How will they “be back”? 4 ways the Buffalo Bills can avoid a hangover

Everyone assumes the Buffalo Bills will be back to the AFC title game, but we’ve heard that one way too many times in the past.

Toward the end of many NFL playoff contests, a mantra of the damned has become as much of a prevalent broadcast tradition as reminding viewers that Bob’s Burgers or 60 Minutes will be coming up next (except on the west coast, in the latter case). When time is low and the game’s outcome is no longer in doubt, time is often dedicated to the team who will have to wait until September to restart their Super Bowl trek. As the camera lingers on images of the downtrodden runners-up between plays, the announcers will often repeat some variation of the phrase “they’ll be back”.

The Buffalo Bills were the latest to hear the chants, as their magical 2020-21 season came to an end in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game. Buffalo was no match for the Kansas City Chiefs’ title defense, falling in a 38-24 final in their first semifinal visit since 1994. During contentious final minutes defined by post-whistle extracurriculars, CBS broadcasters Jim Nantz and Tony Romo waxed poetic on the Bills, they of 13 wins and an AFC East title, assuring fans that the best was likely yet to come for a team that grew by leaps and bounds. The Buffalo locker room repeated the phrase as Kansas City celebrated their return trip to the Big Game.

“I have no doubt in my mind that we will be back,” quarterback Josh Allen said, per team reporter Jourdon LaBarber. “We’re still young and we’re only going to get better. That’s one thing I take from this. We’re close. The results weren’t good tonight but I’m super proud of how our team fought all season and how we bonded together.”

“Give the Kansas City Chiefs credit. They won, they were the better team tonight. But the Buffalo Bills will be back,” head coach Sean McDermott added in a postgame interview with CBS sideline reporter Evan Washburn. “This is a learning experience. It’s a tough environment to play. We didn’t play our best game, we didn’t coach our best game, we’ll be back.”

But, if recent history has proven anything, this mantra has only led to more losing.

Losing the AFC title game can certainly serve as a springboard for future success. Kansas City, for example, hasn’t lost a postseason game since they fell to New England in the 2019 edition. But everyone brushed off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ loss to those same Patriots the year before as a mere stepping stone to something brighter. After all, they were armed with a youthful, fearsome defense featuring Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, Yannick Ngakoue, and many others. It was only a matter of time before they made the next step, no?

In the three years since that epic run, Jacksonville has won a mere dozen games (including a single triumph this season) and will choose first in the upcoming NFL Draft. The Los Angeles Rams appeared ready to take over football after their own run that same season but wound up missing the playoffs in the NFC title defense. A “double doink” derailed the Chicago Bears. Even Super Bowl champions aren’t exempt from such hangovers. Only four years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles looked like a dynasty in the making. Now, they’re one of the least desirable situations in football. Doug Pederson has already been dismissed and Carson Wentz appears to be next.

How can the Bills avoid such a hangover? ESM investigates…

 Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Be Buffalo Bold

What eventually did Buffalo in during the AFC title game was their lack of assertiveness in Kansas City. If you want to beat the Chiefs, you have to be the Chiefs, a team so dedicated to securing the victory as quickly and cleanly as possible that they’re willing to throw with Chad Henne on a 4th-and-1 just two games away from the Super Bowl.

Before things got out of hand at Arrowhead, the Bills had several opportunities to assert their authority on the Chiefs and earn precious points on fourth-and-short situations. However, they opted for the relative safety of Tyler Bass field goals, but they proved meaningless when the defense failed to stop Kansas City’s high-voltage offense. The red dagger came when they chose to narrow the lead to 24-15 on a 26-yard Bass boot when three yards would’ve set first-and-goal in the latter stages of the third quarter. Tyreek Hill immediately made them pay with a 75-yard catch-and-run that set up Travis Kelce’s short score through underhanded mastery from Patrick Mahomes.

“Maybe if I had to do it over again, I would have went for maybe one of them,” McDermott said of the costly decisions to kick, per Marcel Louis-Jacques of ESPN. “But the one before the half, I wanted to get points. We were having trouble coming up with points, and I wanted to at least have something to show for it going into the half, especially knowing they were getting the ball after half. I’ll look back at that and reevaluate that, especially the one after half there, and as an entire team, we’ll learn from the experience.”

