The Bills won another AFC East title, but 2021 came to a heartbreaking end

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

ORCHARD PARK - Moments after the Bills clinched their second consecutive AFC East division title with a 27-10 flogging of the New York Jets, Josh Allen put things into proper perspective.

“Nobody at the end of their careers looks back and really figures out how many times you won your division,” Allen said. “I think the main goal is the Super Bowl and winning the division just gives you an opportunity to do that. So that’s really our focus. It’s great, it’s fine, hats and shirts are cool, but at the end of the day, we’ve got a lot more work to do.”

Unfortunately, the Bills didn’t get enough of that work done. They annihilated the Patriots in the AFC wild-card round, but then fell short in inexplicable fashion - 13 seconds short, to be exact - against Kansas City in one of the greatest games you’ll ever see.

More:Despite an earlier playoff exit, Brandon Beane does not believe Bills took step back

More:What were the Buffalo Bills trying to do in those 13 seconds? Sean McDermott won't say

And so, once again, the Vince Lombardi Trophy will not be taking up residence at One Bills Drive in a year when it sure seemed like the fates were aligning and Buffalo was going to have its best chance at Super Bowl glory since Scott Norwood’s field goal sailed wide right 31 years earlier.

Here’s a game-by-game review of what was certainly an entertaining, but in the end heartbreaking, 62nd season of Bills football.

Week 1: Steelers 23, Bills 16

Expectations hadn’t been soaring so high before a season opener since the early 1990s when each year it was Super Bowl or bust for the Bills. And then splat. A mediocre Steelers team with an ancient, immoble and now retired Ben Roethlisberger rallied from a 10-0 halftime deficit to pull off the upset at Highmark Stadium.

► Key moment: The Steelers had just taken a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter and their defense forced a three-and-out for the struggling Buffalo offense. That’s when Miles Killebrew blocked Matt Haack’s punt and Ulysees Gilbert returned it nine yards for the killer touchdown.

► Stat: Allen was sacked three times (twice by T.J. Watt) and according to Pro Football Focus was pressured 30 times, 12 by Cameron Heyward alone, as we saw early on that the offensive line was going to be a problem.

Quote: “Once they got the momentum, we couldn’t stop it,” said safety Micah Hyde. “They had a blocked punt for a touchdown, the momentum kept rolling. They were moving the ball a little bit better on offense, they weren’t able to do it in the first half. We just couldn’t stop their momentum.”

Week 2: Bills 35, Dolphins 0

Starting 0-2 simply was not an option and in their first AFC East game against the team they have dominated since Sean McDermott became coach, the Dolphins were the perfect elixir as they barely put up a fight, especially after Buffalo knocked Tua Tagovailoa out in the first quarter.

► Key moment: On the Bills second play of the game, Devin Singletary broke a 46-yard TD run to set the tone, and a few minutes later, on the series after Tua went down, Allen hit Stefon Diggs for a five-yard TD and the rout was on.

► Stat: Miami gained only 216 yards, went 0-for-4 on fourth-down conversions, and was 0-for-3 in the red zone.

► Quote: “It just says that we learned from our mistakes and that we know how to let things go and move on to what’s next,” said left tackle Dion Dawkins. “That just shows the type of character of the guys that we have in our locker room, that we did not let what happened last week destroy us.”

Week 3: Bills 43, Washington 21

After racing to a 21-0 in the first 19 minutes, the Bills gave up two quick TDs. Antonio Gibson had a catch-and-run 73-yard score, and after the Bills muffed the ensuing kickoff by never fielding it, Taylor Heinicke scored on a QB scramble. From that point on, Washington gained just 138 yards and didn’t score again until it was down 43-14 late in the fourth.

► Key moment: The Bills regained control with two Tyler Bass field goals in the final 1:37 of the first half, and then a 17-play, 93-yard drive in the third quarter capped by Allen’s TD pass to Emmanuel Sanders ended all doubt.

Stat: Allen completed 32 of 43 passes for 358 yards and four TDs, Cole Beasley catching 11 for 98 yards.

