Bills exorcise playoff demons vs. Colts with Josh Allen leading way

There was some small bit of karmic justice for the Buffalo Bills on Saturday, when -- for the first time in 25 years -- they won a playoff game.

The difference was a field goal, in this case one that was never attempted. The Indianapolis Colts will be thinking about that second quarter decision by coach Frank Reich to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 4-yard line instead of attempting the short kick for a while following their 27-24 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

Of course, a 33-yard doink by Indianapolis' Rodrigo Blankenship in the third quarter didn't help either, but the three-points-missed experience will certainly not haunt the Colts anywhere near as long as it has for all of Western Buffalo. Few teams have suffered the whims of football like the Bills. Of the 6,772 fans allowed to watch the game in person for the first time this season, there is probably not one who wouldn't identify the absolute nadir in franchise history as Scott Norwood's errant field goal attempt that locked in a loss in Super Bowl XXV to the New York Giants.

That was the first of four straight Super Bowl losses, gut-wrenching all, that had come to define the Bills as frequently thrilling but never quite good enough. The 1990s passed without a title and the entire first decade of the new millennium came and went without even another playoff appearance. A team that featured, among others Jim Kelly, Doug Flutie, Drew Bledsoe and even Ryan Fitzpatrick, provided occasional hope for better days ahead, only to have all those days end with another long, cold winter that demanded the locals turn their attention to hockey instead.

On Saturday, though, the missed opportunities finally belonged to someone else. We witnessed dropped passes, a boneheaded offside penalty, questionable play calls, an opposing quarterback allowed to break containment and, at the end – more karma -- a Hail Mary that fell short. There will be a week before the Divisional Round games to dissect the Bills' slow start -- quarterback Josh Allen is already focused on it, if his postgame comments are an indication -- and wonder if the defense is vulnerable, but at long last, the Bills are playoff victims no more.

"We understand that whatever is going on during the game, we feel like we've got a chance," said Allen.

That, of course, is largely because of Allen himself, whose personal evolution from last year's playoff meltdown against the Texans has lifted the Bills into the NFL's elite teams. On Saturday, Allen was -- save for one nearly disastrous sack and fumble -- a dervish of movement, powering ahead as a runner, sending the ball flying with a lightning-quick flick of his wrist. One play summed up the headiness and accuracy that astounded those who thought it unlikely Allen would develop either in the NFL. On second-and-15 from his own 32-yard line with the Bills clinging to that three-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Allen saw a blitzer steaming up the middle into his face. Allen pump faked, and the Colts' Kenny Moore left his feet, anticipating the ball would be in the air. Instead, Allen pulled the ball back and scrambled to his left. Then, with the game's fastest release, he flung the ball 21 yards to Stefon Diggs, the receiver who was the offseason's best trade acquisition. Allen's mind-meld with Diggs led to six receptions for 128 yards on Saturday, including a 35-yard touchdown pass, and made the Bills the hottest team going into the playoffs, a Kyler Murray Hail Mary from a 10-game winning streak with the second-highest scoring offense in the league. Allen finished with 54 yards rushing and 324 yards passing (26 of 35, 74.3%), with two touchdown passes and one touchdown run.  

The only other player to have at least 300 passing yards, at least 50 rushing yards and a completion percentage of 68 or better in a playoff game during the Super Bowl era is Joe Montana. But more importantly, Allen is the first Bills quarterback to win a playoff game since Jim Kelly beat the Miami Dolphins in the 1995 Wild Card Round.

Allen said he had butterflies before the game, and he admitted that it took the Bills some time to adjust to what the Colts were doing, a period during which Indianapolis took an early lead. Coach Sean McDermott said the Bills did not play their best game on Saturday, and the run defense, in particular, is likely to come under the microscope after surrendering 163 yards -- a daunting figure considering two of the top rushing offenses in the league, the Titans and Ravens, are potential future opponents. Still, the defense held off a two-minute drill effort by Philip Rivers with the Colts having a chance to at least tie the game. That they had to bat down a Hail Mary after failing to do so against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10 seemed like a fitting way to bury another Bills ghost and start the second season fresh. The small crowd allowed to watch under tight COVID-19 restrictions roared as the ball fell to the ground, sending the Colts' last chance skittering away like so many bad Bills memories.

Had Allen's fumble late in the fourth quarter not bounced directly to lineman Daryl Williams, the Bills might have been faced with the crash of their season again rather than the crest they are riding instead. But the Bills have spent enough time among the most star-crossed in sports; they are now blessed with a star who is also unusually self-aware about his own development and the shedding of whatever curses existed for a team that waited a quarter of a century, through a New England Patriots dynasty, for a chance to again bring Buffalo something to feel warm about in January.

"Understanding the flow of the game, understanding not to press, not to do too much," Allen said of his own change in mindset. "That was the only thing that was on my mind. I was staying calm on the sideline. Try to be that leader by example. Not trying to get too worked up by small things."

This, at last, is no small thing happening in Buffalo.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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