Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Wide receivers

The Buffalo Bills have found some reliable top receiving targets, but will need to analyze the options behind them this offseason.

The Position: Wide Receiver
On the Roster: Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah Hodgins
Free Agents: Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie
Reserve/Future: Tanner Gentry, Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams

Stefon Diggs’ first year in Western New York led to the Buffalo Bills’ single-season record book, at least the receiving chapters, to be completely rewritten.

The (Minneapolis) miracle worker made an immediate impact in his red and blue debut, earning 1,535 yards on 127 receptions…each establishing new team records and led the NFL. Buffalo had their passing weapon in Josh Allen but they now appear to have a strong tandem that can cause Kelly-to-Reed-style levels of offensive destruction. Few can question the potential future Diggs has created in Buffalo. An enduring image of the 2020-21 AFC Championship Game is Diggs watching the Kansas City Chiefs’ celebration from afar, the lone man clad in white to remain on the field.

Diggs wasn’t the only one to enjoy a breakout with the Bills. Cole Beasley likewise earned career-best numbers (967 yards on 82 receptions) while Gabriel Davis established himself a valuable day three find, as he was among four others first-years tied with seven touchdown receptions, second-best amongst rookie competitors.

Yet, the unprecedented success the Bills found last season was tough to celebrate because of the lack of Super Bowl at the end. Startling as such a leap would’ve been, Davis admitted that the semifinal heartbreak made it difficult to watch the Big Game.

“I couldn’t watch it because it made my stomach hurt. I feel like we should have been there,” the Central Florida alum told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s our standard, obviously, now. We set the standard and we’re playing to be above that standard every single year. So our guys are going to get back to work and we’re going to be ready to go, and hopefully, we get a big one next year.”

While the Bills are obviously pleased with the output from the top of their depth chart, they’ll have to analyze their alternative options this offseason. In addition to McKenzie and Roberts’ expiring contracts, the team also has a decision to make on John Brown. The former Baltimore Raven was unable to capitalize on a career-best season in 2019 as he missed several games due to injury. Buffalo would save over $6.3 million if they were to move Brown through either a release or trade.

Free Agents-to-be

Isaiah McKenzie

In a year where seemingly every Bills receiver was setting new career-bests, McKenzie was no exception, albeit on a smaller scale. He put up 282 yards and became a reliable red zone target with five scores. The man of many talents also earned a passing score through trickery and took a punt back for a score during Week 17 proceedings.

Andre Roberts

Roberts has been a consistent Pro Bowl representative for the Empire State, making the last three and the most recent two as a member of the Bills (he notably caught a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson in the 2019-2020 game). Roberts continued to make himself a valuable special teams commodity in 2020, despite getting deeper into his 30s. Appropriately, Roberts led the league with a 30-yard average on kick returns.

Will They Draft?

If they do, likely not until the latter stages. Their top three receivers from last season are all back, and they also might try to develop Isaiah Hodgins, a sixth-round choice in 2020 who missed all of his rookie campaign with an injury. Their reserve/future signees could be diamonds in the rough as well. Kumerow and Williams have extensive professional experience (Williams being a CFL All-Star in Edmonton) and Gentry, a draftee of the XFL’s New York Guardians, was Allen’s favorite target during their shared tenures as (Wyoming) Cowboys. Late projects on day three could be Davis’ former UCF teammate Tre Nixon or Michigan’s Ronnie Bell, who could be a slot-mate for Beasley.

Veteran Possibilities

Curtis Samuel, Carolina

The idea of more offensive firepower in Buffalo is the subject of nightmares in East Rutherford, Foxboro, and Miami. But Samuel is an elite target that’s a realistic option for Buffalo (which likely would require Brown’s release). One of general manager Brandon Beane’s final moves in Charlotte was taking the Brooklyn native with the 40th pick in the 2017 draft. Samuel will likely be looking for some stability with his second contract, but he well could be the proverbial “one move away” from truly pushing the Bills into the aura of Super Bowl contention.

Breshad Perriman, NY Jets

If the Bills wind up letting both Brown and McKenzie walk, Perriman would be a solid consolation prize in terms of speed and experience. It was clear last season that Perriman isn’t the type of player who can headline your receiving corps, but there’s hope he can create a good NFL career as a solid support man.

Chad Beebe, Minnesota

In some ways, it’s almost fate for Beebe to don red, white, and blue. Born in Buffalo and the son of a Bills legend (Don), Beebe can be the veteran depth option the Bills need if they’re forced to part ways with Brown or lose McKenzie.

Outlook

Overall, the Bills are more or less set with their top-heavy receiver depth chart. It’s unfortunate that Brown’s Buffalo journey might not continue, but that cap space earned with his moving (Buffalo currently ranks 20th in available cap space going into free agency) might be too much to resist. Expect the Bills to bring in a free agent or two to compete for a roster spot, as well as someone with return skills if both Roberts and McKenzie walk.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: A lesson to learn from each AFC champion

Thurman Thomas, Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills are back in the AFC title game for the first time in 27 years. What can they learn from those that came before them?

