No matter how disappointing the Bills’ 38-24 loss to the Chiefs in Sunday’s American Football Conference Championship Game might have been, it’s worth remembering that it was just one game in an otherwise impressive season.
Buffalo’s 15-4 record tied for the best in franchise history with the 1990 and ’91 Super Bowl teams and it played in a league or conference championship game for only the ninth time in its 61 years.
However, that loss at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium – the second-worst defeat of the year only to the 42-16 decision at Tennessee in October – showed some vulnerability that merits concern.
QUARTERBACK Josh Allen’s near-MVP regular season took a bit of tarnish with a pair of give-way-too-much-ground sacks – a 15-yarder that set up 3rd-and-23 in the early going and an 18-yarder that created 4th-and-28 late in the game.
Then, too, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, whose aggressive play calls helped create Allen’s dramatic improvement, seemed less inclined to attack with field-stretching plays. However, part of that was likely KC’s pressure, which sacked the third-year QB four times and forced him to scramble a dozen times.
Naturally, coach Sean McDermott was second-guessed for taking short field goals – 20 and 27 yards – when the Bills were playing catch-up and had moved deep into the red zone. But, in fairness, that assessment comes from those who benefit from a vision that only became 20-20 after the fact.
What’s certain is Allen, who led the team with 88 rushing yards versus KC, most of them running for his life, got zero help from the ground game, unless you count 32 yards on nine carries from his backs as being productive.
He can improve his decision-making, already having done it with his accuracy, which many predicted couldn’t happen. Where he really needs help is from the front office in finding a running game.
MORE WORRISOME was a defense that stubbornly stuck with zone pass coverage against the Chiefs as tight end Travis Kelce (13 catches, 118 yards, 2 TDs) and wide receiver Tyreek Hill (9 for 172) ran free in the secondary.
Worse, 15 of the Chiefs’ 64 plays went for at least 11 yards, seven of them for 15 or more, including a 50-yard end-around and a 71-yard reception.
After holding opponents under 20 points in five of the previous nine games, Buffalo let Kansas City roll up 439 yards total offense and score three touchdowns in a span of barely 10 minutes of the second quarter that effectively put the game away.
Clearly the Bills’ defensive line needs to be more stout, though the return of tackle Star Lotuleilei, who opted out of this past season due to Covid-19, should help.
Offensively, Buffalo’s passing game seems set with Allen, Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, John Brown and Gabriel Davis, but running back is a major question and the line could stand to be bolstered.
SO WHAT HAPPENS in 2021?
Because of the strong season, the Bills pick third-to-last in the first round of the 2021 draft at No. 30. They currently have six selections: rounds one through three, two fifths and a sixth with a seventh rounder possible from a deal with Carolina.
But, of more immediate concern, is the fact Buffalo has 15 unrestricted free agents. The most important, by far, is outside linebacker Matt Milano followed by two offensive linemen, guard/center Jon Feliciano and tackle Daryl Williams, who had a glittering first season in Buffalo, and even all-purpose wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie.
Meanwhile, defensive end Trent Murphy and tight end Tyler Kroft will likely be waived as they were inactive in a number of games down the stretch. Several others could be the victim of age: tackles Ty Nsekhe (36) and Jordan Devey, cornerback Josh Norman, returner Andre Roberts and special teamer Taiwan Jones (all 33) fit that category.
And what about backup quarterback Matt Barkley (31), little-used guard Brian Winters (30), No. 3 running back T.J. Yeldon and reserve safety Dean Marlowe?
There are a number of critical free-agent decisions the Bills have to make and without an excess of salary-cap space to do it.
FINALLY, THERE’S the 2021 schedule.
Start with the usual home-and-home games against the AFC East: Patriots, Dolphins and Jets.
The rest of Buffalo’s home slate isn’t bad. Other than two playoff teams – Steelers and Colts – it’s rounded out by the Texans, Falcons and Panthers.
However, the non-division road schedule is brutal. Besides visits to both Super Bowl teams – Kansas City and Tampa Bay – there are trips to a pair to 2020 playoff cities – New Orleans and Tennessee – plus a game at Jacksonville.
That’s a daunting task even for a team that made it to the conference championship game.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com)