Quote: “We definitely found our rhythm today,” said Beasley. “The first two games we were struggling a little bit. Even the last game winning 35-0, it was hard to feel good about it. Our drives would stall a few times, but today felt a lot more like what we expect and want it to be.”

Week 4: Bills 40, Texans 0

A colossal mismatch in every way as the Bills made a key change to their offensive line, benching Cody Ford, moving Daryl Williams inside, and starting rookie Spencer Brown at right tackle which helped lead the way to 38 minutes of possession time and 199 yards rushing on a rainy, windy day.

► Key moment: Allen’s first pass was picked off, and the second offensive series was a three-and-out. But on the third possession, Allen converted a fourth-and-1 with a 16-yard run and three plays later he hit Dawson Knox with a 25-yard TD and Buffalo never looked back.

Stat: In posting two shutouts in three games, the Bills held the hapless Texans to six first downs and 109 yards.

Quote: “We really ain’t proved nothing,” Ed Oliver said of the defensive dominance. “It doesn’t matter until you get into them later months, the playoffs, that’s what I found out in this league; it don’t matter what you do right now, it’s about how you play then. We’re building up to play well then.”

Week 5: Bills 38, Chiefs 20

Having spent the offseason gearing up to beat the Chiefs, the Bills went into Arrowhead and delivered what to that point was the best regular-season victory of McDermott and Allen’s Bills’ tenures. And they did it on a rainy night that included a one-hour halftime delay due to lightning.

► Key moment: There were so many in this game, but in the second quarter, after the Chiefs took a 10-7 lead, the Bills scored on their next three possessions - a Tyler Bass field goal sandwiched by Allen TD passes of 35 yards to Sanders and 53 yards to Knox, and they were never headed again. And then on back-to-back series in the third, Hyde had a pick-six that made it 31-13, and Greg Rousseau killed a Chiefs response with a red zone interception.

Stat: After the Chiefs pulled within 31-20, Allen directed one of the best drives of his career, 12 plays, 85 yards going 6-of-7 for 54 yards and running for 16 yards on his way to his TD pass to Sanders.

Quote: “This felt bigger than one game,” Peter King wrote in his Football Morning in America column. “This looked like a changing of the guard in the AFC more than just a Week 5 game. This could finally be the year western New York forgets all those 90’s Super Bowl disappointments. Josh Allen will have a lot to do with that.”

Week 6: Titans 34, Bills 31

The Bills played in Tennessee in prime-time for the second year in a row, and once again, the result was disappointing as Derrick Henry steamrollered them for 143 yards and three TDs including a 76-yard explosion in the second quarter, and a game-winning 13-yarder with 3:05 left to play.

► Key moment: The Bills have too many nicknamed games in their history, and this one could be called The Slip. With 22 seconds left, at the end of a great drive, McDermott decided to go for the first down on fourth-and-1 from the 3. Allen tried to QB sneak it, but he slipped, Dawkins got blown up by Jeffery Simmons who stopped Allen short, and the Titans survived.

Stat: The Bills went 2-for-5 in the red zone while the Titans were 3-for-3.

Quote: “I felt, ‘Hey, if we’re that far from potentially winning the game right there, it was the best thing we could do,’” McDermott said of his decision. “And I owe that to my players. I believe in my players, I believe in our quarterback. We hadn’t stopped them on defense for a number of drives there in the second half, really, so ... felt like we could go and win the game right there and obviously didn’t get it done.”

Week 8: Bills 26, Dolphins 21

After their bye week, the Bills struggled on offense but were bailed out by a defense that forced two turnovers and limited Miami to 262 yards in securing a seventh straight victory over their AFC East rivals.

► Key moment: Mired in a 3-3 tie five minutes into the third quarter, Beasley came up with a great play to convert a third-and-14 which changed everything. Beasley caught three more passes during the 80-yard drive that ended with Allen’s TD pass to Gabriel Davis. Beasley finished with 10 catches for 110 yards.

