Maybe the Buffalo Bills will someday look back on their crushing defeat in the AFC divisional playoffs as an essential teaching moment on the way to a championship.
The bottom-line lesson? Not good enough. Not now.
For all that the Bills achieved as a sexy preseason Super Bowl pick and winners of the AFC East crown for a third consecutive season, they were exposed for what they are not during a 17-point loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday that ushers in another round of offseason soul-searching.
“You are who you are in the last game of the season,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said earlier this week, sounding a lot like Hall of Fame philosopher Bill Parcells.
That last game. While there are probably Bills Mafia members who would want to use the videotape from the playoff debacle as fuel for a bonfire, the video contains the evidence that McDermott, GM Brandon Beane and others need to swallow as they move on to next year for another run at the mission to claim the franchise’s first taste of Super Bowl glory.
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Here’s a suggestion: Invest in some more help for Josh Allen.
Perhaps Stephon Diggs, the playmaking receiver whose production tailed down the stretch, had some legitimate constructive criticism as he vented in Allen’s direction on the sideline on Sunday. After all, Allen overshot on an early throw to Diggs on the first drive that might have sparked a flow change, and it didn’t get much better after that.
Yet it was also apparent, as Joe Burrow surgically dismantled the Bills defense, that the Cincinnati quarterback had so many more weapons at his disposal. Including a revived rushing attack that controlled the flow with 172 yards in the slush.
Once again, Allen, who is arguably the most physically gifted quarterback in the league, led the Bills with 26 rushing yards while Devin Singletary and James Cook combined for 37 yards on the ground. That won’t cut it. The Bills need to stop relying on Allen as the bread-and-butter of the running game when he really should be a complementary bonus in that area.
And no, for all the projections when Allen was drafted in 2018 that he could bring a Jim Kelly-like effect with laser throws that cut through the windy elements in Orchard Park, that better described what Burrow delivered for the Bengals.
Allen, who didn’t throw for a touchdown and posted a paltry 68.1 passer rating on Sunday, wasn’t the one to put the team on his back (ala Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and Burrow, the AFC’s top two quarterbacks) and raise the play of his supporting cast. At least not when we last saw him, as the Bills took a step backward after bowing out again in the divisional round, two years since reaching the AFC title game.
“I’ve got a lot more to learn, a lot more to grow from,” said Allen. ”I’ve got a long way to go.”
While Allen, with 29 interceptions the past two seasons (14 picks in 2022 after a career-high 15 the previous year) undoubtedly will look to reduce his turnovers, his ineffectiveness in the clutch wasn’t the only glaring truth that came out of the blown chance to advance.
No, also glaring was the absence of Von Miller. When the Bills lured the star pass-rusher to sign as a free agent last spring, it seemed like the missing piece for a defense that needed a more consistent rush to get after Burrow and Mahomes when it mattered most. Tough break that Miller’s season ended when a torn ACL was discovered in December after his knee injury originally wasn’t supposed to be as severe.
Miller surely might have found a way to make a difference on Sunday, but whether that would have swung the outcome is debatable.
If not with his rush, maybe Miller’s energy would have had an impact.
Quite revealing in the aftermath of the setback that saw the Bills allow 30 first downs was the assessment from linebacker Matt Milano: “There was no real energy, juice. No momentum.”
That almost seems unfathomable. The Bills, playing at home, were one game from another AFC title game berth, and there was no energy?
“Energy is created by execution,” Allen concluded.
The Bills fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, when they gained all of 8 yards after the offense started with a pair of three-and-outs while Buffalo’s defense couldn’t prevent the Bengals from starting off with a pair of TD drives. That’s what flat looked like in the snow.
“That’s just really bad situational football,” Allen said. “Bad complementary football. Somebody needed to step up and make a play. Early on, we didn’t.”
As Bills center Mitch Morse saw it, “We kind of dipped our toe in the water and they jumped in the pool.”
No one used the various adversities the Bills faced during the season, which included the psychological challenges attached to Damar Hamlin’s collapse in Week 17, as any type of excuse. Yet in retrospect it’s fair to wonder whether the resilience finally ran its course.
“Now we have a whole offseason to fight that mental battle,” left tackle Dion Dawkins said.
The window to reach the Super Bowl isn’t closed yet. But once again the Bills head into the offseason aiming to be next year’s champion … which is never guaranteed.
Story Credit: usatoday.com