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Report card: Josh Allen revolutionized himself to have greatest season in Bills history

Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Think back to how you were feeling about Josh Allen 52 weeks ago when he and the Buffalo Bills blew a 16-point third-quarter lead and lost their wildcard playoff game to the Houston Texans.

Admit it, you were wondering whether the Bills had whiffed yet again in their quest to finally find their franchise quarterback after watching him play with so much reckless abandon and ineffectiveness that day.

Now, think about how you feel today after watching Allen put the finishing touches on the greatest season any Bills quarterback has ever had, including anything Hall of Famer Jim Kelly ever put together during his glorious tenure in Buffalo.

Allen shrugged off a sluggish start Sunday afternoon, then proceeded to shred to pieces a pretty good Miami defense in his two quarters of work — 224 yards and three touchdowns — as the Bills embarrassed the Dolphins 56-26 at Bills Stadium. Next up are the Indianapolis Colts in the wildcard game Saturday at 1:05 p.m.

“I feel like I’m night and day compared to what I was last year,” Allen said in one of the great understatements you’ll ever hear. “I feel like I still have the same confidence when I step on the field, but just understanding this offense better, understanding my players better. This all means nothing. It gave us a chance that we wanted. Now we gotta go take it.”

He’s wrong. This meant something, winning 13 games and ending a 25-year AFC East drought. It meant a tremendous amount, in fact, but what meant the most is the way Allen revolutionized himself.

Allen was a huge question mark heading into the offseason that never was, but he put in the work to improve, general manager Brandon Beane gave him additional help in the form of Stefon Diggs, and then Brian Daboll crafted a brilliant offense that takes advantage of Allen’s God-given gifts and the results have been mind-blowing.

The Bills finished the season with 501 points. That’s right, 501 which broke the previous team record by a cool 43. Allen set new team records for passing yards, completions, TD passes, total TDs, and passer rating. Diggs set new records for receptions and receiving yards. Thirteen different players caught at least one TD pass. 

It was otherworldly in every way, and the Bills put the cherry on top of the regular season with a stunning display, a point total that ranks second in team history behind only the 58 points Buffalo scored against the 1966 AFL expansion Dolphins who were playing against the reigning two-time AFL champs in just their third game in history.

“We had a feeling that we don’t want to feel ever again,” left tackle Dion Dawkins said of the loss to Houston. “It just gave us the experience and it just gave us that feeling that this is not how we want to end our season. That fire and that burn that (we) felt from losing, it’s still in us. And we still feel it. That’s why guys are so hard on themselves, because we have to be the best at all times and we know if we’re not, things like what happened in Houston can happen. We’re fighting for that never to happen.”

Here’s how I graded the Bills’ performance:

PASS OFFENSE: A+

Just another incredible performance for Daboll’s troops, and this time it wasn’t just Allen getting to enjoy the day. Allen started slowly and threw for only 32 yards on Buffalo’s first three scoreless possessions, one ending with an interception. But once he found his groove it was some kind of show. This was not a bad Miami defense, but he made it look amateurish in that second quarter when he threw three TD passes and finished the half with 224 yards. Then Matt Barkley took over in the second half and the Bills never took their foot off the gas pedal. They continued to attack and run their offense even though Barkley was playing mostly with fellow backups, and the Bills hardly missed a beat as he had 164 yards passing, 107 coming on two long bombs to Gabriel Davis, one for a 56-yard TD. Altogether, the Bills threw for 388 yards and averaged 16.2 yards per completion. And despite 38 dropbacks, the offensive line allowed only one sack when Allen was taken down on a blitz straight up the middle. Eight different players caught passes with Stefon Diggs leading the way with seven for 76 yards, and Isaiah McKenzie having the game of his life with two TD receptions. It was also good to see John Brown getting back into it as he caught a 32-yard TD pass.

RUN OFFENSE: B-

Bills running back Antonio Williams scores on this 18-yard run against the Dolphins.