► Stat: Allen had his fifth straight game with a passer rating above 100, a new team record. He also scored his 28th rushing TD which tied Cam Newton for the most ever by a QB in his first 50 starts.

Quote: “You don’t want to have games like this, but I think you need them to grow,” Beasley said. “We didn’t play our best first half, but it showed a lot about the guys in the locker room and who we have. Nobody gave up. It wasn’t too big for them. We just stayed with it, came out and executed like we know how in the second half.”

Week 9: Jaguars 9, Bills 6

Nearly three months have passed, and it’s still inconceivable that this happened. It was one of the worst regular-season losses any Bills’ playoff-level team has ever suffered, and as everyone thought, this defeat ended up hurting Buffalo in playoff seeding.

► Key moment: Josh Allen the linebacker for the Jaguars earned the title as best Josh Allen on the field. He picked off the Bills’ QB in the third quarter, then killed a scoring chance with a fumble recovery in the fourth. Finally, he sacked Allen for a nine-yard loss on third down with 1:18 left which killed any chance the Bills had of kicking a tying field goal. 

Stat: Against one of the worst defenses in the NFL, the Bills made it to the red zone just once and gained only 301 yards, while Allen took four sacks and had three turnovers. 

Quote: “It’s too Josh Allen-centric,” NBC’s Chris Simm said of the Bills offense. “They have no run game. It’s all about him making plays. There’s not a lot of separation in the pass game downfield. He can’t be one of the best quarterbacks and the leading rusher for your team, and the guy you expect to make play after play for your team week after week.”

Week 10: Bills 45, Jets 17

If ever the Bills needed a game against the Jets, this was it after what happened the week before. Predictably, they took out their frustrations on a helpless New York team being quarterbacked by Mike White, intercepting him four times among five Jets turnovers.

► Key moment: Up just 17-3 at the half, the Bills scored twice in the first 4:13 of the third as Isaiah McKenzie ran for a TD and then Matt Breida - active for the first time since Week 2 - scored his second TD of the game on a 15-yard run that bumped the lead to 31-3.

Stat: Diggs had his best game as a Bill with 162 receiving yards, doing it on just eight catches.

Quote: “That’s big,” McDermott said of the Bills scoring TDs on 6 of 7 trips into the red zone. “You’ve got to do that. Red zone plays an important role every week and I was glad to see us do what we did this week.”

Week 11: Colts 41, Bills 15

As bad as the Jaguars loss was, that was simply a matter of it being just one of those days that every team occasionally has. This was different. This was a manhandling on every front as the inspired Colts, playing as well as any team in the league at this point, came into Highmark and embarrassed the Bills.

► Key moment: Having just increased their lead to 17-7 with 2:12 left in the first half, the Colts recovered a McKenzie fumble on the kickoff which set up Jonathan Taylor for the third of his franchise-record five TDs and the Bills never recovered.

Stat: Taylor rushed for 185 yards which was only 24 fewer than Allen passed for and the Colts made 28 first downs against the NFL’s top defense.

Quote: “We know who we are, and that what we put out there on the field, that’s not who we are,” Allen said.

Week 12: Bills 31, Saints 6

With only a few days to recover from the Indy debacle, the Bills went down to the Superdome on Thanksgiving Night and administered an impressive Bayou beat down on a banged up Saints team that was down to Trevor Siemian at quarterback.

► Key moment: After finishing the first half with back-to-back interceptions in a competitive 10-0 game, Allen and the Bills took the second-half kickoff and drove 75 yards to his five-yard TD pass to Diggs. And following a Saints three-and-out, the Bills drove 53 yards to Allen’s 24-yard TD pass to Knox which put the game out of reach.

Stat: Allen had his second career game with four TD passes while completing at least 80% of his passes. No other Bills QB had ever had one game like that.

Quote: “Once we got the news, it was emotional for our players and coaches, because Tre is just a great, great individual, not just a terrific talent and football player, but he’s a tremendous person as well,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of the season-ending knee injury to Tre’Davious White.