A lot of cherished memories from the 1990s seem to be making a comeback these days. If the Buffalo Bills play their cards right on Sunday, their appearances in the Super Bowl can join Saved by the Bell, The Matrix, and Dunkaroos.

For the first time since 1994, the Bills will partake in the AFC Championship Game, shipping off to Arrowhead Stadium to battle the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday evening (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS). Their last AFC title tilt appearance likewise came against the Chiefs, when earned a 30-13 win at RIch Stadium en route to Super Bowl XXVIII, the last of four consecutive Big Game appearances. In the long interim, Bills fans have continued to appreciate the efforts of Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith, and many, many others.

Over a quarter century later, worthy successors have finally risen in their place. Josh Allen has begun toppling Kelly’s franchise passing records. The tandem of Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley has emulated that of Reed and Don Beebe. Jerry Hughes has risen up in Smith’s place in pass rushing duties.

Speaking with Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News, Reed confirmed that he and his old teammates have been keeping up with the Bills victorious’ modern endeavors. The receiver was pleased to see that the young Western New Yorkers seemed to be eumulating those conference champion squads throughout their historic season.

“It takes you back in a lot of ways, because they’re scoring a lot of points,” Reed said. “They are taking a lot out of the book of our teams, and I’m sure Sean McDermott has referenced us many times during the season and the last four years he’s been there. They’ve got a quarterback that, from one year to the next, has just made a complete turnaround. And they’ve got the weapons. I just think they’ve got everybody that that front office wanted to get. You can get all the pieces you want, but if they don’t work in the system, it really doesn’t matter.”

In honor of the Bills’ big day, ESM looks back on what the present Bills can learn from the champions of the past, as they seek to reach the first of what they hope is far more than a mere four consecutive Super Bowls…

1990-91: Keep up the pace

With their propensity for big yardage and scoring outputs, the 1990 Bills wouldn’t be out of place in the modern NFL, one that worships the offensive side of the ball. One of the ways Buffalo turned up the heat on their opponents was an uptempo attack that wore defenses down. Even when the New York Giants neutralized the offense by holding the ball for over 40 minutes in Super Bowl XXV, the Bills were able to quickly set themselves up for a game-winning field goal attempt when they got the ball back at their own 10 with 2:16 to go in the game.

Kelly confirmed in December that he had gone over his no-hiddle endeavors with modern offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. The Hall-of-Fame said that the Bills’ current setup makes them a good fit for an up-tempo setting.

“I got to spend a lot of time with Brian last year we got together and sat and watched film when I was playing with our no huddle offense,” Kelly said, per a report from team reporter Chris Brown. “Looking at some of the plays that I ran a lot because I liked them and they were an easy read and you can utilize all your receivers that you need to especially the one-on-ones that I had with James Lofton and Andre Reed. And Josh now has (Cole) Beasley, (John) Brown and of course (Stefon) Diggs.”

1991-92: Defense (still) wins championships

No one’s denying that the Bills are prepared for a shootout with the Chiefs. But while NFL scoreboards routine reach the 30s these days, there have been plenty of examples where the value of a strong defense has come to the forefront. After all, we’re two years from the slugfest in Super Bowl LIII that saw the Patriots take a 13-3 decision from the Rams.

The Bills were sure to keep their defense up to par, and far beyond it, during their conference dominance. Their uptempo offensive antics were brought back in their first AFC title defense, once again leading the league in yardage and finishing second in scoring. But after easily handling Kansas City in the Divisional round, they ran into a determined Denver Broncos team that would allow only a late Scott Norwood field goal in the championship game.

Their defense, however, took care of a potent Denver. The Broncos invaded Buffalo territory on each of their first five possessions, but crucial sacks and stops forced them into uncomfortable situations. Buffalo recovered only one of four Denver fumbles, but it led to longer field goal attempts for David Treadwell, who missed each of his three chances. Carlton Bailey provided the biggest scoring chunk of the afternoon with an 11-yard touchdown through a John Elway interception.

Today, the Bills defense has apparently saved their best for last. When Allen’s usual passing antics were stifled by Orchard Park’s winds during last week’s Divisional round, they likewise held their opponent, Baltimore, in check and provided a death blow through a pick-six. Taron Johnson’s return as a little bit longer than Bailey’s going 101 yards for the clincher in a 17-3 win.

