Sunday, fun day. This was Josh Allen’s 63rd NFL game. Of course, the biggest one was the AFC Championship Game last year, when he and the Bills laid an egg in a 14-point loss at Kansas City. But they weren’t expected to win that game. Kansas City and the great Mahomes were.
The Bills weren’t necessarily expected to win Sunday in the de facto AFC East Championship Game either. But this was winnable. It was also crucial to a few things. One: the psyche of this team, beat down three weeks ago in the freaky Monday night weathery loss to New England in Orchard Park. Two: the psyche of western New York, which loves this team the way parent love their first-born. Three: the mental state of the franchise. New England had its two decades and six Super Bowls, and now, post-Brady, this was the Bills’ turn. Damn it, this was the Bills’ turn, and that 14-10 Patriots win with the 40-mph wind simply could not stand.
This is why I thought this was the most important victory of Allen’s NFL life.
He felt it. He knew it. When Allen met his teammates Sunday morning, he told them he woke up with violence on his mind.
Losing was not an option, in other words. They had to pay whatever price it took to win this game. “Violence” is the word newly minted hero Isaiah McKenzie told me early Sunday evening about Allen’s mindset … and it sounded strange, I must say, coming from a man dressed in a Whitney Houston T-shirt in the bowels of Gillette Stadium. “His point in saying he woke up with violence on his mind was we gotta come out and play every play like it’s the most important play,” McKenzie said. “And we felt that from the first play of the game.”
Think of Allen’s job Sunday. He had to beat the great Bill Belichick in Belichick’s house, and he had to win without two receivers he’d targeted a total of 34 times in the last two weeks. Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis both tested positive for Covid during the week, so Buffalo had to play without them. That meant the elevation of the 5-8, 173-pound McKenzie, who’d never had a big game in his life, never had seven catches in a game, never had 70 yards receiving in a game. He had seven catches all season entering this one, and he’s been deactivated for two games in the last month because of fumbling issues.
“He loses his returner position, had his ups and downs,” Allen said afterward. “He comes out and has an absolutely phenomenal day. I know it means a lot to him. It means a lot to us too.”
Allen went to him on Buffalo’s first series, waiting, waiting, waiting till McKenzie, trolling the back of the end zone, had a foot of space back there, and Allen lasered him one. That was a precursor. Allen trusted McKenzie (12 targets, 11 catches, 125 yards) the same way he trusted all-world Stefon Diggs (13 targets, seven catches, 85 yards). “That’s the great part of this day—Josh trusted me all day,” McKenzie told me.
One more thing about McKenzie. Watching this game was the perfect résumé tape for anyone who wants to know how much football means to this 5-8 kid from Miami who played college ball at Georgia. On the last play of the third quarter, after New England crept to within 20-14, McKenzie sprinted from the right slot to the left side of the field on third-and-two, and Allen hit him for a five-yard gain. Next play, starting the fourth quarter: Allen sent McKenzie up the left side against safety Kyle Dugger and led him perfectly on the sideline. Gain of 28. Five plays later, Buffalo scored to make it 26-14.
But the Patriots came back with another TD, and it was a one-score game again midway through the fourth quarter. Allen kept going to McKenzie, first for a 17-yard throw to the left sideline. Next play: With 6:42 left, on the same right-slot-to-left route, only a bit deeper, Allen laid it out for McKenzie, who stretched with every fiber he had, perfectly parallel to the ground, trying to make this vital catch. BANG! He caught it, slamming to the ground and knocking the wind out of him. The play:
Isaiah McKenzie wasn't even supposed to get so much playing time today but injuries forced him into the role.
He has 11 catches for 125 yards and a score.pic.twitter.com/ZlCQmQGcxc
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 26, 2021
“I was told if it was man-to-man [it was], Josh was coming to me and I had to come up with it, no matter what,” McKenzie said. “I did knock the wind out of myself, but there was no way I was dropping the ball.”
It was everything to Allen, too. He made zero dumb plays all day. In the past, he’d beat himself up for, as he said, “trying to play hero ball.” Not on this day. He took what the Patriots gave him, had a perfect touch on so many of his 47 throws, didn’t get greedy, and was a kingmaker on fourth downs. The magnitude of this game, and think of Allen’s bold efficiency: 12 carries for a team-high 64 yards, 30 of 47 for 314 yards with no interceptions on his 47 attempts, no sacks taken, and no fumbles on his combined 59 dropbacks/rushes. “I thought 17 had an incredible game today,” coach Sean McDermott said.
Oddly, Allen’s greatest play was a nifty yet awkward run on fourth down in the fourth quarter, soon after the tremendous catch that knocked the wind out of McKenzie. Buffalo up 26-21, fourth-and-one at the Patriots’ 34. New England packed the box. Ten men near the line. Allen play-faked, then bootlegged left, with only linebacker Jamie Collins and corner J.C. Jackson (coming off a block from Diggs) to beat.
Allen needed to get to the New England 33. At the 39, just turning the corner, he juked toward the inside, making Collins uncertain for a millisecond, and then Allen barged ahead, holding the ball out like that would make Collins and Jackson confused. He barged through the tiny hole between then, and the two Patriots knocked into each other like they were two of the Three Stooges. (History, kids.) First down. The play:
4th and 1 with the division on the line… the ball in Josh Allen’s hands is the right call. pic.twitter.com/8s5kzUhHOL
— Bradley Gelber (@BradleyGelber) December 26, 2021
Two minutes later, Allen’s Favrian shovel-pass-for-touchdown to Dawson Knox clinched it. When it was over, the cornerstone player, Allen, told the opportunistic player, McKenzie: “I love you! So proud of you!”
“To be honest,” said McKenzie, “when I’m making those catches, I really have no idea what down it is, what the situation is. I’m in the zone, in the moment. All I knew is I had to take advantage of my chance.”
McKenzie and his quarterback both did that Sunday. That’s why the Bills are in control of the division this morning.