CHICAGO -- The wind at Soldier Field made the flags atop the goalposts flap viciously and the 9-degree temperatures at kickoff feel more like minus 9.
The 20-plus mph winds -- plus the Chicago Bears’ 27th-ranked run defense -- pushed the Buffalo Bills to rely on the run game. Thanks to a strong effort from the banged-up offensive line and running backs, the Bills put together their biggest rushing performance in six seasons. Their 254 yards on the ground were their most since they had 272 against the Miami Dolphins on Christmas Eve in 2016.
The 35-13 win over the Bears clinched a third straight AFC East title for the Bills. The explosive rushing performance was a long time coming.
“It was awesome. They ran it so hard,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said. “And we've been hoping for a performance like that for a while and to get our O-line going like that and opening holes, and they were super excited and happy about that. Obviously, rush yards are stats for them too, and they take that to heart. I thought our guys ran the ball extremely hard. Got first downs when they needed to, and I thought that they were good out of the backfield in the pass game, as well.”
The Bills' rushing attack has been underwhelming at times this year and even a concern with Allen leading the team in rushing and rushing touchdowns for most of the campaign; he continues to lead in touchdowns with seven. While Allen's ability to scramble and get past defenders is a positive, the team's running backs ranked 25th in the NFL in rushing yards entering Week 16.
But the group has picked it up in recent weeks. In the first 10 weeks of the season, the Bills averaged 24.7 rushes per game (tied for 22nd). Since Week 11, they have averaged 30.5 (12th).
Against the Bears, the Bills almost had two backs go for over 100 rushing yards, with Devin Singletary finishing at 106 yards and rookie James Cook, who has improved as the season has continued, at 99. Allen had six carries for 41 yards. All three scored rushing touchdowns, and the effort was highlighted by an explosive third quarter that featured 102 rushing yards (the most by the Bills in a single quarter since they had 110 in 2020). But Singletary disputed the notion the weather was a factor in getting the running game going, instead pointing to the flow of the game.
“The O-line was making big holes for us,” Singletary said. “All I had to do was run and make one guy miss. Yeah, it was cold. The grass felt like concrete. So, at times it was kind of hard to get your footing. But it was still fun.”
The Bills created those lanes up front without starting center Mitch Morse, who is in concussion protocol.
The explosiveness of the backs can add so much to the offense. Buffalo is now fourth in the NFL in yards per carry (4.89) by running backs. The team’s backs lead the league in yards before contact per rush (3.18), which shows the step forward the offensive line has taken.
“It just proves also to us that we are capable of it,” tight end Dawson Knox said of the rushing effort. “The more we can show that we're two-dimensional, that we have that versatility, the better the offense is going to be.”
Having that versatility going forward will be key, especially as the Bills prepare for one of the team’s biggest games of the season at the Cincinnati Bengals next week on "Monday Night Football." The two squads have 23 combined wins, tied for the most ever entering a MNF game (Denver Broncos at San Francisco 49ers, 1997). Running the ball against the Bengals will be no easy feat, as they have allowed the seventh-fewest rushing yards per game (106.4).
If the Bills win their last two games -- against the Bengals and at home versus the New England Patriots -- Buffalo can clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Bills have shown more balanced football can help do that.
“Credit to the offensive line and [Singletary] and James; they did a great job,” coach Sean McDermott said. “I know James had a long one there and made a great cut at the end to put it in the end zone. I think that that one-two punch with the run game combined with the pass game, it's just better complementary that way."