives. The defense showed its ability to give the offense plenty of time to fine-tune things.

Week 3: Bills 43, Washington 21

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Buffalo Bills tight end Dawson Knox (88) makes a catch against Washington Football Team inside linebacker Jon Bostic (53) and cornerback Bobby McCain (20) during the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021.

The good: Allen threw for four touchdowns, as the Bills erupted for 481 yards on offense. He ran in another himself, and had a hand in all five Bills’ touchdowns. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde each had an interception.

The bad: The Bills gave up their longest play of the season, a 73-yard touchdown from Washington quarterback Taylor Heinicke to Antonio Gibson. It was a short pass on the second play of a drive, and briefly shifted momentum within the game.

What we learned: Allen’s dominant performance led to well-earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors. It was his fifth-career game in which he posted 300-plus passing yards and four-plus touchdown passes, a statement in Week 3. Veteran receivers Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders had 98 and 94 yards, respectively, as Allen connected with seven different pass catchers.

Week 4: Bills 40, Texans 0

The good: It was a smothering performance by the defense, with four interceptions. Tight end Dawson Knox’s emergence was also on display. He had his first two-touchdown performance, part of a stretch where he had five touchdowns in four games.

The bad: It’s hard to say the 40 points weren’t enough, but a streak of settling for field goals on four consecutive red-zone trips was notable. Tyler Bass was reliable, but the Bills should have been able to score even more.

What we learned: Those red-zone struggles would crop up again later in the season, and against much stronger opponents. Still, three touchdowns in the fourth quarter alleviated those woes, and served as a reminder that this team still knows how to score.

Week 5: Bills 38, Chiefs 20

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Even Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed (38) has to smile about how good the touchdown catch by Bills wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (1) looks up close Oct. 10 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

The good: Allen outdueled Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes in an AFC championship game rematch, throwing for 315 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday Night Football. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders scored a pair of touchdowns, safety Micah Hyde had a pick-six and Rousseau had a sack and an interception as the Bills put together a dominating performance.

The bad: The game featured a 62-minute delay at halftime because of lightning in the area. That’s it. Seriously, how much more could have gone wrong on a night the Bills knocked off the two-time defending AFC champions?

What we learned: The Bills went into the offseason knowing they needed to make some changes to their roster in order to beat the Chiefs. Even though it came in the regular season, they emphatically demonstrated they could. If there was a psychological hurdle to overcome going against Kansas City, the Bills cleared it with ease. At this point in the season, the Bills were No. 1 in power rankings everywhere and betting favorites to become Super Bowl champions.

Week 6: Titans 34, Bills 31

The good: The offense continued to hum, as Allen torched Tennessee by completing 35 of 47 passes for 353 yards and three touchdowns. The Bills piled up 417 yards of offense as Diggs and Beasley combined for 16 catches and a pair of touchdowns, while Dawson Knox threw a successful two-point conversion despite a broken hand. That’s legit.

The bad: About that run defense … Derrick Henry showed that elite, physical running backs still give the Bills big-time problems. Henry gained 143 yards on just 20 carries and scored three touchdowns, the first of which came on a 76-yard run in the second quarter. The Bills led at that point, 6-0, but the lead should have been greater. Buffalo failed to score on two trips to the red zone, settling for field goals of 24 and 28 yards by Tyler Bass.

What we learned: For the second consecutive year, the Bills went into their bye week in a painful way. First, it was the “Hail Murray” loss to the Cardinals in 2020. Against Tennessee, Allen slipped on a fourth-and-1 quarterback keeper that fell short, leading to the decisive turnover on downs. Still, with the way the Bills’ offense performed most of the night, the feeling heading into the bye was that things would be just fine on the other side.

Week 8: Bills 26, Dolphins 11

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Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (14) pulls in a Josh Allen pass for a touchdown against Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) during the fourth quarter on Oct. 31, 2021.

The good: Sweeping the Dolphins is always good. The Bills did that, despite leading just 10-3 after the third quarter. Diggs caught a 19-yard touchdown pass and Allen ran in from 7 yards out to ice the win. It was another strong game for Allen, who finished with a 100.2 passer rating and three total touchdowns, and Beasley, who had 10 catches for 110 yards. The defense also did work, taking the ball away twice and holding the Dolphins to just 68 rushing yards.

The bad: As mentioned, this was far from a laugher. Miami put together a 75-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter to cut its deficit to 17-11 after a successful two-point conversion. The Bills’ offense, which had been firing on all cylinders, managed just three points in the first half. The Dolphins came into this game on a six-game losing streak.

What we learned: What was supposed to be the “easy” part of the schedule was anything but. More on that in a bit. There is truth to the idea that beating a divisional opponent twice in the same season is difficult.