1992-93: Contributions can come from all over the depth chart

We’ve seen countless promising seasons derailed through an injured quarterback, particularly in the latter stages of the season. This postseason was no exception, as we saw John Wolford and Taylor Heinicke start games on the NFC side when Jared Goff and Alex Smith were respectively sidelined with late ailments. The 1992-93 Bills are, of course, best known for “The Comeback”, the rally from 35-3 down against the Houston Oilers in the AFC Wild Card round. That historic march was overseen by Frank Reich after Kelly went down with a Week 17 injury. Reich came up big against in the Divisional win over Pittsburgh with two touchdown passes, but he wasn’t the only reserve who rose up. Kenneth Davis tallied 104 yards when the Steelers’ defense bottled up Thomas, while Cliff Hicks earned a sack. The latter earned an interception a week later against Miami in the AFC title game.

Josh Allen is (knock on wood) ready to go for Sunday’s visit to Kansas City, but some unsung heroes have helped fuel the ongoing Buffalo playoff run. Johnson not only had last week’s runback, but his crucial takedown of Jonathan Taylor on third-and-goal at the one helped change the course of the Wild Card victory over the Colts two weeks ago. Daryl Williams has not only been serviceable in replacing the injured Cody Ford, but he earned a crucial fumble recovery in that Wild Card triumph. When John Brown and mastery of trickery Isaiah McKenzie are perhaps your fourth and fifth viable options at receiver, you know you have a deep squad. Head coach Sean McDermott noted the importance of having such a deep unit in a year affected by unprecedented obstacles prior to the playoffs.

“You’ve got to be able to count on depth,” McDermott said, via Chris Brown. “You’ve got to have depth in this league, this year in particular, with not only injuries occurring but the virus, knocking people out. So, it’s highly critical.”

1993-94: Go all out, because you never know when you’ll be back

By the 1993 season, many had tired of the Bills’ schtick. While Norwood’s memorable miss capped off a one-point loss against the Giants, Buffalo’s next two visits to the Super Bowl were one-sided affairs, falling to Washington in a 37-24 debacle that was never really close and avoiding Super Bowl infamy only through Beebe’s strip of a showboating Leon Lett in a 52-17 defeat at the hands of Dallas.

But as the situation became more dire at the Rose Bowl against the Cowboys, likely sending the anti-Bills factions into full fury, Kelly reportedly turned to pass rusher Jeff Wright and suggested they make the return trip yet again.

“We laughed and had a couple of drinks over it,” Wright said in a report from Jerry Sullivan of WIVB. “By God, we did it.”

The Bills defied the doubters, many of whom were questioning players’ efforts and abilities. Those partially died down when they earned a 13-10 upset win over the Cowboys in Irving. Afterwards, they once again posted a dominant effort, capturing the top seed in the AFC once more and winning their last six games prior to Super Bowl XXVIII. Another loss to Dallas awaited, but the Bills’ camaraderie and strength was unmatched.

Thomas, one of the biggest targets after the 1992 season, capped it off with one of the most dominant performances in conference championship history. He tallied 186 yards and three as the Bills crushed the Chiefs 30-13.

“We were a force to be reckoned with. You had to bring your breakfast, your lunch, your dinner and a snack for afterwards, because we were going to be there playing football for 60 minutes,” Thomas said in Sullivan’s report. He seems to feel that the modern Bills have the same brand of hunger and intensity going into Sunday.

“They have that same confidence in who they are and what their abilities are. You can tell they’re having fun. Like us, these guys love going over there to the facility and practicing and being around the guys. And that’s how you bring a great team together.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills headed to Kansas City for AFC title game

The Buffalo Bills will run into a familiar foe for their first AFC Championship Game appearance since 1994.

It would appear not much has changed in the American Football Conference after 27 years.

With the AFC Divisional playoffs decided, the Buffalo Bills will meet the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2020-21 AFC Championship Game. The game will be the latter segment of the NFL’s conference championship Sunday situation. It will kick off at 6:40 p.m. ET at Arrowhead Stadium and air nationally on CBS.

Buffalo (15-3) clinched their ticket to the AFC title game with a 17-3 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night, anchored by Taron Johnson’s 101-yard interception return for a touchdown and a three-yard scoring hookup between Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs. Meanwhile, the defending champion Chiefs (15-2) made their 2021 postseason debut on Sunday, topping the Cleveland Browns by a 22-17 final. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce united for 219 receiving yards on 16 receptions, with the latter scoring a touchdown.

The Bills and Chiefs met once this season in Orchard Park, with Kansas City prevailing in a 26-17 decision. Buffalo was held to a season-low 206 yards in defeat, while rookie rusher Clyde Edwards-Helaire had 161 yards for Kansas City. The matchup was initially set to be held on a Thursday night but was moved to the following Monday after Buffalo’s prior opponent, Tennessee, experienced COVID-19 complications.

Buffalo and Kansas City previously met in the 1993-94 AFC Championship, with Buffalo earning a 30-13 victory to advance to Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta, clinching their ticket to the last of four straight Super Bowl appearances. Thurman Thomas stole the show, earning 186 yards and three scores on the ground. This will mark the third time that the Bills and Chiefs will meet with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Kansas City earned a ticket to the original Super Bowl, then known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, with a 31-7 win over the Bills in the 1966-67 AFL Championship. The two sides also met in the 1991-92 Divisional round, with Buffalo prevailing 37-14.