Making things all the more tragic from a football standpoint was the fact that the Bills were no stranger to such aggressiveness during this magical season. They tied with Miami for the best fourth-down conversion rate (albeit on only 10 attempts) and pulled one off on their opening possession, later leading to Bass’ first field goal. Hopefully for Buffalo, they took the missed opportunities as the learning experience McDermott alluded to.

 Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Lock the Block(ers)

The Bills are blessed with the multiple talents of Allen, who has proven capable of beating teams both through the air and on the ground. Blessed with such a prime, game-changing force of football nature, Buffalo must do everything in its power to protect him. Allen was sacked 34 times last season, the 10th-worst rate in football, but that tends to happen when you have a mobile quarterback. All in all, the Bills did a decent job, but it still feels like there are ways to improve.

Among the potential departures through free agency is tackle Daryl Williams, one of the most pleasant surprises amongst the league’s contenders. The former All-Pro was signed to an affordable one-year deal but wound up filling in very well for an injured Cody Ford late in the year. Interior regulars Jon Feliciano, Brian Winters, and Ike Boettger will all be free agents, while center Mitch Morse could be a salary cap casualty (over $4.8 million) as the team currently holds under $2 million in cap space.

Buffalo can’t afford any regression when it comes to their blocking help. It’s possible they could use the 30th pick on someone like Creed Humphrey out of Oklahoma to bolster the unit. If the biggest problem on the offense is the fact that the long-sought franchise quarterback has too much protection, you know you’re doing something right.

Lower the Flags

While the Bills tackled numerous streaks of futility in 2020, one unfortunate streak kept on rolling. With 102 penalties (941 yards lost) during the regular season (sixth in the league), the Bills ranked in the league’s top-ten flag drawers for the third straight season. While Buffalo’s penalty ledger was relatively clean against Kansas City (38 yards on a quartet), the final stages of the season were marred by post-whistle extracurriculars that only built the rivalry between the Bills and Chiefs further. Should the Chiefs prevail in their Super Bowl endeavor two Sundays from now (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS), no one would be surprised to see the Bills in the traditional opening Thursday night slot for the defending champions come Week 1 of 2021.

It was great to see the Bills stick up for each other once things got chippy in the final minutes, but it left a sour taste in Allen’s mouth. One of Buffalo’s last possessions ended with Allen taking a late hit from Chiefs lineman Alex Okafor. Allen tossed the ball at Okafor’s facemask, leading to the first of several late-game melees.

“The way it ended doesn’t sit right with me with how chippy and ticky-tack it got. I’m disappointed in myself,” Allen said per Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. “I let my emotions get to me there. That’s not how you’re supposed to play football.”

 Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Figure Out the Rushing Stampede

The Bills have formed one of the most explosive passing attacks in the league through Allen, Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and others. But that doesn’t mean they have to solely rely on aerial antics to pull off wins. Over the past two seasons, the Bills are a mediocre 5-5 when Allen throws the ball at least 40 times. Two of those victories came in too-close-for-comfort showdowns with the New York Jets, while two of those losses came in the AFC playoffs (2020 Wild Card at Houston, 2021 AFC title game at Kansas City).

Sophomore rusher Devin Singletary regressed in several major rushing categories, working alongside the roller-coaster rookie antics of Zack Moss, who missed a majority of the postseason after leaving the Wild Card tilt on a cart. The two united for 1,168 yards and seven total touchdowns but struggled to maintain consistency. It’s good that the Bills have a relatively consistent rushing tandem, but they have to develop some true traction to avoid the risk of the offense becoming too shallow. Once Moss got injured, the Bills turned almost exclusively to passing. Singletary earned his first carry of the Divisional round late in the second quarter. Allen put up 88 yards against the Chiefs, but Singletary and T.J. Yeldon mustered only 32 on nine carries.

In another report from Parrino, McDermott flat out noted that “we got to be able to run the football better” after the AFC title game. If anyone in the NFL can do it all, it may well certainly be Allen, but that’s no reason to force him into such a situation.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

BREAKING: New York Jets release Brian Winters Saving Cap Space

New York Jets, Brian Winters

Brian Winters has been a mainstay of the New York Jets’ offensive line for the past 7 years. From a third round pick out of Kent State in 2013, to being one of the most efficient lineman the Jets have had in the last few years, Winters has grown while in Green and White. Now, it unfortunately looks like his time donning the green and white colors has come to an end.

