The Buffalo Bills jumped out to a huge first-half lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers before white-knuckling a 31-17 victory that was much closer than it probably should have been. Given the number of injuries Buffalo had on defense and the overall fight that Pittsburgh always shows, though, it’s not terribly unsurprising that this was a one-score game in the fourth quarter.
The Bills had a three-score lead at one point, and when they seemed poised to put the game away in the first half, some special-teams shenanigans allowed the Steelers to crawl back into contention. However, Buffalo had the best player on the field, and that man did what he does in the playoffs, which is play near-flawless football.
Speaking of that man, he was one of our five Bills to watch entering play. There were plenty of unsung heroes in this one, though, as Buffalo’s backups came from the bench, from off Injured Reserve, and even from the RV to will the team to a big January win.
Here’s how our five Bills to watch performed this week.
QB Josh Allen
What is there even to say at this point? Allen was magical at times, whether he was manipulating the defense with his eyes and a well-timed pump-fake like on his first touchdown pass to Dawson Knox, or he was firing a dart over the middle like the one he threw to Dalton Kincaid on his second touchdown pass, or he was stutter-stepping his way to a 52-yard rushing touchdown to put the Bills up 21-0, Allen did it all.
There were also smaller things, like taking sacks instead of firing the ball away carelessly, or breaking tackles in the backfield to turn a five-yard loss into an eight-yard gain. He also trusted his reads and his check-downs, allowing him to spot the open man on plays like the one Khalil Shakir made to ice the game away (more on that below). On one superhuman rep, Allen broke free of the pass rush, rolled to his right, went airborne, and fired a strike across his body to an open Stefon Diggs, who secured a big catch to convert a third-down and keep the drive alive.
Allen finished by completing 21-of-30 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns, adding eight carries for 74 yards and a touchdown. To show you how good he’s been in the postseason, his 121.9 quarterback rating in the game was just the third-highest quarterback rating he’s had in a postseason game. It’s the fourth time he’s had a rating of 121 or better in nine playoff starts.
Was every throw perfect? Of course not. However, Allen was exactly the guy the Bills need him to be on Monday. I think Robert Mays said it best when he wrote that “Josh Allen is like a human monster truck with the soul of a labradoodle fueled by Four Loko.” I’m going to assume that he means the original Four Loko (IFYKYK), too, because once Allen starts rolling like he did Monday night, he is awfully hard to stop.
RB James Cook
Buffalo’s top running back was a big part of the game plan this week, as was to be expected. He led all players in carries (18) and rushing yards (78), and he added four catches on five targets. He totaled only five receiving yards on those touches, but it was his ability to keep the chains moving that really stood out this week.
Pittsburgh has a stout defense overall, but their run defense was number 19 in yards allowed and number 21 in yards per attempts allowed. Cook and Ty Johnson combined to give Buffalo a strong complementary piece to Superman, aka Allen, via the running game.
Buffalo’s running backs combined for 26 carries and 105 yards rushing on the day. The Bills are going to need another big performance from Cook this weekend against the Kansas City Chiefs.
RB Leonard Fournette WR Khalil Shakir
Well, Fournette wasn’t elevated for the game thanks to various injuries at other positions, so let’s replace him here. Rather than talking about tight end Dalton Kincaid, who ran a great route and caught a long touchdown pass, or Stefon Diggs, who paced the team with seven catches on the day, I’d rather focus on Shakir.
The second-year man has made huge strides this season, both with involvement in the offense and consistency overall. He made one of the biggest plays of the game when, in the fourth quarter and clinging to a seven-point lead, the Bills faced 2nd & nine from the farthest edge of the red zone, the 17-yard line.
A field goal would have given the Steelers some hope, and when Allen hit Shakir for two yards on a crossing route, it looked like a 3rd and long try was coming. That’s when Shakir went full Andre Reed, shaking off a tackle attempt from Minkah Fitzpatrick before weaving his way into the end zone for the nail in the proverbial playoff coffin for Pittsburgh.
Shakir caught all three of his targets for 31 yards and that beautiful score, extending his personal streak to 16 consecutive targets converted into catches. Whether Gabe Davis plays or not this week, it’s clear that Shakir needs more looks in the Cole Beasley role.
LB Baylon Spector LB A.J. Klein
Spector did start the game in place of Tyrel Dodson, who was inactive thanks to a shoulder injury, but he didn’t finish it due to a back injury of his own. Spector was hurt while recovering a fumble, and although he was entirely in bounds when he recovered it, the referees on the field ruled that he was out of bounds.
Even after head coach Sean McDermott challenged the play, the call on the field stood, so Pittsburgh retained possession. Now, I think the ball likely hit Pat Freiermuth, the fumbler, while he was out of bounds, so it likely was ruled correctly on the field. However, it would have been nice for Spector’s hustle play to have been rewarded. He finished with one assisted tackle on the day.
However, the linebacker of the moment is most certainly Klein, who re-signed with the Bills’ practice squad on January 9, was elevated as a special teams player this past week, and was thrust into action after both Spector and Terrel Bernard exited the game with injuries. How did Klein respond? Oh, all he did was lead all players in tackles with 11 while playing a total of 43 defensive snaps.
One of the big knocks on Klein throughout his career was his inability to play coverage well; however, there he was in the fourth quarter playing man on Pittsburgh running back Jaylen Warren, stoning the much quicker (and much younger) player for no gain on a huge third down. Making his stellar game even more impressive, Klein told Matt Parrino after the game that he was planning an RV trip to Key West with his family for this weekend. After receiving a text message from general manager Brandon Beane, the trip was postponed, Klein was back in uniform, and the Buffalo defense was solidified thanks to his greta effort. What a story and what a game in a season full of those “next man up” success stories for the Bills.
CB Dane Jackson
Speaking of stepping up, Jackson had another solid game in relief of Rasul Douglas this week. It wasn’t perfect — the Steelers’ first touchdown came on a slant route to Diontae Johnson when Jackson gave his man far too much cushion — but it was ultimately quite effective throughout.
Buffalo’s game plan was clearly about stopping the run and forcing the Steelers into third-and-long situations, so the front-seven should be applauded for being up to task all night long. Jackson only had one tackle, but he did have three pass breakups, which was more than anyone on either side.
Special shoutout real quick to Kaiir Elam, as well, who came off the bench in relief of an injured Christian Benford to post a five-tackle night. He also intercepted Mason Rudolph in the end zone to stonewall what appeared to be a surefire scoring drive for the Steelers in the first half.