As the hype for the conference title game begins, the major headlines will likely center on the status of Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The defending Super Bowl MVP earned two scores in the Sunday victory over Cleveland (one on the ground, one in the air) but was forced out of the game after taking a tough hit that put him in concussion protocol. Veteran backup Chad Henne stepped in and managed things well, completing 6-of-8 passes for 66 yards. Henne threw an interception but later came up big on Kansas City’s final drive, with his 13-yard rush and five-yard toss Tyreek Hill clinching the game for the Chiefs.

Arrowhead Stadium is now set to host the AFC title game for the third consecutive season. The Chiefs fell to New England in 2019 before topping Tennessee last year. Buffalo’s last playoff triumph on the road came in January 1993, when won in Miami to advance to Super Bowl XXVII.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Three stars from Saturday’s win vs. Baltimore

The Buffalo Bills are headed to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since 1994 after a dominant second half against Baltimore.

A celebration 27 years in the making commenced in Orchard Park on Saturday night.

Stefon Diggs earned 106 yards on eight receptions, one of which went for a score, while cornerback Taron Johnson returned an interception 101 yards for another. Both scores came in the third quarter and allowed the Bills (15-3) to pick up a 17-3 lead over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Divisional playoffs.

The Bills now awaited the winner of the other leg of the AFC Divisional round, with the matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns set to go down on Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET, CBS). If Cleveland wins, the conference championship will be held at Orchard Park, while the Bills will hit the road if Kansas City triumphs.

ESM has three stars who played a major role in Saturday’s game…

3rd Star: WR Stefon Diggs

Stefon Diggs and the Divisional playoff round…after the Minneapolis Miracle and providing the biggest offensive spark on Saturday, it’s hard to find a better combination. Josh Allen wasn’t his usual 2020-21 self, but captured a semblance of it with Diggs, particularly during the game-changing 66-yard drive to open the second half. Facing a brutal 2nd-and-16 after a Pernell McPhee sack, Allen went to Diggs for a 20-yard gain that put the Bills back in Baltimore territory. After some collaboration with Devin Singletary, Allen found Diggs for the score that gave the Bills the lead for good, a three-yard pass to make it a 10-3 game.

2nd Star: CB Taron Johnson

Johnson may not be a household name quite yet, but arguably no one has done more to shift postseason momentum to the Buffalo side than Johnson. One week ago during the Wild Card round, Johnson’s crucial goal-line tackle of Jonathan Taylor on third-and-goal led to a turnover-on-downs and prevented Indianapolis from taking a scary two-possession lead. This time around, Johnson’s shifting became NFL history, as he took back a Lamar Jackson interception 101 yards for a touchdown, tying an NFL playoff record that George Teague held by himself for 27 years.

1st Star: DE Jerry Hughes

One of the Bills’ rare leftovers from their 17-year playoff drought…which becomes more distant of a memory with each passing victory…Hughes played a major role in making Jackson and the Baltimore run game feel uncomfortable. Hughes posted his second multi-sack playoff game in Buffalo (his first coming during their postseason cameo in Houston last year) with two takedowns and two other quarterback hits. The latter category might’ve been even bigger than his sacks. One play before Johnson’s pick-six to glory, pressure from Hughes forced Jackson to rush his pass to a wide-open Marquise Brown. The resulting incompletion paved the way for Johnson to make history and for the Bills’ conference title game dreams become an even truer reality.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Stefon Diggs, four others named to 2020 All-Pro teams

As the Buffalo Bills prepare for the postseason, five of their brightest start received All-Pro nominations.

The Buffalo Bills earned a bit of a morale boost as they prepare for their long-awaited AFC Wild Card matchup at home against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS). Five Buffalo representatives appeared on the NFL’s All-Pro teams, whose rosters were released on Friday. Stefon Diggs appeared on the first-team group, ending yet another dubious streak in Bills history, as he’s the first receiver to earn the honor in franchise history.

Diggs, 27, has proven to be well worth the four draft picks Buffalo sent west to obtain him from the Minnesota Vikings. Best known for his game-winning touchdown at the end of the 2018 NFC Divisional playoffs against New Orleans, Diggs set Buffalo records with 1,535 yards on 127 receptions, both of which led the league. He earned AFC Player of the Week honors for his Week 16 performance against New England, earning 145 yards and three scores on nine receptions.

Returning to the All-Pro list are returner Andre Roberts and cornerback Tre’Davious White, who were respective first-team members in 2018 and 2019. Roberts led the league with 30 yards per kick return and ranked seventh with a 9.9 average on punts. White is living up to a four-year, $70 million extension ($55 million guaranteed) bestowed to him in September and lived up to it with 57 tackles, 11 pass breakups, and three interceptions despite missing two games due to a back injury.