Once again, the run game was pretty irrelevant for the Bills; they simply haven’t needed it all year and nothing changed in this game. Zack Moss and Devin Singletary shared the first-half workload and managed only 15 yards on six carries combined. There continues to be a lack of strong push up front on the ground and at some point, you just wonder if that will come back to haunt the Bills in the postseason. Then again, maybe not. The weather was once again no factor at all so the Bills were able to light it up through the air. If they catch a bad weather day, then we might see whether the lack of a ground game matters. In the second half, with the Dolphins’ spirit broken, practice squad call-up Antonio Williams rushed for 63 yards and two TDs, giving the Bills a total of 78 yards. They averaged just 3.1 per attempt.

PASS DEFENSE: B-

If ever there was a meaningless 361-yard passing performance, this was it from rookie Tua Tagovailoa. The first-round pick may develop into something down the road, but he was not ready for a moment like this one. The Dolphins do not have playmakers so it really limits their passing attack, but Tagovailoa doesn’t seem to have the ability to push the ball downfield, at least not yet. Miami’s entire passing game is dink and dunk and once the Bills got ahead, they were perfectly fine giving Miami all it wanted underneath. It took Tagovailoa 58 attempts to get to 361, and 272 of the yards came in the second half when Miami had to throw on almost every play and were never closer than 15 points. The Bills intercepted three passes, two by Dean Marlowe and one by Josh Norman which he returned for a touchdown, the play that pretty much iced the game in the third quarter. DeVante Parker, as expected, was the main weapon and he finished with 116 yards, but again, almost all of that came in the second half against the Bills’ backups. Tremaine Edmunds had Buffalo’s lone sack, while the Bills broke up a season-high 11 passes.

RUN DEFENSE: A-

Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin (37) is tackled by Buffalo Bills cornerback Dane Jackson (30) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Munson)

The Dolphins really didn’t have the opportunity to use their running game because things got away from them in the second quarter when they fell behind 28-6. They finished with 70 yards on 20 attempts with Salvon Ahmed leading the way with 29 yards which included a garbage time 16-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. Tagovailoa had 28 yards on a few designed runs, but there was never anything that the Bills had to worry about on the ground. Edmunds led the Bills nine tackles while Matt Milano continued to show that he’s back to being himself as he had five. 

SPECIAL TEAMS: A+

It must be pretty nice when you keep one of the league’s best return men, Pro Bowler Andre Roberts, on the bench to protect against injury, insert McKenzie, and watch him scoot for an 84-yard punt return TD. The Bills finished the season playing outstanding on special teams in all phases. McKenzie also handled two kickoffs without incident. Tyler Bass made all eight of his extra points which enabled him to set a new team record with 141 points. He also booted all nine of his kickoffs through the end zone. What a rookie season for the sixth-round pick. Corey Bojorquez, the most underused punter in the league, had a tremendous 54-yard punt that went out of bounds at the 1 and finished with a 45.5 net on four kicks. 

COACHING: A+

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott, second from right, meets with Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, right, on the field after an NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

There was plenty of action on Twitter in the first half, wondering if Sean McDermott had lost his mind keeping his starters on the field. But the noise certainly quieted down when Allen took control of the game and basically put it out of reach before retiring for the day. McDermott has had his team well-prepared and ready to play in every game this season with the possible exception of Tennessee. This performance, on a day when the Bills would have been excused for not being up, was especially impressive. And consider this: The Bills had two less days of rest and prep time than Miami which hadn’t played since the previous Saturday. Daboll attacked from start to finish and his players responded with a 455-yard, six-touchdown day. On defense, the Bills made it almost impossible for Tagovailoa to take shots downfield and they tackled well on the completions underneath, limiting run after catch which is pretty much all Miami can do with their young QB. And credit has to go to special teams’ coach Heath Farwell who units have been rock solid all year.

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

Complete Bills-Dolphins coverage

Game story:Record-breaking day as Bills destroy Dolphins 56-26

Report card:Josh Allen revolutionized himself to have greatest season in Bills history

Playoffs:Buffalo Bills vs. Indianapolis Colts: Date, time, TV, tickets 

Live updates:Quarter-by-quarter recap, highlights

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Photos:Buffalo Bills 56, Miami Dolphins 26