There were 10 minutes remaining in Sunday's AFC Divisional Round game, and Josh Allen's would-be fumble had just been changed to an incomplete pass, a rare glimmer of late hope in what had become a pretty dark day in Buffalo. Even with the reprieve, though, Allen's expression said it all: He knew he and the Bills were in dire straits.
After being hit by the Bengals' Mike Hilton on the play, Allen grimaced and gritted his teeth and then walked back on the field to try to desperately to cut into the Cincinnati Bengals' shocking 17-point lead at Highmark Stadium, a place they'd never lost in the playoffs with Allen at QB. This was not a quarterback or an offense exuding their patented swagger.
Six plays and a false start later, Allen's last-ditch fourth-and-6 pass to Gabe Davis fell helplessly incomplete. "Mr. January" was human after all. "Playoff Gabe" was nowhere to be found on that play -- and for most of the game. The Bills' season would soon be over following a disappointing 27-10 loss.
"Disappointment," Allen said, on what he felt following the loss. "You play to win. Our goal was to win a Super Bowl, a world championship, and we didn't accomplish that.
"So, everything that happened this season is kind of null and void in our minds. It sucks."
Allen started slowly, and the Bills' defense had taken a few haymakers from the Bengals, putting Buffalo into a 14-0 hole 11 minutes in. After each team had two possessions, Cincinnati generated 146 yards of offense and the Bills had 11.
The Bills' next drive started with a sack and endured a critical holding call that knocked them out of the red zone. But they had a chance when Allen drilled a 23-yard conversion to Khalil Shakir and then capped a 15-play, 75-yard, 7:41 drive with a 1-yard QB run.
Buffalo even had a break when the Bengals' would-be TD connection from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase right after the first-half two-minute warning was wiped off the board and they had to settle for a field goal. At 17-7, the Bills had a chance, and they scored a field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter to make it a one-possession game.
"Playing from behind is never fun, but we had an opportunity to make it a one-score game before the half, and we didn't take advantage of that," Allen said.
Both of the Bills' scoring drives were labored. Each took more than seven minutes. Both endured setbacks and negative plays. Neither turned the tide of the game. And the Bills would be blanked the rest of the game, scoreless for the final 23-plus minutes as the Bengals will move on to face the Chiefs next Sunday, while the Bills will be home for the winter.
The Bills punted four times, turned the ball over on downs once and lost their first official turnover of the game with 2:32 left. Allen and the Bills' offense walked off the field for the final time this season, having put up a mere 10 points. They had surpassed that point total in the first half of their four previous playoff games.
"Stalling throughout the game," Allen said. "Can't win football games that way."
But in reality, the Bengals set the tone right after the kickoff and never let up. They were clearly the more physical and focused team.
"They had a good game plan," Allen said. "We were expecting their best punch, and they came out and they punched us."
After the first quarter, the Bengals had 10 first downs … while the Bills had run a mere seven plays. Cincinnati's defensive line got the best of the Bills early and often, whether it rushed three or five. Allen took a beating all game. Although the Bengals were credited with only one sack, two more were wiped out. For the game, the Bengals were credited with hitting Allen eight times, but it felt like more.
The weather conditions -- and the Bengals' defensive game plan -- also made it a designed-run game for Allen, as he carried it eight times, with at least half of those by design. Other than the touchdown, Allen had limited effectiveness with his legs, netting only 26 yards.
In short, the Bengals forced the Bills out of their regular stuff. That meant fewer chances for Stefon Diggs and company – and Diggs made it clear he wasn't happy about it on the sideline, raising his arms late in the game in the direction of Allen, who had his head buried in a tablet that likely revealed another failed drive.
After the game, Diggs bolted from the locker room early. Allen wasn't about to bail on his best weapon now, calling him after the game "a fiery competitor" who just wants the ball.
All season long, Allen was the Bills' best player, covering up some of their flaws with his rare and freaky playmaking ability. But Allen also was the player whose fast-and-loose style often put the Bills in tough spots. Sunday wasn't his most damning example of the latter, but it was far enough away from the former for the Bengals to keep the Bills at arm's distance for the majority of the game.
"I thought Josh did some good things," Bills head coach Sean McDermott said after the game. "Like we all want some plays back as well. Sometimes we try do just too much overall and we all have to grow from this. Right now, just being in the moment this strings like I said. Josh is a heck of competitor as you guys know. And I'll take him any day of the week. I love how competitive he is and these are things you got to learn from. We have to make the adjustments, the proper adjustments we need to make to move this organization to continue to move forward. That's the direction we are headed."