New to All-Pro lists are quarterback Josh Allen and receiver Cole Beasley, both second-teamers. Like Diggs, Allen spent this season rewriting the Bills’ record books, tallying 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns through the air. Allen was responsible for 46 scores overall, picking up eight rushing tallies and one receiving through a trick play collaboration with John Brown. As for Beasley, he also set career-bests despite missing the last two games of the year with injuries of his own. The former Dallas Cowboy earned 967 yards on 82 receptions, four of which went for six.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

3 reasons why the Buffalo Bills are (and aren’t) the team to beat in the AFC

The Buffalo Bills are firing on all cylinders as the NFL playoffs get underway. But does the AFC still belong to the Chiefs? ESM investigates.

Are you ready to party like it’s 1994? For once, someone other than New York Rangers fans are willing to do so in the Empire State.

Five months before Mark Messier accepted the Stanley Cup at Madison Square Garden, the Buffalo Bills battled the Kansas City Chiefs for AFC supremacy in January’s conference title game at what-was-then-known-as Rich Stadium. Through a dominant effort from Thurman Thomas (186 rushing yards and three scores), Buffalo rolled to a 30-13 victory that clinched their fourth consecutive Super Bowl berth.

27 years later, the two teams appear to be on a collision course toward a rematch in the game’s 2021 edition. Kansas City (14-2) and Buffalo (13-3) are the top two seeds in the first edition of the revamped AFC playoffs. Fulfilling the star-crossed prophecies of Western New York sports, Buffalo secure the second overall seed…in the first year that the conference runner-up is not entitled to a bye week (or at least first since the adjusted 1982 playoffs due to a players’ strike). The lone automatic advancement goes to the defending champion Chiefs, while the Bills take on the first extra wild-card, the seventh-seeded Indianapolis Colts, in the official postseason opener on Saturday afternoon (1:05 p.m. ET, CBS). Buffalo missed out on a first-round bye, but, on the brighter side, the earliest they would face the Chiefs is the potential conference title game.

So should the Bills, slowly becoming America’s adoptive squad, be the favorite as the playoffs get underway? ESM investigates why…and why not:

Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Why: They’re taking care of business

If not for Kyler Murray’s miracle in Glendale back in November, the Bills may have entered the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak…with their last loss coming to Kansas City. Since that heartbreaker in the desert and the ensuing week off, Buffalo has won six in a row, each victory coming by no less than 10 points. They and the Green Bay Packers enter the postseason with the longest active winning streak in the NFL (though Kansas City would probably have a streak of 11 in a row if they hadn’t rested their starters in a Sunday loss to Los Angeles).

The Bills are just winning games…they’re dominating them. Their point differential of 119 over the past six weeks is by far the best in football in that span (fellow AFC participant Baltimore is in second at 92) and the Bills’ offense is averaging just under 430 yards per game (also best in that timeframe). Team records are falling on both the individual (through Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs) and team level. For example, last week’s 56-26 victory a Miami Dolphins team that had much to play for allowed the Bills to set a personal-best for most points scored in a single season (501).

It’s not like the Bills are bullying AFC slouches, either. In addition to eliminating Miami, Buffalo’s winning streak featured a healthy Sunday night win over Pittsburgh. Save for the Arizona nightmare, they won every leg of their interconference slate, which included wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks (who face off in the NFC wild-card match immediately after the Bills-Colts game). If this were the College Football Playoff, we’d likely see the Bills swiping one of the top four spots..probably to play Alabama.

Buffalo’s domination contrasts the relatively exciting football Kansas City has played. Most of the Chiefs’ contributors from their Super Bowl run are back, headlined by the lethal duo of Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. But each of the team’s past seven victories has come by only a single possession. The last game featuring Kansas City starters was a sloppy 17-14 slugfest against the eliminated Atlanta Falcons, a game that avoided overtime because of a rare Younghoe Koo miss. Their top unit has another week to get things rolling as they simmer in a first-round bye.

Why Not: They have little playoff experience

The Bills have broken countless streaks of futility this season. One, however, looms large: a postseason win drought dating back to December 1995, when they topped Miami in the Wild Card round. The dry spell nearly ended in Houston last season, but victory slipped through their grasp in overtime. For most of the players on this team, their knowledge of January football stems from either the heartbreaking visit to Buffalo or the 10-3 Wild Card slugfest in Jacksonville back in 2018. The former loss still looms large on the Bills’ psyche as they prepare to attempt to finally get over the hump against the Colts.

“It still lingers a little bit, just knowing the situation of the game, knowing what I could’ve done differently, reads I could’ve changed. If I could change it, obviously would, but I can’t, and I’m glad for the lessons I learned throughout that game and throughout the three years I’ve been playing so far,” quarterback Josh Allen said to Mary Margaret Johnson of WIVB. “Without failure, you wouldn’t know success. We’ve got to find ways to put our best foot forward and try to get a victory.”

