How Bills reached 2021 AFC Championship game: Key acquisitions, turning point, key win, results, prediction

The Buffalo Bills have set a new example of how to develop a young quarterback and slowly but surely become a Super Bowl contender.

Josh Allen looked like a classic, overwhelmed rookie for most of his time as the starter in 2018. Last season, GM Brandon Beane added wideouts John Brown and Cole Beasley in free agency along with a bevy of offensive linemen. Allen took a step forward. So did the team, going from 6-10 to 10-6 to earn its second trip to the playoffs in three years. 

And in the 2020 season, Allen and Buffalo’s offensive erupted after a certain pass-catching individual was acquired via trade in March. Another important element to the Bills’ ascension — offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s doing what the analytics have suggested for years now — throwing more than running, especially on first down. The Bills finished the regular season with the highest first-down pass rate in all situations at 61% and the highest first-down pass rate in neutral situations — point margin between -8 and +8 at 64%. 

In the playoffs, Buffalo held off a pesky, well-rounded Colts team 27-24 and played a dominant defensive game against Lamar Jackson and Ravens high-powered run game in the divisional round en route to a 17-3 victory. Let’s take a look back and analyze how Buffalo got to the AFC championship game.

Key acquisitions

Free agency:



The Diggs trade has become of the most immediately impactful trades in the NFL history, as the veteran wideout led the league in receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535) en route to a first-team All Pro distinction. His instant connection with Allen has been key to Buffalo’s offense emerging as a top 3 aerial attack. 

Beane was again active in free agency and no signing on that market has been more vital than the acquisition of Williams, the team’s starting right tackle. Beane was in Carolina when the Panthers drafted the talented blocker from Oklahoma in the fourth round in 2015. Williams was a second-team All Pro in 2017 at right tackle but labored through injuries in 2018 and was forced into multiple positions in 2019 in Carolina. In Buffalo, the 6-6, 330-pounder has locked down the right edge of the Bills offensive line all season. 

Jefferson and Butler have been critical rotational pieces up front on defense, especially after space-eater Star Lotulelei decided to opt out before the season and Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips signed with the Dolphins and Cardinals in March.  

As for the draft, Beane found a gem in Davis in the fourth round. While not an ultra-consistent, high-volume player, Davis has routinely showcased phenomenal toe-tapping ability near the sideline and caught seven touchdowns during the regular season. In Round 6, Bass replaced Stephen Hauschka and has been super-reliable for Buffalo. He missed two field goal attempts in his first NFL game then only missed four throughout the rest of the regular season. Bass is fresh off a two-miss effort against the Ravens in the divisional round, but it was so gusty inside Bills Stadium, Justin Tucker missed two kicks as well. 

Turning points

Week 3 vs. Los Angeles Rams

This wouldn’t be the turning point in the Bills season for most analysts, but it is for me. And I can dwindle it down to one play. After handling business with victories over the Jets and Dolphins in Weeks 1 and 2, the Rams came to Orchard Park for an early-season battle of the unbeatens. 

Buffalo came out flying and took a commanding 28-3 lead — the most dangerous lead in the NFL, right? — before the Rams stormed back in the second half to ultimately take the 32-28 lead with 4:33 seconds remaining. It appeared like a Bills-of-old game, a too-good-to-be-true start bound to end with an embarrassing collapse and loss.

After a sack, from his own 31 with 3:20 left, Allen faced a 3rd and 22 situation. Things looked bleak for Buffalo. The third-year quarterback then beamed a laser to Beasley over the middle to convert the first down with about three Rams defenders in close. That was the turning point in the Bills season, a signal that this team was, in fact, much different than previous iterations over the past 25 years. 

With 21 seconds in the game, Allen found tight end Tyler Kroft for a three-yard, game-winning touchdown to finish the unusual comeback for Buffalo.  

Key win

Week 14 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Bills had won three in a row before the crushing defeat at the hands of a Kyler Murray-to-D’Andre Hopkins Hail Mary, then rattled off two more wins against the Chargers and 49ers, two competitive teams but clubs under .500.

There Buffalo sat, at 9-3, with the 11-1 Steelers coming to town. It was the Bills — and Pittsburgh’s — litmus test, a battle with enormous playoff-seeding implications too. Both teams struggled offensively for most of the first half. In the final minute of the second quarter, with a 7-3 lead, Ben Roethlisberger attempted a quick out-route to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Buffalo nickel corner Taron Johnson stepped in front and housed it for six. Buffalo rode the surprising halftime lead to a much more efficient performance on offense and similarly stingy play on defense in the second half. 

Buffalo won 26-15 and cruised down the stretch to the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs. 

Full 2019 results

Week 1

vs. Jets

W, 27-17

Week 2

@ Dolphins

W, 31-28

Week 3

vs. Rams

W, 35-32

Week 4

@ Raiders

W, 30-23

Week 5

@ Titans

L, 16-42

Week 6

vs. Chiefs

L, 17-26

Week 7

@ Jets

W, 18-10

Week 8

vs. Patriots

W, 24-21

Week 9

vs. Seahawks

W, 44-34

Week 10

@ Cardinals

L, 30-32

Week 12

vs. Chargers

W, 27-17

Week 13

@ 49ers

W, 34-24

Week 14

vs. Steelers

W, 26-15

Week 15

@ Broncos

W, 48-19

Week 16

@ Patriots

W, 38-9

Week 17

vs. Dolphins

W, 56-26

Wild Card

vs. Colts

W, 27-24


vs. Ravens

W, 17-3


@ Chiefs


AFC Championship prediction

This is the title game the AFC deserves. Both offenses are going to move the ball, mostly via the air. MVP candidates Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are going to do ridiculously awesome things as passers and runners in this contest.

At this point, however, Buffalo’s defense is playing better football and is a more complete unit. Also, it’s a group that’s recently tightened in the red zone. During the regular season, the Bills defense surrendered a touchdown on 60.6% of its opponents’ trips there, the 14th-lowest rate in the league. In two postseason games, Buffalo has allowed a touchdown on just two of its opponents eight red-zone trips (25%). 

Meanwhile, the Chiefs were the worst red-zone defense in football in the regular season (77.5%) and the Browns scored on both of their red-zone trips in the divisional round. 

These are two of the elite offenses in football. The Bills have the better, hotter defense.

Pick: Bills 27, Chiefs 23

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