By Sean Tyler (@SeanTylerUK)
Today it’s time to turn our attention to the AFC East. More specifically, the Buffalo Bills. After coming close to winning a playoff game for the first time in what seems like centuries, we assess why they fell short yet again, but will come back even stronger in 2020.
ENTERING THE SEASON
Languishing in the postseason wilderness since 1999, the Bills finally returned to the playoffs in 2017, only to revert to type with a 6-10 campaign in 2018. So, coming into last season, which scenario could Bills fans expect? Was 2017 a rare high in an otherwise bleak landscape, or could their team compete for the AFC East title again in their third year under HC Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane?
The offseason was largely shaped by Buffalo’s numerous free trade acquisitions, including centre Mitch Morse, wideouts Cole Beasley and John Brown, and TJ Yeldon joined in the backfield by the ageless Frank Gore. Not one but two Cincinnati tight ends (Tyler Kroft and Jake Fisher) added to the influx, contradicting the common narrative that “players don’t want to move to Buffalo”.
These recruits were complemented by a decent draft haul. Ed Oliver (No.9 overall) was picked to beef up the defensive line, guard Cody Ford was added to protect QB Josh Allen (no longer a wet-behind-the-ears rookie), while RB Devin Singletary and TE Dawson Knox were decent Round 3 and 4 catches.
Armed with this new talent, Buffalo beat the Colts, Panthers, Lions and Vikings in their first-ever undefeated preseason. Former Wasps and England rugby star Christian Wade, who joined as an exempt international player, nailed a 65-yard TD on his first carry as a running back against Indy. But for all that promise, Wade still needed time to learn the game and was shipped out to the practice squad.
DURING THE SEASON
Maintaining their preseason form, the Bills shot out of the gate. They started with back-to-back wins at New York’s MetLife Stadium over the Jets (a squeaky 17-16, having trailed by 16 in the third quarter) and the Giants (a more comfortable 28-14). The subsequent four-point win over the Bengals was notable for the aforementioned Dawson Knox rumbling over the Cincy secondary like a Chieftain tank, as well as two interceptions by CB Tre’Davius White.
Frustratingly, the Bills’ first loss came in a defensive battle with their AFC rivals from Boston. They lost 16-10 to the Patriots but in their defence, Allen did have to leave the field after a helmet-to-helmet hit. Buffalo hit back by seeing off the Titans and, after their bye week, the Dolphins, improving to 5-1 for the first time in a decade. Wedged between losses to the Eagles and the Browns (in which Stephen Hauschka missing a game-tying kick), a commanding 24-9 win against the Redskins saw the Bills equal their 2018 record of six wins with half a season to spare.
Things were going well, as the Bills ploughed on to an impressive 9-3. A three-game hot streak began in Week 11 against Miami, in which ‘Fitzmagic’ was sacked seven times and the ‘Fins were held to just 23 rushing yards. In shutting down the Broncos 20-3, Singletary recorded his first 100-yard rushing game and Gore went third on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. Then, on Thanksgiving Day, the Bills’ 26-15 win over Dallas – featuring a trick TD pass from Brown to Singletary – secured only their fourth winning season in two decades.
Unfortunately, reaching such heady heights seemed to trigger a bout of vertigo and the Bills began to wobble. Their only win on the home stretch was a 17-10 primetime victory at Pittsburgh in Week 15, with four interceptions helping to seal Buffalo’s first 10-win season this century. In their other three regular season games, however, they fell to the all-conquering Ravens, the dear ol’ Patriots again (handing them the divisional title in the process) and, more surprisingly, the Jets – although a number of first-choice guys were rested before the playoffs.
Did someone mention the playoffs? Yes, the 10-6 Bills had locked up the AFC’s No. 5 seed and made the promised land again. But alas, they came up short at the first time of asking, losing 22-19 to the Texans in the Wild Card round. Buffalo ran up a 16-0 lead (with Brown throwing another trick TD, this time to his quarterback Allen) only for the wheels to fall off, leaving Deshaun Watson to mastermind a final-quarter comeback for Houston. The Bills managed to force overtime but Ka’imi Fairbairn’s game-winning FG extended the Bills’ playoff drought to 25 years…
From the outside, the Bills’ 60th season seemed a pretty decent one but for the Bills Mafia, I suspect the way it fizzled out was disappointing. Nonetheless, a second playoff run in three years is not to be sneezed at, and Josh Allen showed wholesale improvements in his second season. But can Buffalo take the next step from playoff pretender to legit contender? Well, they have $90 million in cap space and nine selections in the 2020 NFL Draft, which can only help, right?
The general consensus is that offensively, they’ll prioritise a physical wide receiver this offseason, despite decent production from Brown and Beasley. Buffalo needs an injection of youth and size at WR so when the Bills are on the clock at #22, expect someone like Tee Higgins from Clemson (a few mock drafts really like this pairing already) or Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr to be selected. Knowing the Bills’ affinity for free agency, a deep threat such as the Cowboys’ Amari Cooper might also fit the bill.
With Frank Gore’s one-year deal at an end, Christian Wade also gives the coaching staff additional food for thought at RB, especially if they can’t snare someone like LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire with a mid-round pick.
On the other side of the ball, the defence is a decent, disciplined unit. Nonetheless, a pass rusher like K’Lavon Chaisson (another of LSU’s stars) should be high on their shopping list, especially with linebacker Lorenzo Alexander retiring and two defensive tackles hitting free agency. A second corner alongside the impressive Tre’ White would make sense too.
So there you have it. The Buffalo Bills are a well-run outfit that looks set to use college drafts, trades and free agents to build around a blossoming young quarterback. Since Coach McDermott came to Orchard Park, things have been on an upward trend and, with a decent war chest at their disposal, fans should expect more of the same in the year ahead.