Kansas City, on the other hand, is the only team in the league that has won playoff games in consecutive seasons, reaching the AFC title game before their Super Bowl triumph over San Francisco last season. According to Mahomes, the former playoff trip played a vital role in his eventual Vince Lombardi Trophy hoist. In his first full year as a starter, the Chiefs topped Indianapolis in the Divisional round before bowing out in overtime to the eventual champions from New England in the AFC title game.

Mahomes mentioned just how important the prior experience was when gearing up for the run to Super Bowl LIV last season.

“For me, I think the only thing that is really different is having the experience,” Mahomes said prior to the AFC Divisional round against Houston, per Charles Goldman of Chiefs Wire. “Being able to play in games like this at Arrowhead and being able to win one and lose one. I understand that every single play counts, how much every single rep in practice counts, and how you have to take advantage of every single opportunity that you get.”

Mahomes’ quick adaptation from playoff heartbreak led to a Super Bowl title. Buffalo will have to channel similar energy if they’re hoping to end this season on the right note.

Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Why: Their defense is finding a dominant stride

Any battle between the Bills and Chiefs would likely require a backup scoreboard on standby at Arrowhead Stadium. Buffalo (501) and Kansas City (473) are good for first and third respectively in the AFC in scoring, sandwiching Tennessee. The Chiefs top the NFL at just over 415 yards a game, with Buffalo the first team behind them at 396.

But that’s where the Bills’ defense can step in. The NFL may be a league that worships an offensive deity known as “fantasy football”, but several important games over the past few seasons (i.e. Super Bowl LIII) have proven that defense still has its place in modern professional football. Buffalo’s defense is getting hot at the perfect time. Not only did they hold three consecutive opponents under 300 yards in December…almost an impossibility in today’s offense-happy NFL..they’ve been forcing turnovers as well. The Bills have forced at least one turnover in all but one of their past 11 games, the rare exception being their most recent visit to New England, when they allowed only 201 yards of offense in a 38-9 win. In their elimination victory over the Dolphins, they earned four takeaways, headlined by Josh Norman’s interception return for a touchdown.

In a report from team writer Jordan LaBarber, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds described the Bills’ defensive endeavors as “fun” after they dismantled fellow division champion Pittsburgh on national television.

“The biggest thing is starting fast, playing physical, playing free, and guys just having fun. I think, if I had to say the number one thing, it’s having fun. If you have fun, a lot of those things kind of take care of itself,” Edmunds said. “I honestly take my hat off just to the whole, you know, the team, just the people I have around me. I can’t do it all by myself. I think just us as a team, we are having fun. And any time you have fun, I think those plays just kind of show up.”

Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Why Not: They’re hurting

For most of the season, the Bills dodged the 2020 demons brought on by COVID-19 and injuries. Reserve tight end and goal line target Tyler Kroft, for example, was placed on the reserve list twice but was activated each time without further incident. But the Bills have some major question marks when it comes to their receiving corps as they enter Saturday’s game in Indianapolis.

Diggs would be the scariest absence, as he has missed out on practice on Wednesday due to oblique issues. The NFL’s leading receiver (127 receptions, 1535 yards, both Bills records) has indicated that he’ll be ready to go for the Colts’ visit, but head coach Sean McDermott was more cautious. Diggs did partake in Thursday’s preparation at Bills Stadium, as did Cole Beasley, per photos from Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. The slot receiver Beasley set new career-bests this season (82 receptions, 967 yards) but missed the Week 17 contest with a knee injury. Thursday’s proceedings were his first form of football action since the week prior in New England. Isaiah McKenzie, fresh off a career-game against the Dolphins (three touchdowns, including a punt return), has also been limited all week.

Though Bills fans may exhale about Diggs’ confidence to play this week, the receiver noted how well the Buffalo depth compliments each other. Fourth-round rookie Gabriel Davis has tallied seven scores this season while John Brown made his return in the regular season finale after missing the past five games with a knee and ankle issue.

“Having that depth, having guys, in this playoff run, you don’t what’s going to happen,” Diggs said in a report from Parrino. “Guys can get hurt, (with) COVID and all the stuff that’s going on. Having depth doesn’t hurt you. It kind of puts you in space where that next man up is really, really real. I say more so give all the credit being able to find the open man, deliver a strike and being able to have success offensively with the guys you haven’t typically had a lot of reps with.”

Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Why: They have Josh Allen

There’s little doubt about Allen’s ability at this point. He has silenced pretty much any doubters with an MVP-worth season that has yielded 46 touchdowns through the air (37), ground (8), a trick play from Brown (1). To put that number in perspective, punter Corey Bojorquez has been called upon only 37 times.

