Beforehand, safety Micah Hyde said the Bills didn’t care that the eyes of the nation would be on them come Thanksgiving Day. Hyde said it didn’t matter what Joe Schmoe thought of them while watching from his living room in Wyoming.
But the nation had to be impressed with what it witnessed in Dallas on Thanksgiving. Every Schmoe from Wyoming to Walla Walla to Woonsocket must have marveled at the way the Bills performed on the NFL’s biggest stage in a 26-15 victory over the Cowboys.
This wasn’t another “must-win” game for the Bills, but an opportunity to introduce themselves to the football world, a chance to show the skeptics that they’re relevant and worthy of their record, a rising team that deserves to be taken seriously as a playoff contender.
They did that and a lot more, dominating the favored Cowboys after falling behind early and outscoring them 26-0 over a 50-minute stretch from the Cowboys’ opening TD to their meaningless second touchdown in garbage time.
It was a stunning performance, one that could nudge embattled Dallas head coach Jason Garrett onto the unemployment line. It should also momentarily elevate Sean McDermott onto any shortlists for NFL coach of the year.
The Bills are 9-3 for the first time since 1996, which was Jim Kelly’s last year as the quarterback. Maybe I’m getting carried away, but it feels like the biggest win since Kelly left. That includes the win that got them into the playoffs two years ago, when they were a far weaker team.
There have been other big wins since ’96. They made the playoffs twice with Doug Flutie. There was a rousing home win over the Packers in 2014 that kept their playoff hopes alive. But this win seems more significant, not so much for where they are today, but for where they might be headed.
The main reason, of course, is Josh Allen. All along, his development as the franchise QB has been the primary theme of the season. It was bigger than the overall record, or whether they made the playoffs. Having Allen play the way he did on the big Thanksgiving stage raised things to a different level. It lifted hopes not only for the next month, but the next decade.
This was Allen’s first national TV appearance as the Bills’ quarterback. He was injured when they lost to the Patriots in Buffalo a year ago. Allen had made real strides over the last several weeks, but you wondered how he would respond in the biggest moment of his young NFL career.
He was spectacular. His numbers, as always, fail to reflect how good he was. Allen was 19 of 24 passing for 231 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He also ran for 43 yards and his weekly audacious TD run.
But it was his Allen’s overall command of the moment, his ability to make the big throw and avoid the big mistake in the biggest spot of his life, that left you believing the Bills finally got the position right. He played his best game, and that made it the biggest win in more than two decades.
I’ve said it for years: A true franchise quarterback lifts his team in difficult circumstances, on the road, against the top teams. Allen did it Thursday. He lifted his team (with a lot of help from his defense). He proved again that no moment is too large.
Cole Beasley returned to Dallas, to the team that gave up on him. Allen fired a 25-yard TD strike to Beasley early in the second quarter, capping an 85-yard drive that pulled the Bills even at 7. He found Beasley six times for 110 yards, 2 yards short of Beasley’s career best. Allen fed the fire in his veteran receiver, as any franchise guy would.
The play of the day, though, came shortly before halftime, with the game still tied 7-all. The Bills faced fourth-and-1 at the Dallas 30. Allen, ready to sneak for the first down, fumbled the snap. But he alertly reached down, snatched the ball from the pile and lunged forward for the first down.
On the TV telecast, Tony Romo said that’s why Allen’s teammates love him. He’s right. Allen is a sweet kid, but he’s a killer competitor, and his guys respect him for it. So do the fans, who have admired Allen’s physical courage from the start and hoped his passing skills would catch up.
On the next play after Allen recovered his fumble, Brian Daboll dialed up the play of the year. Andre Roberts took Allen’s pitch running left and flipped it to John Brown running right. Brown stopped and tossed a gorgeous spiral to a wide-open Devin Singletary for a 28-yard touchdown.
That gave the Bills a 13-7 lead and they poured it on from there. The defense was sensational after a rough start. Dallas came in averaging 30 points at home and was held to half of that — and only because the Bills played soft coverage in the final minutes.
Rookie Ed Oliver had another terrific game with two of the Bills’ four sacks. He struggled and lost playing time in the middle of the season, but he’s been as good as advertised lately. Star Lotulelei had his first career interception.
Maybe the Cowboys aren’t as good as their roster says. They have yet to beat a team with a winning record this season. But it’s time to stop dwelling on the Bills’ soft schedule and acknowledge that they’re a very good team, one that’s good enough to beat any team in the league.
They’re a little ahead of schedule. When Brandon Beane didn’t make a move at the deadline, it showed management felt they were a year away from truly big things. The general expectation going into the season was something like this: They should win nine games or so. If they do that, and Allen makes definite strides at quarterback, the season will be an unqualified success.
Well, they’ve already hit the nine-win mark. There’s no telling how far they could go this season. We’ll find out more when Lamar Jackson and the high-flying Ravens come to New Era in 10 days. But after what happened Thursday, would it be any surprise if they beat Baltimore at home?
Either way, the Bills announced themselves to the football world on Thanksgiving. All the Joe and Jane Schmoes out there know who Josh Allen is now, and Ed Oliver and Devin Singletary and Matt Milano and Tre’Davious White.
They’re a rising young team, built to win over the long haul. I feel the way I did back in September, convinced this is the best Bills team in 20 years. The nation knows it, too. Trust me, a year from now, they’ll be a lot of people’s chic Super Bowl pick.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at email@example.com.