Can the Bills ever get over the hump in the AFC Conference?

The Buffalo Bills endured yet another defeat in the playoffs, crashing out in the Divisional Round for the second year in a row. Unlike the agony of their defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2021 campaign, the Bills were outplayed from start to finish by the Cincinnati Bengals at Highmark Stadium. Josh Allen and company mustered only 10 points against the Bengals’ defense, while Cincinnati were relentless on offense to cruise through to their second-straight AFC Championship Game.

Sean McDermott and his team dealt with a number of troubling issues throughout the campaign, none more so than Damar Hamlin’s cardiac arrest during the regular season meeting between the Bengals and Bills. Hamlin’s continued recovery will mean a lot more for the team than a trip to the AFC Championship Game, but there’s still an undoubted disappointment that they were unable to capitalise on their talent to push for a trip to the Super Bowl for the first time in 29 years.

AFC Race

Instead of competing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, the Bills will be watching from home, and the Bengals are now backed at +260 in the latest NFL betting odds to win the crown for the first time. The off-season is going to be very long indeed for Buffalo fans and it will lead them to think about whether the franchise will ever get back to the Super Bowl.

The Bills cannot afford to become the other team in the AFC playoff race, much like the Los Angeles Chargers were in the 00s against the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts led by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Whereas the Patriots, Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers swept up all 10 appearances in the Super Bowl in the decade, the Chargers were on the outside looking in, despite boasting huge talent on all sides of the ball.

The AFC is becoming dangerously competitive from all sides. It has a similar calibre of quarterbacks now and the race for the Super Bowl will only get tougher amid the rise of the Chargers with Justin Herbert and the Jacksonville Jaguars with Trevor Lawrence. That’s without mentioning the Miami Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa and the Baltimore Ravens, who could be re-energised with a new offensive coordinator.

The competition levels are sky-high and the margin for error for the Bills is non-existent. The incident with Hamlin, unfortunately, cost them the chance to compete for the number one seed. But on the evidence of their clash with the Bengals, it is likely they would have lost the game anyway and would have remained locked in the two-seed or lower.

Buffalo have to figure out a way to remain consistent during the regular season and raise their standards in the post-season. It has been an issue for McDermott and his staff, and it will not get easier, especially if Tom Brady returns to the conference, with the Las Vegas Raiders, Miami Dolphins and the Patriots reportedly in the mix to sign the GOAT if he remains in the NFL. Even winning the AFC East looks a daunting prospect if the Dolphins take a forward step and the New York Jets find a quarterback.

Emulating the Chargers?

The Chargers were the other team in the AFC in the 00s. Marty Schottenheimer’s side were an excellent side, no more so than the 2006 campaign when LaDainian Tomlinson ran riot in his MVP season. Philip Rivers was a quality quarterback, while there was an abundance of talent on defense including Shawn Merriman, Jamal Williams and Antonio Cromartie.

However, Schottenheimer’s team failed to deliver in the key moments and it resulted in his dismissal after a defeat to the Patriots. It was the story of his career as his teams always found a way to lose in the post-season. His replacement Norv Turner found it equally as difficult, losing to the Patriots, Steelers and Jets before his tenure came to an end.

McDermott is staring down that distinct possibility. Allowing the Chiefs to score a game-tying field goal with 13 seconds on the clock in the 2021 season will haunt the coach for a long time. However, their defeat at the hands of the Bengals was more alarming.

The Bills had built their team to compete against the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes, but their lack of adaptability was their downfall to Burrow and the Bengals. Cincinnati used their running game with a patched-up offensive line to blow the Bills off the line of scrimmage. Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine racked up the yards, while Burrow was clutch on third down.

Allen was incredible throughout the season, but the pressure of the playoffs appeared to weigh on his mind. He was poor against the Dolphins in the Wild Card Round and failed to raise his game against Burrow in the Divisional Round. At the age of 27, time is on his side, but the longer the Bills’ championship drought continues, the more pressure will build.

What can the Bills do?

The Bills were plagued by injuries on defense. Outside of Hamlin’s absence in the secondary, Buffalo also lost their inspirational leader and safety Micah Hyde for the season. Cornerback Tredavious White was not at his best after returning from an ACL injury in the closing weeks of the campaign. Buffalo’s major move for Von Miller was designed to be a game-changer against Mahomes and Burrow in the fourth quarter to bolster their pass rush. However, Miller sustained a torn ACL in December, leaving the Bills without their premier edge rusher.

That being said, Miller, Hyde and Hamlin would not have made a huge difference in the running game, while Buffalo’s tackling was poor to say the least. McDermott needs to get his side back to key fundamentals to get over the line, making their opponents earn every yard and point rather than relying on the prowess of their offense to bludgeon their way to victory. Buffalo were the second-ranked defense in the NFL during the regular season but looked far from that level in the post-season. Even Miami’s third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson made life difficult for them. McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier need to work hard in the off-season to conjure a plan that works against all offenses.

Buffalo also need to work on their offense. Allen fell into bad habits towards the end of the season, throwing the ball deep rather than taking the short throws on offer. It could be a coaching difference between Ken Dorsey and Brian Daboll, who excelled at developing the quarterback. Allen may need to rein in his aggressive instincts to get his team over the line in the post-season. He also needs better wideouts. Stefon Diggs reacted poorly to the defeat, showing up Allen on the sideline, which was not a good look for the receiver. Buffalo still need the All-Pro and he will undoubtedly return for the 2023 season.

Gabriel Davis failed to kick on from his 200-yard and four-touchdown performance in the 2021 Divisional Round. Dawson Knox was a great complement at tight end, but Buffalo need a reliable option to take the pressure off Diggs and Knox to allow Allen to build a rhythm.

The Bills only need fine tweaks to their roster and set-up to get over the line, but it’s those minute differences that make all the difference in January and hopefully February.

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