But the feel-good stories of the NFL, particularly those found under center, can quickly be neutralized by a lack of playoff success. For example, it took one botched field goal for Tony Romo to be eternally labeled as a fourth-quarter choker (though his stats often proved otherwise). Jared Goff’s reputation with the Rams hasn’t been the same since a brutal day in the aforementioned Super Bowl against the Patriots. Conquering the postseason is the last hurdle Allen has to clear before officially cementing his superstar status.

Allen escaped a good share of the blame for the heartbreak in Houston, even though he mustered only one receiving touchdown (another toss from Brown) and he had a fumble at the onset of the fourth quarter that led to a Texans field goal. But, with more postseason futility, the inevitable, if not unjust, question of “how many playoff wins does he have?” is inevitably going to come up.

But, going into the postseason, Allen isn’t worried about his personal case. His perspective is entirely team-focused.

“The only thing when I’m on the field is my fear of letting my teammates down,” Allen said to LaBarber. “As quarterback of the team, your job is to move the ball and to score points. So, when we’re not scoring points, that’s my biggest fear. It’s putting our defense in a bind if we’re not moving the chains on third down, again, that puts us behind the eight ball and we’ve got to punt the ball away. That’s what drives me. That’s what motivates me. I fear letting the guys who drafted me, this front office, and this organization, down.”

Why Not: They don’t have Patrick Mahomes…and Travis Kelce…and Andy Reid…and…

October gave us a potential preview of this matchup, with Kansas City prevailing in a somewhat sloppy 26-17 triumph. Each side’s discombobulation could potentially be attributed to the fact it was a Thursday nighter shifted to a Monday late afternoon due to COVID-19 issues with the Bills’ prior opponent in Nashville. But the Bills weren’t looking for excuses.

“We weren’t good enough. I was not good enough,” said Allen, held to a season-low 122 yards, to LaBarber and Dante Lasting. “I got to do a better job. It’s plain and simple. I didn’t play very good tonight. I know that, understand that. This team can’t afford to have me play poorly. Early on, just not being as accurate with the ball as I should have been, making the right reads, making the right throws.”

There is, technically, no shame in losing to Kansas City. Last season’s Super Bowl run was a firm statement that they didn’t save the AFC from New England monopoly…they simply declared the conference was under new management. The Chiefs were not only set up for short-term success but packed things up for the long-term, locking Mahomes to his infamous half-billion-dollar deal that somehow seems like too little. Super Bowl hero Damien Williams (understandably) opted out of the 2020 proceedings and the Chiefs didn’t lose a step, sustained by Mahomes’ passing antics to weapons like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. So there’s little shame in colliding with a team of destiny and coming out on the wrong end.

But the Bills know that success in the NFL is far too fleeting to rely on the future. That Jacksonville team that beat them in 2018 went to the AFC title game and seem destined for a return trip. The Jaguars are now choosing first in the 2021 NFL Draft this spring.

It’s going to be hard to top Kansas City, but first thing’s first…beating the Colts on Saturday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs wins AFC Offensive Player of the Week

After a dominant performance in New England, Diggs becomes the first Buffalo Bills catcher to earn POTW honors since Andre Reed.

The 2020 Buffalo Bills have erased yet another dubious streak in this game-changing season.

No Bills receiver had won the AFC Offensive Player of the Week since Andre Reed torched the Green Bay Packers for 191 yards in a November 1994 tilt. Stefon Diggs has ended the drought, earning the honors with a 145-yard performance that yielded three touchdowns on Monday night in New England. Diggs’ performance was a major catalyst in the Bills’ 38-9 victory over New England and clinched their first sweep of the Patriots since 1999.

Situated against New England’s shutdown corner J.C. Jackson, Diggs helped the Bills build an early lead that they would never relinquish. He and Jackson exchanged words all night, but even the defender had kind words for Diggs after their battle.

“He’s a playmaker, he comes back to the ball better than any receiver in the league,” Jackson said, per Nick Shook of NFL.com. “He’s got great hands. You’ve got to almost be perfect when you’re guarding somebody like that. You’ve got to almost have perfect coverage in man-to-man.”

The acquisition of Diggs will likely go down as one of the most important decisions of general manager Brandon Beane’s tenure. Some felt that Beane sent over far too many draft picks (four) in the deal that made Diggs a Bill, which included a first-round choice that became Justin Jefferson. However, Diggs has proven to be well worth the endeavor, currently leading the NFL with 1,459 yards on 120 receptions, which both stand as Buffalo records. The Bills (12-3) have also earned their best win total since 1993 and their first AFC East title since 1995.

Diggs joins his quarterback, Josh Allen, as AFC offensive honorees throughout the course of the 2020 season. Allen has won four this season and six total in his career, trailing only Jim Kelly (10) for most won in a Bills uniform.

