Enormous Bills punt return TD turns momentum and they beat Dolphins for AFC East title

The way to take pressure off of Josh Allen from making huge, forced mistakes on Sunday night was to score before he could get the ball.

The Buffalo Bills got a huge play from the special teams that ended up being a division winner.

Deonte Harty had an electric 96-yard punt return in the fourth quarter that turned Sunday night's regular-season finale against the Miami Dolphins from a tale of the Bills giving away chances with Allen's mistakes and turnovers to a huge 21-14 win that resulted in an AFC East title and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.

The Bills tied it on the return from Harty, an under-the-radar offseason signing after he had four good seasons primarily as a returner for the New Orleans Saints, and then Allen brought home the win. Allen led a go-ahead drive after Harty's touchdown and made big plays in the final minutes to seal the victory as Buffalo won to take home the division title.

The Bills had to get one final stop after Allen was stopped just short on a fourth-down quarterback sneak in the final two minutes. Tua Tagovailoa overthrew his target downfield and Bills safety Taylor Rapp intercepted him to seal the win.

Allen was in line to be a big reason Buffalo lost after he had three costly turnovers and a bad decision at the end of the first half. He often has to do too much in the Bills' offense and that leads to mistakes. On Sunday night, he got unexpected help from Harty on a memorable punt return.

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Deonte Harty (11) had a huge punt return in a win over the Dolphins. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Deonte Harty (11) had a huge punt return in a win over the Dolphins. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Dolphins take a lead into halftime

The Bills moved the ball well in the first half. But they scored just seven points and trailed at the half. A lot of the blame for that was on Allen.

On Buffalo's first drive, Allen threw into the end zone, but Gabriel Davis wasn't where Allen expected him to be, and Eli Apple had an easy interception. On Buffalo's next possession the Bills went for it on fourth down and Allen, not having many other options, forced a pass into the end zone that was intercepted. Those mistakes contributed to a 14-7 Dolphins lead. Then the Bills had a startling mistake to end the first half.

Buffalo was at Miami's 11-yard line with 11 seconds left. The Bills went for a touchdown before the half ended, and Allen threw underneath to Ty Johnson. Johnson was stonewalled at the 1-yard line by linebacker Jerome Baker, the Bills didn't have a timeout left and time ran out in the half. In an interview with NBC right afterward, Bills head coach Sean McDermott said, "Can't be throwing it in the field of play."

The Bills had played well enough to lead. Allen's errors were costly. However, also give the Dolphins credit for forcing those mistakes.

Bills take the lead in the fourth quarter

The Dolphins' first-half lead wasn't just due to Allen's mistakes. De'Von Achane had an ankle-breaking touchdown run to start the scoring. Tyreek Hill scored his 13th touchdown of the season for the other first-half score by Miami.

The second half started with a similar theme. The Bills drove deep into Dolphins territory, but on third down Allen was strip-sacked by Christian Wilkins and Miami recovered. It looked like the Dolphins were going to overcome a bunch of injuries to take home the AFC East title.

When the Bills needed something positive, Harty had an electric 96-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter that shifted momentum of the game. Harty caught the punt as he retreated, and had a few quick cuts to find a lane and then took it the distance. In a very unfortunate twist, Dolphins linebacker Cameron Goode went down with a knee injury and that contributed to Harty having a clear lane to run through.

The Dolphins' offense stalled a couple times after that, which will contribute to the narrative that they disappear against above-average opponents. Miami was shut out in the second half.

After Harty's touchdown, Allen led a go-ahead drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown to Dawson Knox. When the Bills got the ball back leading 21-14, they went for it on fourth-and-1 from their 35, and Allen jumped over the scrum on a quarterback sneak to get it. Later in the drive, he had a huge run on third-and-13 for a first down to chew up even more clock. The Bills went for it again on fourth-and-1 and Allen was stopped just short, meaning the Bills had to get one final stop. Rapp came up with a big interception to bring home the division title.

Allen can turn it over too often and certainly did Sunday, but he's the epicenter of the Bills' offense and he made plays that few other quarterbacks can make. And the Bills' defense finished the job.

The Bills weren't perfect Sunday night, and they haven't been perfect for much of the season. But they got the job done. Allen was up and down. But Harty was there to give him and the Bills a boost.