DENVER -- In March before 2018, a few weeks before the draft, Josh Allen held his pro day in Laramie, Wyo. He made breathtaking throws, his fastball making noise as it cut through the air. Broncos special assistant Gary Kubiak was among those in the audience.
Allen's physical gifts -- 6-foot-5, 237 pounds -- made him a sure-fire, first-round pick despite playing for a small school -- Wyoming -- in a bit of a forgotten conference. He drew comparisons to John Elway, though more raw, because of enormous arm strength. Polite, Allen said he would welcome backing up Case Keenum for a season, comfortable with learning as a rookie.
Who was he kidding? Like every top quarterback, Allen wanted to play. And his preferred choice was Denver. The Broncos ranked Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Bradley Chubb as their top targets with the fifth pick. They selected Chubb, who has been solid when healthy, never considering Allen.
It's a difficult argument to make that Allen would have progressed the way he has Buffalo, given the Broncos series of coaches and coordinators. However, on a cold Saturday, the former Cowboy rode the Broncos like a rented mule, sending a message with his dazzling performance. The Bills routed the Broncos, clinching their first AFC East title since 1995.
The Broncos, meanwhile, posted their fourth straight losing season for the first time since the dust bowl of 1963-72. They also will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year, matching the 2006-2010 drought.
The Broncos fell to the Bills 48-19.
There were a number of reasons for Saturday's embarrassment:
The lacking cornerbacks -- the Broncos had three, then two when Michael Ojemudia slapped Gabriel Davis and was ejected in the third quarter. And De'Vante Bausby, guarding Stefon Diggs, was having a day you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
The COVID kicker -- Taylor Russolino looked overmatched and miscast as Brandon McManus' replacement, missing a field goal and extra point.
The lack of offense -- the Broncos trailed 38-13 after three quarters, buried in the second half after a Drew Lock strip sack. He has committed a turnover in every start, but the season opener.
But the reality was as obvious as the water cooler talk Monday if we were allowed into the office during a pandemic. Josh Allen was the headline, the story and the explanation for Denver's humiliating loss.
He whistled touchdowns through the wind -- 34 mph gust were like a cool breeze in Laramie. He ran with purpose, jetting 24 yards for a score untouched and pump-faking his way to a 1-yard touchdown. Allen told the NFL Network broadcast crew, according to Mark Schlereth, that this wasn't a homecoming given the proximity to Wyoming. They Broncos passed on him. So he passed on them. Over and over again. Early in the fourth quarter, Allen boasted 27 completions in 38 attempts for 332 yards. The Broncos were like your first cell plan, offering spotty to terrible coverage. Diggs had 147 yards after three quarters. Slot receiver Cole Beasley eclipsed 100 yards early in the fourth quarter.
Allen is a problem. And everything about his performance -- whether he made this day personal or not -- screamed that the Bills will meet the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Both teams boxed the Broncos' ears, raising questions about how the Broncos can stop great quarterbacks and whether the Broncos have one they can trust.
After a solid three-game stretch, Lock faded Saturday. He failed to gain any rhythm with receivers in the first half, and dissolved after halftime. He had 1 yard passing in the second half with 5:46 remaining. This loss was not on him, but it spoke to the Broncos' issues. They have no margin for error, and they are not ready to face good teams. They have beaten one club with a winning record this season, and it was because they preyed on rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. They offered no pressure on Allen.
It unfolded thusly, and was forgettable:
COVID continued to hit the Broncos hard. After a quarterback-free game against the Saints -- the NFL instituted a Kendall Hinton rule on Saturday allowing for the signing of a gameday quarterback from another team's practice squad -- Denver faced the Bills without kicker McManus. He tested negative 144 times since training camp and reported a close contact on Monday, the same day he landed on the COVID-19 restricted list. He believed his five-day quarantine clock started Monday, making him eligible for the game. The NFL and Broncos deemed his last exposure on Monday, leaving him scratched until Sunday.
Practice squad kicker Russolino, who missed several kicks in warmups while navigating the wind, pushed his first attempt wide right from 51 yards. McManus is 8-for-10 from at least 50 yards this season, his misses coming from 57 and 58. So it's fair to say McManus' absence -- and he obviously did right thing to self report -- cost the Broncos points.
The Bills made it matter. Allen made it look easy, completing 7 of 10 passes for 49 yards. Diggs worked over Bausby, whose clumsy first drive finished with confusion in coverage as a wide-open Dawson Knox snared a nine-yard touchdown.
The Broncos had no answer for Allen early. He shoved the Bills ahead 14-0 with a 24-yard scamper, the 24th rushing touchdown of his career. For the second straight week, the Broncos found an edge in the margins. Longsnapper Jacob Bobenmoyer raced down the field and scrambled to recover Andre Roberts' fumbled punt. The Broncos capitalized as Melvin Gordon trucked in from 10 yards out to slice the deficit to 14-7.
A game of field possession took shape and after the Bills' 60-yard punt pinned the Broncos' back, the Bills began stomping again. They secured a 14-point lead as Allen rifled a 22-yard strike to Jake Kumerow. There was a fatalistic vibe to the score, but the Broncos found an answer when Lock connected to Noah Fant for a six-yard touchdown with five seconds left in the second quarter.
It merely pushed pause on the stampede. When the second half started, the game ended in a blink. The Broncos took a horrible inside angle on the opening kick as Roberts raced 53 yards. After a few more breathtaking throws by Allen, he taunted Denver with his feet, galloping in from 1-yard out. A 15-point lead swelled from challenging to laughable moments later. Lock tried to avoid pressure and fumbled as he was tackled. Linebacker Jerry Hughes scooped up the ball, zig, zagged and scored from 21 yards out.
The Bills led 35-13. For those watching, two truths emerged: the gap between them and the Broncos was enormous, and they could be dangerous in the playoffs, even threatening the Chiefs.
The Broncos, meanwhile, were gone with the wind, dust scattering across the turf.
Kicker Taylor Russolino replaced Brandon McManus, who was ineligible after a close contract with a person with COVID-19 on Monday. McManus protested on Twitter, believing he should have been permitted to play. Russolino struggled with the 28 mph wind in pregame, missing several kicks in warmups. He missed his first attempt in the game, pushing a 51-yarder wide right on the Broncos' first drive. He then missed his second extra point. It was a good story and a bad day. ...
In the first half, Shelby Harris and Bradley Chubb exchanged words and had to be separated. But they hugged it out a few minutes later. ...
Rookie Michael Ojemudia was ejected for a hit in the third quarter, leaving the Broncos with one healthy corner in De'Vante Bausby, who was having the worst game of his brief career. ...
Stefon Diggs broke the Bills' single-season reception record with his 101st catch in the first quarter. ...
The Broncos inactive list featured no surprises. Right guard Graham Glasgow returned to the starting lineup, leaving rookie Netane Muti available for spot duty after his impressive debut. Those scratched: QB Jeff Driskel, WR Tyrie Cleveland, OLB Mark Barron, DT Sylvester Williams, OT Demar Dotson and OLB Anthony Chickillo. ...