Why did the New York Jets release Winters?

Recently, I wrote a piece highlighting how Winters’ veteran presence could make him integral to the offensive line next season, now the Jets will continue to move forward with the offensive line overhaul. After signing Greg Van Roten in the offseason to play guard, and drafting Cameron Clark, it became apparent Winters was not in the long term plans. My initial thought process was he’d be a transitional piece for this season to allow the line to gel quicker, but now the Jets will count on offensive line coach, Frank Pollack to get the unit together in time to play Buffalo week one.

As for Winters, he will likely find a home elsewhere. He’s only 29 and despite battling injuries, he’s been somewhat efficient. As a fan, despite the $7 million freed up with his release, my heart breaks for Winters. He’s given his blood, sweat and tears to this organization. He’s grown from a rookie to a father with this team and it’s sad to see him go. With that said, he’s also a competitor and with so much football left in him I don’t think he would want to sit behind a new line and be slowly phased out. This gives him a chance to compete for a role elsewhere and hopefully find a new home. So, in the end, it’s a win-win for both sides.

Now, the Jets just built themselves an intriguing position battle. The team must figure out if Greg Van Roten, the former panthers mainstay, can hold the starting job, or if the feisty rookie, Cameron Clark can steal it away. 

New York Jets: Brian Winters could be an integral piece to a successful offense

New York Jets, Brian Winters

Brian Winters has been a veteran piece for the New York Jets for the longest time. This offseason has fogged up the future of Winters. With new additions across the board, the offensive line has undergone an extensive overhaul. As the offseason programs and now the preseason get hindered by COVID-19, continuity has become all the more imperative to success. With that said, all of a sudden, Brian Winters has just received a significant bump in his stock.

The Long Tenured Jet Is Efficient

Winters hasn’t been the most successful guard, but he’s been efficient at times. Despite battling injuries last season, he finished with a PFF rating of 62.4. That’s pretty underwhelming on the surface, but if you take a look back at his production from 2018, he was near the top half of offensive lineman in a few categories.

He allowed five sacks, which wasn’t great but could’ve been much worse over a 16 game span. He only had six penalties, which isn’t very bad. The very important stat, 1,001 snaps played, which was 17th best in all of football for linemen. Winters wasn’t spectacular. Nor has he ever been, but he’s efficient.

Why His Role Could Expand

With the lack of a preseason, Winters could make the roster and earn meaningful reps after all. Initially, it seemed as though Winters could be a cut candidate in the preseason. Now, with the lack of preseason, that eliminates the opportunity for the new pieces to gel in-game on the offensive line. With the lack of time to build chemistry, this could give Winters a leg up over his competitions, Greg Van Roten and Cameron Clark. Ultimately, Winters can provide a veteran leadership role for the rookies and new additions. As well as bring continuity on the overhauled line with the changing circumstances of the season. 

The five New York Jets with the most to gain and lose in 2020

New York Jets, Brian Winters

For these five New York Jets, 2020 could provide the ultimate football reward of longevity or set their careers into a tailspin.

If and when the 2020 NFL season commences, every single one of its participants will be dealing with at least a modicum of uncertainty. The feelings perhaps increase threefold if you’re the New York Jets, a team seeing to end a playoff drought that’s approaching a decade.

New York is one of several AFC squads looking to take advantage of expanded playoff capital. Topping the perennial division winners in New England will still be a challenge and the Buffalo Bills have set themselves up to steal the throne. The Jets will be inserted into a crowded conference playoff picture, one packed to the brim with established contenders and even more up-and-comers.

For these five individual cases, however, 2020 could be a year of their own personal playoff, one that could make or break their professional careers…

(Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

RB Le’veon Bell

The role of the modern NFL running back continues to be debated. Derrick Henry, the primary energizer behind the Tennessee Titans’ AFC title game trek, had to wait until the final hour to get a deal beyond his April franchise tag. One look at the league’s rushing leaders from as recent as 2017 should tell the story perfectly. Each of the top eight rushers from that season (including leader Kareem Hunt, who was released by Kansas City after a domestic violence incident) are no longer with the team they accomplished their marks with. That includes Bell and the 1,291 yards he tallied as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

To Bell’s credit, he has openly acknowledged the disasters of 2019, which saw him fall to full-season career-lows in nearly all major rushing categories. Accompanying these acknowledgments are promises to return to his Pittsburgh form. Bell has also been a bit of a peacemaker in the Jamal Adams situation, being able to speak his mind while also providing Jets fans reassurances during a recent interview with Hot 97. It follows up a season where he dealt with trade rumors by repeatedly expressing his loyalty to green.

