Monday, January 30, 2023
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Opinion | Bills feel like they’re going backward after playoff loss to Bengals


When an NFL team has a 26-year-old franchise quarterback, perhaps the best in team history, the window for success never really closes on that team as long as that signal caller is playing.

So why does it feel like Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills have peaked?

A 13-3 regular season and an unimpressive playoff victory over Miami got the Bills another home playoff date on Sunday, but it was there they ran into a snowy brick wall in the form of the Cincinnati Bengals. Once again, a Bills season ended in defeat.

This one, ended by a surprisingly unimpressive 27-10 loss to the Bengals, was almost as disappointing as at least three of the team’s Super Bowl defeats. So much more was expected, which meant this result felt a lot like a step back.

In their American Football League years, the Bills won back-to-back championships in 1964 and ’65. But ever since the merger brought 10 AFL teams together with 13 NFL teams to form one league, it’s been heartache after heartache for a city that loves the game at least as much as any other NFL town.

This year, coming off a thrilling playoff game lost in overtime last January to Kansas City, it seemed like the next step was in the cards. The first two regular-season games, lopsided wins over the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and the very sturdy Tennessee Titans, seemed to confirm that.

But then came a loss down in Miami, and then an injury to Allen’s elbow. The Bills won 11 and lost only two the rest of the way, but they never looked quite as offensively potent as they had in those early wins. Perhaps part of it was the departure of offensive co-ordinator Brian Daboll to become head coach of the New York Giants. Maybe it was Allen’s elbow, and perhaps teams just started finding new answers to Buffalo’s offence.

Defensively, the injuries to the defensive backfield just never seemed to stop. Micah Hyde was lost for the season, and then Damar Hamlin suffered that awful cardiac arrest on the field in Cincinnati. Hamlin was at the stadium on Sunday and visited his teammates at halftime, but he also saw his replacement, Dean Marlowe, leave the game with an injury. In the fourth quarter, two Buffalo defensive backs were injured on one play.

Buffalo’s spectacular offence, meanwhile, just never showed up in the non-stop, heavy snowflakes that greeted both teams at the opening kickoff. The footing was poor, but Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and the rest of the Cincinnati offence looked sure-footed and confident all day as they dominated their way to a second consecutive visit to Kansas City for the AFC title game.

The Bengals upset Pat Mahomes and Co. last year and, on Sunday, against Buffalo, they certainly looked capable of doing it again. Perhaps too many football people looked upon the Bengals’ march to the Super Bowl last winter as a fluke, leading many to confidently predict this year’s AFC championship game would be between the Chiefs and Bills at a neutral site in Atlanta.

But Cincinnati’s run last year was clearly no fluke. The Bengals, particularly with Mahomes on the limp, should be the favourites in Missouri next weekend. Their defence is clearly more than the sum of its parts. Buffalo’s offensive line just couldn’t keep the Cincy pass rush out of Allen’s face.

The superstar Buffalo quarterback, who was laid out by Bengals defensive back Mike Hilton late in the fourth quarter, was a decent 25-of-42 passing for 265 yards. But he and the Bills offence were forced to play uphill all day after the Bengals scored on two long drives in the first quarter to jump to a quick 14-0 lead.

It was 17-7 after 30 minutes, the first time the Bills had trailed at halftime all season. They got into the red zone after a long drive early in the third quarter, but were held to a field goal. Trailing 17-10, the Bills then got the Bengals into a third-and-10 situation at the Buffalo 40-yard-line in what seemed to be a potential turning point in the game. But Burrow smoothly completed a first-down pass to an open Hayden Hurst and, as was the case much of the day, the Bills defence just couldn’t get off the field.

The Bengals offence had 30 first downs, more than 400 yards of offence, was 6-for-10 on third down and had no turnovers. Last year, the Chiefs amassed 552 yards of offence in beating the Bills. There’s some obvious common ground in those two Buffalo results.

Yes, the Bills should be able to remain an elite AFC squad as long as they have Allen. More of a commitment to running the ball in order to complement the quarterback’s passing may be part of the answer. More beef on the defensive line seems to be a must, and the mid-season loss of Von Miller left Buffalo without a convincing edge rusher when it mattered most. Perhaps the 33-year-old Miller can bounce back in the second year of his six-season deal next year.

So where does that leave the Bills? Not as good as Kansas City or Cincinnati, and looking over their shoulder at improving AFC teams like the Los Angeles Chargers, Jacksonville, Miami and maybe the New York Jets.

Sunday left no doubt the Bills must improve in a few areas to get where their committed fan base wants them to go. In the NFL, you can’t win without a star behind centre, but a star behind centre isn’t enough without other crucial pieces.

The Rams had most of the pieces, then added the quarterback to win a championship. The Bills surely have the passer, but now the tough process of acquiring and affording other elements begins in earnest to avoid more steps backward. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be cheap.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin

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