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Bills 31, Steelers 17: Five things we learned

Buffalo overcame multiple defensive injuries en route to a divisional-round date with Kansas City

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills started hot in their wild card playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, opening up a 21-0 lead, and then survived a quarter-long momentum shift to ice the game mid-way through the fourth quarter. The Bills advanced to the divisional round of the 2023 NFL playoffs with a 31-17 win over the Steelers at Highmark Stadium.

This is the fourth straight year that the Bills have secured a wild card playoff win, and for a second consecutive season, the Bills will host a divisional-round game — and they’ll be looking for much better results next Sunday evening against the Kansas City Chiefs than they produced last January in their season-ending loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

There’s plenty for us to chew on coming out of this game. Here are five things we learned as the Bills earned the right to play one more.

Buffalo’s trump card wins the day

Pittsburgh came into this game undermanned and heavy underdogs, but the playing field started to tilt in their favor following Buffalo’s 21-point outburst to start the game. In particular, the Bills lost several prominent members of their defense to injury — more on that below — and with momentum squarely in their favor (more on that, too), they started to chip away at that lead.

And then quarterback Josh Allen, the definitive best player on the field, took the game over.

Following a Chris Boswell field goal that cut the Bills’ lead to 21-10 in the third quarter, Allen and the Bills embarked on a 14-play, 48-yard drive that took over seven minutes off of the clock and ended with a 45-yard Tyler Bass field goal to restore their two-touchdown lead. On that drive, Allen had a vintage moment to convert a key third down, rolling right and throwing back across his body to Stefon Diggs for a first down.

Pittsburgh took advantage of the Bills’ banged-up defense on the ensuing possession, marching 75 yards in 12 plays, with Mason Rudolph finding Diontae Johnson for a short touchdown pass to cut Buffalo’s lead to 24-17.

Cue Allen: he led the Bills on a seven-play, 70-yard scoring drive of their own to notch the final score of the afternoon. On that drive, Allen had a 13-yard run, and then hit slot receiver Khalil Shakir on a 17-yard touchdown to effectively ice the game.

Long story short: regardless of everything else that happened around him, there were not many universes in which the Steelers were going to beat the Bills on a night where Allen provided four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and zero turnovers. He only had 203 passing yards, but made plays with his legs — including an incredible 52-yard touchdown run — to supplement, as usual. Allen was the biggest difference-maker in this contest, as one might expect from a franchise quarterback.

Big games from peripheral offensive weapons

We absolutely need to circle back to Shakir for a moment, because simply saying “Allen hit Shakir on a 17-yard touchdown” does not even remotely do justice for the play of the game.

It was a 17-yard scores, yes, but Shakir caught the ball at the 15-yard line, moving from right to left across the line of scrimmage. Three-time All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick closed on Shakir almost immediately, making contact at the 14-yard line... and somehow, Shakir managed to keep himself off of the ground, spinning back toward the middle of the field and keeping all of his various appendages off of the Highmark Stadium turf. From there, he made another Steelers defender miss, then cut straight toward the end zone for the biggest touchdown of his life.

Give that man a game ball. That was the momentum-shifting shot in the arm that the Bills had been trying to find since the end of the second quarter.

Shakir’s big play was the tip of the spear of a solid showing from Buffalo’s peripheral offensive skill players. With teams continuing to focus on Diggs (who had a team-leading seven receptions for 52 yards), the Bills got strong efforts from running back James Cook (18 carries for 79 yards), as well as tight ends Dalton Kincaid and Dawson Knox (who combined for four receptions, 68 yards, and two touchdowns). Deonte Harty also chipped in a 34-yard reception, for good measure.

“We need to be better situationally”

Those were the words that head coach Sean McDermott said to CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson coming out of halftime. What wasn’t said was that in all likelihood, McDermott was chiefly talking about himself.

Leading 21-0 with just over two minutes remaining in the first half, and facing a 4th & 7 from the Steelers’ 31-yard line, McDermott and the Bills elected to attempt a 48-yard field goal into the wind. As Bass was lining up for the kick, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo were openly questioning the wisdom of the decision, and lo and behold, the Steelers blocked the kick, recovering the ball at the Bills’ 34-yard line.

It was an absolutely massive momentum shift on a play with a low probability of success, considering the weather circumstances. It’s easy to state that a punt — or even trying to go for it — would have been better decisions in retrospect, but when commentators are questioning the logic before the play even happens, it’s fair to call it a miscalculation.

For the next quarter-plus, things snowballed on the Bills, with Pittsburgh going on a 17-3 run to cut Buffalo’s 21-0 lead to 24-17. Buffalo’s early lead ultimately proved to be too much to overcome, but these are the kinds of decisions — and subsequent lulls — that the team can’t afford to repeat as the quality of their playoff competition improves.

A huge week on the injury front

The Bills came into this game without linebacker Tyrel Dodson (shoulder), cornerback Rasul Douglas (knee), and safety Taylor Rapp (calf) all inactive due to injuries sustained in the team’s Week 18 win over the Miami Dolphins. By the time today’s game ended, they were missing four more key defenders.

The injury to linebacker Terrel Bernard seems to be by far the most serious; he was carted off the field early in the third quarter with an air cast on his right ankle. It seems like his season is over, meaning that the Bills are now down both of their Week 1 starting linebackers.

Cornerbacks Taron Johnson (concussion) and Christian Benford (knee) also left early, as did linebacker Baylon Spector (back), who was starting in place of Dodson.

This is a Bills defense that has already been forced to weather the storm of season-ending injuries to linebacker Matt Milano and cornerback Tre’Davious White, and really seemed to find its stride late in the season. Now, injuries threaten to derail that unit’s progress. Aside from Bernard, however, every other name on the list — Dodson, Spector, Johnson, Douglas, Benford, and Rapp — are names we will be monitoring closely until Friday afternoon, and perhaps longer.

Oh, and wide receiver Gabe Davis (knee) is still trying to work his way back into the lineup, and punter Sam Martin appeared to pull a hamstring on the aforementioned blocked field goal, though he was able to punt once in the second half and hold on all three kicking attempts.

Welcome to Highmark Stadium, Patrick Mahomes

And now we’re left to contemplate what now seems inevitable on an annual basis: a Bills-Chiefs playoff game, headlined by Allen and his quarterbacking arch nemesis, Patrick Mahomes. For the first time in Mahomes’ career, however, he’ll be playing not just a road playoff game, but in front of a Highmark Stadium crowd.

Next week’s game will end a five-game streak in which a Bills-Chiefs matchup was played in Kansas City. Mahomes and the Chiefs have played in Orchard Park once in his career, but that occurred during the 2020 regular season, when COVID-19 prevented fans from attending the game.

Allen and the Bills, of course, are famously 0-2 against Mahomes’ Chiefs in the postseason, having lost the 2020 AFC championship game and the 2021 divisional-round game on the road. This time, they’ll try to crack the proverbial nut at home. It won’t be easy — the Chiefs are not quite the offensive powerhouse they’ve been in years past, but are still a battle-tested, dangerous, high-quality opponent — but if the Bills are going to beat Kansas City in the postseason, the best time to do it would be in front of the best fans on the planet.

Who’s ready for Sunday?