Week 9: Jaguars 9, Bills 6

The good: Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I defy anyone to come up with a single positive from this game. Sure, the defense did its part, but come on … this will go down as one of the worst losses in franchise history. It’s as puzzling then as it is now how the Bills managed to lose this game.

The bad: Oh, everything. The offense turned in its worst performance of the season. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss combined for 19 yards on nine carries. The offensive line was atrocious. Allen threw two interceptions. Ugly, ugly, ugly is the only way to describe this game. Oh, and all those fans from Buffalo who came down a day early for some Florida sunshine were treated to rain and temperatures in the 40s.

What we learned: The No. 1 seed in the AFC was probably a goner. In fact, the Bills’ playoff worthiness was in question after this result. This was a reminder that the NFL truly is a week-to-week league, and showing up isn’t enough to produce the desired result. That’s a lesson the Bills learned the hard way.

Week 10: Bills 45, Jets 17 

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Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde (23) recovers a fumble in the second quarter at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford,New Jersey on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021. 

The good: Allen passed for 366 yards and two touchdowns as the Bills rebounded from the humbling loss at Jacksonville. Four players rushed for a touchdown in the same game for the first time in team history. Diggs had eight catches for 162 yards and a TD. 

The bad: Jets journeyman quarterback Mike White, who had thrown for 405 yards in a stunning upset of the Bengals two weeks earlier, came crashing down to earth with four interceptions. The Jets fell to 2-7. 

What we learned: Not a ton. The Bills are capable of dominating an inferior opponent if they limit their turnovers and penalties. Weak defensive secondaries are road kill in the path of Allen’s deep-passing machine. Allen completed passes of 57, 49 and 43 yards.  

Week 11: Colts 41, Bills 15 

The good: Almost nothing for Buffalo. The Bills came out of the game without any injuries of note. 

The bad: Jonathan Taylor became the first player ever to score five TDs in a game vs. the Bills. He rushed for 185 yards on 32 carries, and the Colts amassed 264 total rushing yards. McKenzie fumbled a kickoff to hand the Colts a TD that put them ahead, 24-7. The game essentially was over. Allen led a nice drive to start the game but forced a throw that was intercepted on a third-and-18 situation. The Bills played like they were buckling under pressure.  

What we learned: With one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and a very stout defensive front, the Colts are not a good matchup for the Bills. The Bills were without Tremaine Edmunds and Star Lotulelei, which didn’t help. 

Week 12: Bills 31, Saints 6 

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Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White (27) is walked off the field during the second quarter in New Orleans on Nov. 25, 2021.

The good: Reeling from the loss to the Colts, Sean McDermott got his team refocused on a short week, and the Bills dominated an injury-ravaged Saints team. Allen completed 23 of 28 passes. Knox caught two touchdown passes. The Bills held the Saints to just 44 yards rushing on 25 carries.  

The bad: Cornerback Tre’Davious White suffered torn ligaments in his left knee on a non-contact injury in the second quarter. The Saints' attack was bad without offensive stars Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram and Michael Thomas and with journeyman Trevor Siemian at quarterback. They were shut out the first three quarters.  

What we learned: Knox is developing into a first-rate tight end. He hit seven TD catches for the season, setting a franchise record for the position. The offense regained its equilibrium against a quality New Orleans defense. 

Week 13: Patriots 14, Bills 10  

The good: The Bills had plenty of chances to win, despite the fact winds gusting to 40 mph almost completely negated their advantage in the passing game. The Bills had first-and-goal from the Pats’ 6 with 9:04 to play and first-and-10 from the Pats’ 14 with 2:30 to play and came away with no points on either possession.   

The bad: The stout New England defense held Bills running backs to 60 yards on 19 carries, forcing Allen to carry the entire offensive load. Meanwhile, New England rushed for 222 yards. Even though the Pats managed only two scores, they held the ball for 32 minutes. 

What we learned: There seemingly is no end to Bill Belichick’s genius. He had the guts to call 46 run plays and three passes. If the Pats can control the tempo of the game, their offensive line is a tough matchup for the Bills.  

Week 14: Buccaneers 33, Bills 27, OT

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Bills quarterback Josh Allen throws under pressure against Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 12, 2021.

The good: Allen ran for more than 100 yards and scored three touchdowns, rallying the Bills from a 24-3 halftime deficit to tie the score at 27-27 on a Bass 25-yard field goal with less than a minute remaining in regulation. Allen rushed for one touchdown and threw two more scores, to Knox and Gabriel Davis, to close the deficit to 27-24 with about five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

The bad: Tom Brady hit Breshad Perriman with a short pass that turned into a 58-yard game-winning touchdown after a tremendous second-half Buffalo rally forced overtime. Edmunds lost Perriman in coverage and trailed the whole way. Allen left the stadium with a walking boot on his sprained left foot.

