ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Shaking off their worst period of sustained play since their one-sided loss to the Tennessee Titans two months ago, the Buffalo Bills recovered in a most impressive way Sunday night.
After looking grisly on offense – and we’re talking circa 2018 offense – for most of the first half against a tremendous Steelers defense, the Bills were energized by a game-changing play from their defense and used that sudden momentum swing to roll to a 26-15 victory over Pittsburgh in front of a national TV audience in empty Bills Stadium.
Josh Allen shook off a terrible start and though it was far from close to the level he’s played at most of the season, he certainly outplayed the future Hall of Famer he was opposing, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.
With the victory, the Bills improved to 10-3 and now own a commanding two-game lead in the AFC East with three games left. They can clinch their first division title in 25 years Saturday when they travel to Denver to meet the Broncos. They can also claim the division if Miami loses to the Patriots.
Also, Buffalo can punch its ticket to the postseason for the third time in four years under Sean McDermott Monday night if Cleveland defeats Baltimore.
The Steelers suffered their second consecutive defeat, which also are their only losses against 11 victories.
Had you watched the first 28 minutes of the first half and then had to run a quick errand or something and missed the last two minutes, you would have been stunned to see that the Bills went to intermission with a 9-7 lead thanks to Taron Johnson’s 51-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Pittsburgh’s defense, even though it was missing key players, was absolutely dominant, and the Bills offense looked helpless. Nothing was working; they’d turned the ball over twice, and when the Steelers took a 7-0 lead, it felt as if that might be all they’d need.
That touchdown came about after Dawson Knox continued his mostly miserable season by fumbling after making a catch, and Pittsburgh’s Cameron Sutton recovered at the Buffalo 30.
Three plays later, James Washington beat Levi Wallace, and safety Micah Hyde was late getting over as well, and that allowed Roethlisberger to squeeze in a 19-yard touchdown pass with 8:26 remaining in the second quarter.
To that point the Bills had 66 yards of offense, and their five possessions had ended this way: punt, interception, punt, punt and fumble.
Not much changed after the score as the Bills went three-and-out, but finally, on their seventh opportunity, they finally made some headway. Allen put together a nine-play, 58-yard drive to Tyler Bass’ 34-yard field goal 1:46 before halftime, though it was somewhat disappointing because Allen threw three straight incompletions after reaching the 16-yard-line.
Then came the biggest play of the half. Roethlisberger tried to hit JuJu Smith-Schuster on the left side, but Johnson read it perfectly, stepped in front, made the interception and sprinted untouched to the end zone. Bass missed the extra point, just his second of the year, and that left the score at 9-7.
It was the Bills’ first defensive touchdown since Sean McDermott’s first year as coach in 2017, and it was exactly what the Bills needed after such a gruesome start on offense.
The Bills then kept it rolling at the start of the third quarter as they zipped downfield 68 yards in eight plays, Stefon Diggs catching four passes for 42 yards including a 19-yard TD pass over the middle.
Naturally, nothing ever comes easy for the Bills, so it was entirely predictable that after an exchange of punts, Pittsburgh’s offense finally came alive on the ensuing possession bridging the third and fourth quarters.
The Bills offered almost no resistance as Roethlisberger methodically – and it was methodical – marched the Steelers 81 yards in 10 plays before hitting Smith-Schuster with a three-yard TD. He then threw a two-point conversion pass to Eric Ebron to make it a one-possession game with 12:18 remaining.
Needing an answer, Allen provided a partial one as the Bills drove 61 yards to Bass’ 23-yard field goal with 8:07 left, but that was quite a letdown. On a third down from the 36, Allen rolled right and was looking deep down the middle to Knox.
Meanwhile, Cole Beasley was right in front of him, wide open with a defender nowhere in sight. Had Allen thrown the ball to Beasley it was a walk-in touchdown but he somehow didn’t see him. Knox drew an interference penalty which put the ball at the 1, but three plays went backwards and the Bills settled for a 26-15 lead which kept the Steelers in it.
And when Wallace made a leaping interception a few minutes later, that proved to be it for the Steelers.
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