The Buffalo Bills entered the final game of the 2023 regular season needing a win over the Miami Dolphins to clinch their fourth-straight AFC East title. After a little more than three quarters of the game, it looked as if Buffalo would have to be content with merely making the playoffs, as three turnovers had stymied an otherwise strong all-around effort.
And then, in the fourth quarter, the Bills’ special teams made a huge play. Wide receiver Deonte Harty returned a punt 96 yards for a score, the longest punt return in franchise history, and the Buffalo Bills had life. Another touchdown drive gave the Bills a 21-14 lead with, appropriately enough, 7:16 to go in the game. Some more sturdy defense combined with an offense content to milk the clock sealed the deal for Buffalo.
Throughout the course of the evening, our five Bills to watch all contributed heavily to the outcome of the contest. While some had larger roles in the victory than others, our five Bills to watch were all mighty impressive this week.
Here’s how our five Buffalo players to watch fared in this week’s division-clinching victory.
QB Josh Allen
We heard it a few times Sunday night, but the “full Josh Allen Experience” was on display throughout this game. Plenty will be made of the bad, which is the two drive-ending interceptions that he threw in the end zone on Buffalo’s first two possessions. I’m not going to pretend that I know what way wideout Gabe Davis was supposed to break on the first interception, but I see what Allen was thinking: Davis’ man had inside leverage, so Allen threw it outside. Eli Apple was the man left standing there when Davis broke inside on the route. That interception came on a third down and took a field goal off the board.
On Allen’s second interception, he absolutely should have hit Dalton Kincaid, who was almost certainly the primary option on the play, in the flat to try to pick up the two yards needed for a first down. Instead, he held the ball, rolled right, and fired a prayer into the end zone that was intercepted. At that point in the game, Allen had completed 5-of-10 passes for 89 yards and two interceptions. Over the remaining time in the game, Allen completed 25-of-28 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns. That is absolutely mind-blowing success.
It included another tough decision — throwing to running back Ty Johnson when he was at the two-yard line with 11 seconds left in the first half without any timeouts. It included some bad luck, as rookie offensive guard O’Cyrus Torrence was absolutely embarrassed in a one-on-one situation by defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who strip-sacked Allen and recovered the fumble to kill yet another promising drive. It also included some good luck, as he threw a touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield that dunked off of linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel’s head.
But, it also made it very clear that Allen was the best player on the football field Sunday night — a fact that is true in nearly every game he plays. On Buffalo’s final drive, he converted a huge 3rd & 13 with his legs, gaining 15 yards when it looked like he was going to be stopped three yards short of the first-down marker. After a rough start, Allen was surgical, taking chances downfield and hitting on some beautiful passes in the intermediate-to-deep level while also showing killer accuracy and ridiculous arm strength.
Allen finished with a 101.6 quarterback rating, having completed 30-of-38 passes for 359 yards, two scores (the aforementioned Sherfield drink and the go-ahead touchdown, a five-yard strike to tight end Dawson Knox), and two interceptions. He carried the ball 15 times for 67 yards, both of which were game-high totals. It might not have been perfect, but it was clutch, and Allen’s ability to shake off a rough start shined through, as did his competitive edge, in willing the Bills to victory.
WR Stefon Diggs
Buffalo’s top dog in the wide receiver room had been quiet of late, averaging just four catches for 32 yards per game over Buffalo’s four-game win streak entering the game. In this one, Diggs had his most productive outing since Week 9 in Cincinnati, and it could have been even better had Allen been on target with a sure-fire walk-in touchdown in the first quarter.
Diggs was the target on Allen’s first two passes, as he found space underneath to make some quick connections in the game. He finished the game as the Bills’ most targeted player, tying tight end Dalton Kincaid with eight passes thrown his way. Diggs caught all but one target, the aforementioned deep-shot that would have been an easy 89-yard touchdown if Allen made a better throw. Diggs had burned cornerback Jalen Ramsey, leaving the veteran in the dust after a slick shimmy move.
Allen and Diggs did connect on a deep shot, as Diggs made a beautiful, sliding catch for a 36-yard gain on 2nd & 7. Diggs beat cornerback Eli Apple, who had him all alone thanks to an all-out blitz call from defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Diggs finished with seven catches for 87 yards.
WR Khalil Shakir
The second-year wideout has really made an impact this season, and he came up absolutely huge in Buffalo’s final regular-season game. Shakir was WR3 in terms of both targets and receptions, as he caught all six of the passes thrown his way. However, on the strength of some big plays, he was the game’s leader in receiving yards, tallying 105 on the night.
On his first grab, he took a bubble-screen and raced 46 yards upfield thanks in part to a great block from Gabe Davis. On Buffalo’s go-ahead touchdown drive, the Bills faked a bubble-screen to Diggs, and after a nice little shoulder-shimmy from Josh Allen (and a great pick from Trent Sherfield), Shakir was wide-open up the right sideline for a 28-yard gain. Shakir was the target on Allen’s last pass of the night, too, a nine-yard gain on 3rd & 10 that set up one of two failed QB sneaks on the night.
Things are shaping up nicely for the Bills’ passing offense, which seems to have found a rhythm feeding Shakir and tight end Dalton Kincaid as the secondary targets behind Stefon Diggs. Shakir is set to play an even bigger role next week with Davis’ status in doubt thanks to the knee injury he suffered against Miami. Given that Shakir has caught his last 13 targets for 189 yards, I have no doubt that he’ll be up to the task.
DT Ed Oliver
Given how well he’s been playing, Oliver had an exceptionally quiet game this past weekend. While he played on 88% of the Bills’ defensive snaps, he registered just one tackle in the whole game. He had neither a quarterback hit nor a pressure, which isn’t necessarily surprising given the speed at which quarterback Tua Tagovailoa releases the ball in Miami’s offense.
Buffalo didn’t register a sack on a quarterback, though they did “sack” running back De’Von Achane on a called halfback pass, so linebacker Tyrel Dodson was credited with a sack on that play. What Oliver did do, though, was continue to eat space and occupy his gap, and it led to Miami only finding running room on the outside and on misdirection-toss plays.
For some reason, the Dolphins abandoned the run in the second half, following up a 17-carry, 101-yard first half with a three-carry, seven-yard second half. With a physical Pittsburgh Steelers club that likes to run the ball coming to Orchard Park, NY this weekend, Oliver will need to be stout once again.
S Jordan Poyer
Well, I had Poyer as the safety who would intercept Tagovailoa, but I was wrong: It was actually backup safety Taylor Rapp who sealed the game with an interception that certainly would have earned a nickname from Chris Berman. I can hear it now — “Tagovailoa’s pass is...INTERCEPTED by Taylor ‘That’s A’ Rapp!”
While Rapp had pass breakups on consecutive plays, it was Poyer was lined up all over the field, doling out punishing hits and providing excellent coverage on Miami’s maze of crossing routes. The veteran had six tackles on the night in what was another solid game.