Week 13: Patriots 14, Bills 10

With gale-force winds blowing all night, the Patriots had rookie QB Mac Jones attempt only three passes while rushing 46 times for 222 yards to build a 14-10 lead. The New England defense then held on for dear life, turning away the Bills in the red zone on their final two possessions.

► Key moment: Much was made of how the Bills knew the Patriots were running on almost every play and they couldn’t stop it. However, it was really only one play that killed Buffalo as it allowed Damien Harris to break a 64-yard TD run in the first quarter to give the Patriots a lead they never relinquished.

Stat: The Bills saw their nine-game win streak against AFC East teams end. It had been their longest streak since 1990-91.

Quote: “That’s funny. We’ll remember that. I’ll remember that,” Hyde said when he was asked if the Bills should be embarrassed by the loss. “It’s all about respect, man. I come here every single week and I answer your questions truthfully, honestly. I appreciate you guys. Don’t do that. Don’t do that.”

Week 14: Buccaneers 33, Bills 27 (OT)

It felt like the season was unraveling as the Bills lost for the third time in four games and fell two games behind the Patriots in the division. However, after falling behind 24-3 at halftime, the Bills flipped the switch, made a stunning comeback to force overtime, and this game was the one they pointed to which turned around their season.

► Key moment: The Bills had a chance to win in regulation, but after reaching the 7-yard-line, they had to settle for Tyler Bass’ tying field goal. The red-hot offense then sputtered and punted after winning the OT coin toss, and Tom Brady needed just six plays to end it as he hit Breshad Perriman on a crossing route and Perriman went the distance, 58 yards to win the game.

Stat: The Bills outgained the Bucs 302-110 in the third and fourth quarters and outscored them 24-3. In the second half, Allen passed for 175 yards and ran for 66, finishing the game with 308 passing and 109 rushing.

Quote: “He’s a warrior,” Knox said of Allen, who ended his night in a walking boot after suffering a foot injury. “The way he puts the team on his back dealing with whatever injury he’s got right now, we’ve seen it time after time from him, so no one’s really surprised. There’s no other guy I’d rather have lead us in a game.”

Week 15: Bills 31, Panthers 14

The Bills jump-started what became a four-game win streak to end the regular season with a routine thumping of the overmatched Panthers with Allen overcoming his foot injury to throw for 210 yards and three TDs.

► Key moment: Carolina was hanging around and only trailing 16-8 nine minutes into the third quarter, but Allen capped a 74-yard drive by hitting Davis with a 20-yard TD pass on a third-and-12 play.

Stat: The Bills sacked Cam Newton four times including a key fourth-and-8 play midway through the fourth quarter when the Panthers were at midfield down 24-14 and trying to get back in it. That sack was made by ex-Panther Efe Obada.

Quote: “Confidence is one hell of a drug in the NFL, so if those boys up front get confidence and get after the quarterback, we’ll be excited on the back end,” Hyde said.

Week 16: Bills 33, Patriots 21

This victory replaced the one from Week 5 in Kansas City as the best of the McDermott-Allen era. Needing a win to tie for first in the division and put their destiny in their own hands, the Bills put on an offensive clinic as Allen passed for 314 yards and three TDs, completing 11 passes to McKenzie for 125 yards.

► Key moment: New England pulled within 26-21 with 7:37 remaining and Gillette Stadium was alive. But Allen completed a humongous third-and-10 pass to McKenzie, later ran for a gutsy fourth-down conversion, and hit another third-and-10 to Diggs to set up his clinching two-yard TD to Knox with 2:30 left to end a masterful 13-play, 75-yard drive.

Stat: The Bills converted 3-of-4 on fourth down (plus 6-of-12 on third down) in one of the most aggressive coaching displays of McDermott’s career. It enabled the Bills to win back-to-back at Gillette for the first time since the place opened in 2002.

Quote: “I mean, Josh makes a quarter of a billion dollars, you know? Josh is worth every penny,” said Dawkins.