Soon it’ll be time to back these claims up on the field. The Jets spent a fortune on blocking this season, to help not one but two backfield saviors. Only adding to Bell’s New York plight is the fact that the Jets are set to save $9.5 million if they release him next offseason. 2020 could set Bell up for the rest of his career…for better or worse.

(Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)

S Marcus Maye

Last month, we wrote about how big 2020 became for Maye in the wake of the Adams demands. In his Twitter rants, Adams even took the time to tell Maye that he would miss “balling” with him. But Adams’ potential departure doesn’t mean the Jets are simply going to hand dominion of the secondary over to Maye without a test run.

Perhaps under the radar because of Adams’ antics, Maye has shown flashes of strong potential. Pro Football Focus had him among the top 20 safeties last season, which served as a perfect reintroduction to football after Maye missed a good portion of 2018 with injuries. Added to Maye’s plate are looming contract negotiations. Whether it comes from the Jets or elsewhere, Maye can earn himself the big bucks with a strong outing, especially in a future free agent class that also includes Justin Simmons and Budda Baker.

WR Breshad Perriman

Almost every veteran receiver seems to have that one game in which they were untouchable. Who could forget Queens native Kevin Ogletree’s Wednesday night heroics for Dallas in the 2012 opener against the Giants or the sight of Kevin Curtis compiling 221 yards in those garish Philadelphia throwbacks? Stephone Paige is one of six players in NFL history to record 300 yards in a game…that occasion was one of only 12 times he reached triple digits in a 125-game NFL career.

Perriman was able to stretch his one shining moment into a month. The former first-round pick struggled to find a role in Baltimore but rose to the occasion for a woebegone Buccaneers team when Mike Evans missed the final portions of the season. He scored five touchdowns over the final four weeks of the season and broke triple digits in yardage in the latter trio. Brought in on one of many of Joe Douglas’ “prove-it” deals, Perriman will immediately face the challenges of a top receiver. If he succeeds in this role, his career can enjoy a Sammy Watkins-like second wind. The scary alternative potentially resides on the Jets roster in the form of Josh Doctson…a former first-round pick who will have to fight to keep his NFL dream alive in training camp.

LB Avery Williamson

A shortened, or outright canceled, preseason may hurt the Jets, but they can at least avoid scenarios like the one that saw them lose Williamson to a season-long injury during an exhibition visit to Atlanta. Despite sizable cap savings attached to his release, Williamson has been afforded a chance to win back his roster spot, despite the Jets adding Patrick Onwuasor in free agency and enjoying the ride of rookie backup Blake Cashman once Williamson was lost.

Having turned 28 in March, Williamson will not only be looking for a chance to prove he can return to form after a devastating injury but 2020 will also map out his future. If he struggles during his camp endeavors, the Jets could potentially be tantalized by $6.5 million in cap savings and reliable veteran depth in Neville Hewitt and James Burgess (each of whom was re-signed).

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

OL Brian Winters

Getting the vote of confidence from management often seems to spell doom for an incumbent coach, but the concept seems to hold more water when it comes to a player. Winters is the longest-tenured Jet on the roster (joining the team as a third-round pick out of Kent State in 2013) and, like Harrison, is one of the few offensive leftovers from Darnold’s arrival. Many thought the corresponding $7 million in cap space would lead to Winters’ release this offseason, but general manager Joe Douglas dispelled the notion.

“You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a better teammate, a tougher guy than Brian Winters,” Douglas said in February, according to Brian Costello of the New York Post. “I’ve heard a lot of optimism and positives about his rehab. So again, seeing him around the locker room, you know, it’s always good to see Brian. He’s got a big smile on his face and he’s an outstanding Jet.”

Those words appear to have afforded Winters, who turned 29 two weeks ago, another green opportunity. The ball’s now in his court in terms of taking advantage of it.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags