It was back in the summer when Las Vegas announced that the Bills were the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.
My reaction was: “Did Kansas City and Cincinnati withdraw from the NFL?”
That the Chiefs and Bengals had played for the AFC Championship last January with Cincinnati barely losing the Super Bowl yet neither was this year’s favorite seemed ludicrous to me.
Now, after Buffalo’s dismal performance in a 27-10 loss to Cincy, in Sunday afternoon’s divisional playoff game at Highmark Stadium, that preseason speculation is all the more laughable.
In the postgame interview session, coach Sean McDermott was asked if the Bills’ Super Bowl window was closing.
“No … this is a good football team,” he said, almost laughing off the question.
But he shouldn’t have.
That query was apt, though the answer was predictable.
THIS WASN’T just a loss. It was an evisceration that laid open the Bills’ myriad flaws for a sellout crowd and a national television audience.
Let’s start with the 50,000-foot view.
When this season started, the AFC was seen as having three elite teams: Kansas City, Cincinnati and Buffalo. But, as it progressed, Jacksonville emerged as an ascending power and only injuries kept Miami, Baltimore, Tennessee and the Chargers from being more serious contenders.
And suddenly, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Josh Allen aren’t the only elite quarterbacks in the conference. Trevor Lawrence and Lamar Jackson are already there and Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa are close.
If you doubt the latter, Miami, in Buffalo’s own division, split the two games Tua played and the third, with the Dolphins using a third-string rookie quarterback and injury-compromised offensive line in a bad-weather playoff game at Orchard Park, took the Bills to the final possession before losing.
In three games, Buffalo outscored the Dolphins by a mere four points.
That narrow wild-card win was a red-flag effort with Cincinnati coming to town.
THE BIGGEST take from Sunday’s loss is that the Bills have taken a step back — as the loss to the Bengals so graphically showed — and the AFC, more than any time in recent memory, is congested with legitimate contenders.
So who takes the blame in Buffalo?
It won’t be McDermott, though much of it is on his shoulders.
Yeah, he’s one of the NFL’s worst on in-game decisions, challenges and misuse of timeouts, but he’s also made the playoffs five of his six seasons. And while he’s hardly been at his best in postseason road losses to the Chiefs (twice) and Texans and Sunday at home, he’s safe.
But somebody’s got to be sacrificed.
Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, completing his first year, is an obvious candidate. He’s been second-guessed on his play-calling all year, though that’s the nature of the job league-wide. But the NFL’s second-highest scoring offense being held to 10 points on its home field in a playoff game and having absolutely no answer for the opponent’s defense is indicting.
What’s amusing is, Dorsey has already interviewed for Carolina’s head coaching job though Sunday hardly enhanced his resume.
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier could also be a sacrificial candidate.
Seeing wideout Ja’Marr Chase and tight end Hayden Hurst wide open for touchdown receptions on Cincinnati’s first two possessions, virtually taking the crowd and the Bills out of the game in the first 12 minutes, was a terrible optic.
Both coordinators might survive, but some on the coaching staff won’t.
Maybe it will be from the lines.
After the game McDermott laid the groundwork.
“(Their defensive front) affected the quarterback, and we didn’t affect their quarterback,” he said. “In simple terms, that’s what the game boils down to most of the time, when you can affect the opponent’s quarterback, and they can affect your quarterback. That’s what was going on a lot tonight.”
Mc Dermott added, “If you want to win games on a consistent basis, that’s where the game starts, it’s there (on the lines), and it’s at the quarterback position. We didn’t do enough overall at the line of scrimmage.”
TO BE SURE, Buffalo’s offensive and defensive lines were manhandled.
It’s likely the only starting survivors in the former will be center Mitch Morse and left tackle Dion Dawkins, whose hype exceeds his contribution.
On defense, it’s a maze of underachieving draft choices. First round picks Greg Rousseau and Ed Oliver and second-rounders Boogie Basham and A.J. Epenesa have been OK, but that’s not the expectation from players selected that high.
And, oh yeah, the Bills desperately need a quality wideout or two. And Sunday, it wasn’t a good look with No. 1 wide receiver Stefon Diggs pouting on the sideline about not getting the ball and jawing with his quarterback Allen, then fleeing the locker room before McDermott’s postgame monologue until being summoned back.
Then, too, no matter how the Bills spin rookie James Cook’s improvement, there’s a desperate need for a feature back.
Finally, the Bills have 21 unrestricted free agents, the most notable of them safety Jordan Poyer, middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, running back Devin Singletary and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips.
But bringing them back is complicated by Buffalo’s extremely tight salary cap situation.
General manager Brandon Beane has myriad decisions to make.
(Chuck Pollock, an Olean Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)