Bills face cap crunch, roster issues in bid to keep Super Bowl window open
There should be no shock about losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs.
And yet, that was indeed the prevailing emotion among the Buffalo Bills in the aftermath of Sunday night’s loss, which ended with Patrick Mahomes taking a knee in victory formation to kill off the final seconds of a 27-24 result that sent the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game for the sixth consecutive season.
Buffalo had the Chiefs right where they wanted them, forcing them to come to Highmark Stadium to face a team that had lost there just once all season and was riding a six-game win streak that began with a 20-17 win at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium on Dec.10.
The number of ways this loss stings for Buffalo are too numerous to count but include:
- Losing to the Chiefs in the postseason for the third time in four years.
- Having four consecutive AFC East titles result in just one AFC Championship game appearance.
- Losing at home in the divisional round for the second consecutive season.
- Losing a home game that they led at halftime, and after three quarters.
The Bills lost the game for reasons rooted in all three phases of the game – offence, defence, and special teams.
Offensively, the Bills relied on running the football and making quick short and medium passes to sustain long drives and keep the ball away from the Chiefs’ offence. The result was three touchdown drives of 75-yards apiece, each eating up at least six minutes of the clock.
What was missing, however, were explosive plays, with Buffalo’s longest gain of the day being an 18-yard run by quarterback Josh Allen.
Diggs’ performance Sunday night only adds to the mystery of his 2023 season, a year in which he began with six 100-yard games in Buffalo’s first seven contests but faded badly down the stretch, including two games against the Chiefs in which he failed to have 25 yards receiving.
The Bills didn’t turn the ball over, but the stat most closely associated with winning – besides turnovers – is explosive plays and the Bills had none.
How that happens with a healthy Allen playing at home is a question to be pondered this off-season.
The Bills’ defence carried this team through much of the second half of the season while the offence was trying to find its way, retooling on the fly due to a long list of key injuries.
Buffalo’s defence was down starting corner Christian Benford and middle linebacker Terrell Bernard against Kansas City, while corner Rasul Douglas played through an injury that had caused him to miss the Pittsburgh game.
That attrition on defence, compounded with the losses of corner Tre White and Matt Milano early in the season, was fatal against Kansas City. The Bills couldn’t mount a single stop until the fourth quarter.
The Bills’ defensive line, mostly healthy entering this game, and an area where the team has invested a ton of draft and free agent capital, didn’t shine when it needed to against Mahomes.
On Sunday, Mahomes helped an offence whose big-play ability had vanished for much of the season hit eight plays of 20 yards or more.
It all put pressure on Buffalo’s offence to keep scoring, as a two-score second-half lead for the Chiefs seemed insurmountable, given the defence’s struggles and the time it was taking the Bills to go the length of the field.
The fact the game ended on a special teams blunder – just as did two of the Bills’ six losses from the regular season – hurt. But it may have only saved the Bills from watching Mahomes drive his offence into field-goal territory during the final minute for the winning score.
We’ll never know. But for now it goes into the books as wide right 2.0.
The question now is what to make of Buffalo’s Super Bowl window, and how hard it will be to get to where no Sean McDermott-led team has ever been.
Allen will be 28 next season, still in the heart of his prime as one of the most dynamic players at his position in the NFL. Allen has been mostly healthy in his career, but at some point he’s going to have to scale back the number of times he runs with the ball and takes contact. That, inevitably, will make him a less dangerous quarterback.
The Bills biggest need right now would appear to be on the other end of those Allen passes.
Buffalo developed very promising secondary options this season in rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid and second-year receiver Khalil Shakir. The production problems came from Diggs down the stretch, and an overall mediocre season from Davis, who said on Monday he expects to test free agency this winter.
Taking a high-pedigree receiver at draft time feels like a must, especially with Diggs’ decline in production this season and the fact he recently turned 30
In the five drafts since Allen landed in Buffalo, the Bills have taken no receivers in the first three rounds and just one (Davis, 2020) in the top four.
Diggs’ contract is among those that present a significant challenge to GM Brandon Beane, who has clearly gone all-in these past two seasons to maximize the chances of winning a Super Bowl.
Now the work becomes cleaning up what’s left behind, with Buffalo currently projected to be nearly $50 million over next season’s cap, which means clearing room by replacing veterans with younger, cheaper talent.
The fact that the Bills started six players this season who were either rookies or second-year players will help, but there are going to be a lot of Bills walking to free agency this off-season, or being sent there against their wishes, purely because of economics.
An Allen contract restructure can moderate some of that, and there will be others as well, pushing money into the future.
In a perfect world, the Bills would love to move on from Von Miller and perhaps even Diggs, given that they represent the two biggest expenses on the roster beyond Allen, and poor value based on what they provided this season.
But either of those moves seems at least a year away, Miller’s legal issues related to an alleged domestic violence matter notwithstanding. A Diggs trade remains a possibility, if unlikely.
So no, the Super Bowl window isn’t closed. And the Bills should absolutely be a playoff team next season.
But climbing over what has thus far been an insurmountable hump will come with a new series of significant challenges.