What we learned: The Bills wouldn’t quit down 21 points on the road against the defending Super Bowl champions, and the comeback proved they could hang with any team in the league. Allen continued to gut through the game after injuring the foot in the second half. The loss, their second consecutive after alternating wins and losses the previous eight weeks, dropped their record to 7-6.

Week 15: Bills 31, Panthers 14

The good: The Bills snapped a two-game losing streak with a “get-right game” at home against the Panthers. Allen looked fine after leaving the stadium the previous week after a loss in Tampa with a walking boot on his left foot. Davis, starting in place of the injured Sanders, caught two touchdowns to give him four scores in his last three games. Singletary ran for a season-high 86 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. Diggs became the second player in Bills history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in consecutive seasons, joining Stevie Johnson (2010-12).

The bad: Starting left tackle Dion Dawkins and guard Jon Feliciano missed the game after being placed on the reserve/Covid-19 list. Feliciano’s absence was announced hours before the game.

What we learned: While the Bills improved to 8-6, six of those victories, including this one, were against backup quarterbacks, making it difficult to judge just how good they were. While they trailed the Patriots by a game in the standings, they had positioned themselves to gain control of the AFC East, thanks to New England’s loss to Indianapolis the previous night. Buffalo would win the division by winning out.

Week 16: Bills 33, Patriots 21

Buffalo Bills 33, New England Patriots 21 (copy)

Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds (49) tackles wide receiver Jakobi Meyers (16) in the third quarter against the New England Patriots on Dec. 26, 2021.

The good: The Bills moved back into first place in the AFC East based on a tiebreaker (division record) and gained the inside track to repeat as division champions after splitting the season series with New England. Buffalo scored a touchdown on its opening possession, never trailed and never punted. McKenzie set career highs with 11 catches for 125 receiving yards and a touchdown.

The bad: New England again found success on the ground, with Damien Harris rushing for 103 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries. The Bills turned the ball over on downs at the New England 1-yard line after three consecutive incompletions. Beasley and Davis missed the game after testing positive for Covid-19.

What we learned: The gutsy victory avenged an odd, nationally televised loss to the Patriots in the first meeting in Orchard Park. The Bills saved their season by reasserting their dominance in the AFC East. Buffalo leaned on its offense, which pieced together long drives all afternoon, controlling the ball and finishing with a more than 10-minute edge in time of possession.

Week 17: Bills 29, Falcons 15

The good: Allen ran for two touchdowns in the first quarter, scoring from the 1- and 4-yard lines to give the Bills a 14-2 lead. He became the first quarterback in NFL history with six or more rushing scores in four consecutive seasons. Singletary had his first career two-touchdown game, scoring from the 6- and 4-yard lines in the second half to put the contest out of reach.

The bad: Allen had his worst passing performance as a professional. He completed just 11 of 26 passes for 120 yards, tied a career high with three interceptions (in a span of four pass attempts) and set a career low with a passer rating of 17.0. The Falcons had a 15-14 lead at halftime thanks to an early safety on a fumbled punt return and 10 points off Allen’s turnovers.

What we learned: The Bills were able to win without Allen at his best, leaning on a rushing attack keyed by Allen (of course) and Singletary. The Bills’ third consecutive victory gave them a 10-win season for the third time in as many years, a feat last accomplished from 1990 to ’93. 

Week 18: Bills 27, Jets 10

Allen makes it happen

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) steps away from a diving New York Jets defensive end Kyle Phillips (93) during the third quarter at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022.

The good: Diggs surpassed 100 catches for the second consecutive season and set a career high with his 10th touchdown catch of the season. Singletary scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to secure the victory. The defense racked up nine sacks, the most in a game in five seasons under coach Sean McDermott, and limited the Jets to just 53 total yards of offense.

The bad: Matt Haack struggled with punting for much of the afternoon, booting one botched kick that traveled only 7 yards. The offense sputtered for long stretches. Buffalo entered the fourth quarter clinging to a three-point lead.

What we learned: The Bills clinched their second consecutive AFC East championship, their first back-to-back division titles since the 1990 and ’91 seasons. It was the first time they clinched the division at home since 1995. The Bills’ defense finished the season ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total yards, passing yards and points allowed. The weekend’s results set up a wild-card playoff game against the Patriots in Orchard Park.

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News Sports Reporter

I started at The Buffalo News in 2009, and have previously been honored as one of the top 10 beat writers in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors for my coverage of the Bills. I live in Amherst with my wife, Melissa, and son, Elliott.

Bills/NFL writer

Gaughan's insight is featured in the "PlayAction" video series, providing analysis to get Bills fans ready for the next game. He is past president of the Pro Football Writers of America and served as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector for 12 years.

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