As the Bills prepared for the 2021 campaign after making it all the way to the AFC Championship game the season before, expectations were through the roof for a team that looked like a bona fide Super Bowl contender. But to get there Buffalo would need some key third-year players to emerge and contribute more to diversify their high-powered offense. In their Saturday Wild Card game, third-year players Devin Singletary and Dawson Knox delivered four of Buffalo's seven touchdowns in a 47-17 Wild Card Playoff beatdown of division rival New England.
Knox, who turned into a matchup problem for opposing offenses this season and set a team single-season touchdown reception record for a tight end with nine, had a pair of touchdown catches in the first quarter serving as the team's early scoring catalyst.
Both scores came on each of the first two possessions by Buffalo. Believe it or not the first was unintentional. Josh Allen on a 2nd-and-goal from the eight-yard line, rolled out right to avoid pressure and extend the play. But as he neared the far sideline, he tossed the ball to the back of the end zone in an effort to throw it out of bounds.
"Honestly, I thought I threw the ball away," said Allen. "He made an unbelievable play, but I got hit, and I got up, I was going back to the huddle. Everybody is celebrating, and I had no idea what was going on. They finally put it up on the screen after we kicked the PAT. I was like, 'Holy crap, I did not mean for that to happen.' But Dawson was in the right place at the right time and made an unbelievable play."
"It was just another scramble drill," said Knox. "We know how many incredible plays he's made on the move this year. So, I was just kind of moving around in the back of the end zone looking at him. And he threw the ball and I thought he was throwing it to me. And I said, 'I can get this one.' Thankfully caught it, celebrated and I got to the sidelines, and I said, 'Thanks, man. Thanks for throwing it up, giving me a chance.' And he's like, 'I meant to throw it away.' It just worked out for us."
After Bills safety Micah Hyde made a touchdown-nullifying interception on the Patriots ensuing drive, Allen capitalized with another touchdown pass to Knox. He stuck a pass into a tight window as Buffalo's top tight end demonstrated strong hands to pull in an 11-yard scoring pass to cap a 10-play, 80-yard drive.
"When you've got a quarterback like Josh and a line that's protecting like they are your offense is able to do some special stuff," said Knox. "I feel like the offense was just sort of clicking."
Knox became the first tight end in NFL history with two touchdown catches in the first quarter of a playoff game. He also became the first Bills tight end with two touchdown catches in a playoff game as he staked Buffalo to an early 14-0 lead.
"We always talk about starting fast and when we get the ball first, we want to go put something on the board because we know what our defense is going to do," said Knox. "Literally first in every single category this year, which is unbelievable. So yeah, we always just talk about starting fast and we did that."
The tight end almost had a third touchdown late in the game when he got behind his coverage defender for a big gain on an isolation play but was tripped up at the one-yard line. Buffalo scored on the next play on a one-yard pass to tackle eligible Tommy Doyle.
As a rookie, Knox had an issue with drops on occasion, but has worked very hard to improve his consistency using everything from a hand-eye coordination coach in the offseason to catching multiple tennis balls with tight ends coach Rob Boras. On Saturday night, Knox caught all five of his targets for 89 yards.
After Knox staked Buffalo to a critical early lead, the Bills went to the ground game where they again leaned on fellow third-year player Devin Singletary. The back they call "Motor" got warmed up on the team's third possession.
After carrying the ball just three times on the first two drives for 11 yards, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll called Singletary's number on seven of the next 10 plays. The team's primary back delivered pounding out 31 yards on seven carries including the three-yard touchdown run to finish their third consecutive drive in the end zone to quickly put the Patriots in a 20-0 hole from which they would never recover.
Singletary believes the biggest difference in helping him produce on the ground late in the season is the play of the men blocking in front of him and his offensive play caller putting faith in him that he'll keep the offense on schedule.
"Really it comes down to (offensive coordinator) (Brian) Daboll. Coach Daboll is dialing it up," said Singletary. "And the guys up front, it's a great group, great unit. They're getting a lot of push, and not only the guys up front. The receivers are getting in on it. The tight ends are getting in on it. So, all that helps, man. All that plays a part. That's really what it comes down to."
Singletary would finish off the team's fourth drive as well. FB Reggie Gilliam sealed the inside pursuit on a run off right tackle, pulling guard Ryan Bates delivered a kick out block and then Isaiah McKenzie provided the final clearance to give Singletary a shot at the end zone on a 2nd-and-1 play for a 16-yard touchdown run, his longest of the game.
"Reggie (Gilliam) made a good play, I saw the safety coming down, and then I saw Isaiah (McKenzie), he had a great block," Singletary said. "Once he did that, I'm like, 'Oh, I've got a chance to bounce it outside,' and that's how it played out."
For Singletary, who finished with 81 yards on 16 carries for a 5.1 average, his two touchdowns now give him seven rushing touchdowns in his last five games. Buffalo's run game entered Saturday's Wild Card Playoff with the second-most rushing yards in the league (636) and the seventh highest yards per carry average over the final month of the regular season (4.82). Singletary's emergence over those last five games has proven critical in making the Bills offense truly two-dimensional.
No longer can opposing defenses scheme to take away the Bills passing game by dropping coverage deep. With Singletary exploiting defenses that leave the box light with only six or seven defenders it puts opposing defensive coordinators in a bind.
Pull an extra safety down in the box to stop Singletary and Josh Allen and his receiving corps will win their one-on-one matchups. And even if they don't, Allen has utilized Singletary as a checkdown option in the passing game or taken off to scramble for yardage and move the sticks.
"When teams want to try to play that two-high look, and we're able to hand it to Motor and he's making guys miss and dragging guys and getting seven, eight yards on first down, just the efficiency that it brings you (is great)," said Josh Allen. "We have this concept we like to call playing in the green and skipping some third downs, and again, when you're able to hand the ball off and skip third downs, you're typically going to have success."
All of that was on display Saturday night against the Patriots as Buffalo reached the end zone on all seven of their possessions.
Though Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs are still usually task number one and two for their defensive opponents, Dawson Knox and Devin Singletary have produced for this offense to a degree where they can no longer be ignored. And that's an issue for their opponents going forward.
Together they have made Buffalo's offense truly multiple at just the right time.