Week 17: Bills 29, Falcons 15

After one of his best days as a pro, Allen suffered through one of his worst as he put up a putrid passer rating of 17.0 thanks to three interceptions. However, Devin Singletary’s career-best 110 yards keyed a 233-yard rushing day and the Bills, after trailing 15-14 at the half, finally put away Atlanta on Singletary’s two second-half TDs.

► Key moment: After the Falcons scored 10 points in the final 1:48 of the second quarter, the Bills were in need of a big drive and they got it on their second possession of the third. Allen converted a third-and-3 with a 14-yard run to the Atlanta 20, and Singletary scored the go-ahead TD four plays later.

Stat: Allen’s three picks came in a span of four attempts bridging the second and third quarters. After the last, Atlanta got the ball at the Bills 25 but couldn’t even score as it went backward 12 yards and had to punt into a stiff wind.

Quote: “Not every game you win is going to be pretty and that was the case today,” Allen said. “I’m just fortunate enough we have teammates that step up in big situations like this.”

Week 18: Bills 27, Jets 10

Needing a victory to clinch the AFC East, the Bills put forth one of the greatest defensive performances in team history as they limited the pathetic Jets and overmatched rookie QB Zach Wilson to 53 net yards including just five passing. 

► Key moment: Despite the defense playing out of its mind, the Bills were only leading 13-10 early in the fourth quarter. But Allen took off for a 32-yard run to the Jets 19 on the first play after a Jets punt. Soon, Singletary was scoring on a one-yard run with 8:21 left and then he was catching a five-yard TD pass from Allen less than five minutes later and that was it. Not that it was really ever in doubt.

Stat: The Bills recorded nine sacks for 82 yards in losses and set a team record for fewest first downs allowed (4) as the Jets went 1-of-14 on third down.

Quote: “It takes 11 players every play to be a successful defense and we’ve had that happen more times than not,” Harrison Phillips said of the Bills defense. “It does seem like some things are hitting at the right time. You want to play your best football in November, December, January and on.”

Wild-Card round: Bills 47, Patriots 17

If beating the Patriots three out of the previous four times in the regular season didn’t signal that the Bills had finally put to rest their misery against the Evil Empire, this sure did the trick. They embarrassed Bill Belichick in dealing him the worst postseason loss of his career behind the absolute brilliance of Allen.

► Key moment: The Bills drove 70 and 80 yards on their first two possessions and took a 14-0 lead as Allen hit Knox for a pair of TDs, allowing Knox to become the first tight end in NFL history to record two receiving TDs in the first quarter of a playoff game. By the time the Patriots scored on the final play of the first half, it only cut their deficit to 27-3 and the second half was a formality.

Stat: Taking out the end of game kneel, the Bills scored TDs on all seven of their possessions and Allen put up the second-highest passer rating in history, a 157.6 mark as he completed 21 of 25 for 308 yards and five TDs, plus ran for 66 yards.

Quote: “I mean, I probably watched my kid do it (on the Madden football game),” defensive end Jerry Hughes said of Allen and the offense scoring TDs on all seven drives. “My kid does it all the time with Josh, man.”

Divisional round: Chiefs 42, Bills 36 (OT)

One of the greatest games in NFL history also served as one of the most devastating losses in Bills history as they rallied numerous times to take a 36-33 lead with 13 seconds left, and then inexplicably allowed Kansas City to tie the game, then go on and win it in the extra period with Allen not even getting a chance to touch the ball.

► Key moment: Yes, 13 seconds. Patrick Mahomes completed two passes to Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce that covered 44 yards and positioned Harrison Butker for the tying 49-yard field goal as time expired. And then after the Chiefs won the coin toss, it took eight plays to end the game when Mahomes hit Kelce for the winning score.

Stat: There were 25 combined points scored after the two-minute warning, 12 from Davis who became the first player in NFL playoff history to catch four TD passes during a 201-yard performance.

Quote: “I’m human just like the rest of our staff is human and everybody out there,” McDermott said a day later. “It’s been tough. When you look at it, it’s been disappointing, particularly the last part of the game. I watched it on video and I watched it over and over in my head a million times, in my stomach a million more. That’s what we do.”

Sal Maiorana can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.