Elsewhere in the conference’s weekly honors, Mike Hilton earned the top defensive honors for his role in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ vital victory over Indianapolis, while Diggs’ fellow AFC East competitor Jason Sanders earned the special teams title in Miami.

The Bills will end their regular season on Sunday afternoon against the aforementioned Miami Dolphins in Orchard Park (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Beating the Patriots officially changes AFC East guard

The Buffalo Bills were division champions either way, but a national display of power meant a little more considering who it came against.

Trophies for division titles don’t exist in the NFL. There was no trophy ceremony after the Buffalo Bills won their first AFC East honor last weekend in the Rocky Mountains. Sure, a good portion of Bills Mafia flocked to Buffalo Niagara International Airport to welcome them home, but there was no, say, sword or official championship belt to display upon landing.

But the Bills were more than happy to stage a coronation ceremony in front of a national audience on Monday night.

Granted their fourth consecutive nationally televised contest, the Bills added insult to the New England Patriots’ injury to the tune of a 38-9 shellacking at Gillette Stadium. Buffalo (12-3) dominated every aspect of the victory, outgaining New England 474-201, limiting them to 11 first downs, forcing a quarterback change that signified that the search for Tom Brady’s successor is anything but over, and causing the eternally stoic Belichick to lose his cool on an innocent sideline phone.

The victory is the Patriots’ most one-sided loss of the Belichick era and the worst endured at the modern Foxboro stadium since its 2002 opening.

On paper, the victory over a Patriots team that fell to 6-9 on the season. Buffalo did what they were supposed to do. They did a little thing, thoroughly defeat a squad removed from the playoff picture, extraordinarily well.

But there’s no denying that the opponent played a role in Buffalo’s elation.

“We’re nobody’s little brother. We’re not nobody’s little cousin, little dog,” offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said of the win, per Sean T. McGuire of NESN. “We are here. You’re going to respect us and you’re going to play us hard. You’re going to circle us on your schedule.”

Monday marked the exorcising of horrifying gridiron demons beyond imagination, malevolent football spirits that had haunted Western New York since the turn of the century. The two most dreaded days in Buffalo in recent years…other than opening night of Sabres season…have been the yearly get-togethers with the Patriots. New England entered 2020 with a downright jaw-dropping 35-5 advantage in the new millennium. One of the rare Buffalo victories came when Brady was serving a suspension for his role in the infamous “Deflategate” incident.

But with Brady having absconded to Tampa Bay (and joining the Bills in the NFL playoffs), the Patriots have fallen and the questions have only accumulated. The Bills took a hard-fought 24-21 decision from New England in the Orchard Park portion in November and had a chance to earn their first double against the Patriots since 1999. They entered the game as Foxboro favorites and were in no danger whatsoever of losing their status as division champion.

A nationally televised opportunity to earn that elusive sweep, however, was a perfect chance to stage a changing of the guard through symbolism often found only in storybooks.

The Patriots’ utter dominance in the Buffalo series often served as fuel toward their unprecedented streak of AFC East titles, winning all but three since 2000. Those wins over the Bills (as well as wins over fellow also-rans from East Rutherford and Miam) were unimpressive and easy to dismiss on paper. But New England did those little things extraordinarily well, and did so on a consistent basis. It’s part of the reason why they have, more often than not, been among at least the final four contenders come Super Bowl time.

Buffalo’s synergy in symbolism and the timing of one of their most dominant efforts in recent memory could not have been better. Whereas New England faces indefinite questions about their franchise quarterback slot after Cam Newton was mercifully pulled from the proceedings for Jarrett Stidham, Josh Allen threw four more touchdown passes and strengthened his MVP case. The Patriots’ shortcomings on both the free agent and draft fronts were made all the more apparent through the efforts of Buffalo acquisitions like Stefon Diggs (9 receptions, 145 yards, 3 touchdowns). Shown to be unstoppable to opposing defense over the past few weeks, Allen and Diggs have also laid waste to the Bills’ record books, shattering historic marks left and right en route to AFC East supremacy. Diggs is now the Bills’ single-season leader in receptions and yardage, surpassing campaigns from Eric Moulds, while Allen broke Jim Kelly’s long-standing touchdown pass record.

Elsewhere, day three depth gem Siran Neal, normally a safety, channeled his high school days at Miami Killian and picked up a first down through a fake punt reception from fellow former Cougar Jaquan Johnson…another choice found at the tail-end of the draft.

Those who bore the most brutal form of New England-based punishment played their part in the victory as well. Reserve tight end Lee Smith, used primarily for his blocking talents, scored a four-yard touchdown that permanently shifted momentum after a New England scoring drive…one that proved to be their last thanks to a sterling defensive effort from a Bills defense featuring Jerry Hughes. Smith and Hughes are the lone holdovers from Buffalo’s 17-year playoff drought and the New England nightmares that came with it.

There was no better way for Buffalo to inform New England that there was a new sheriff in town and to warn the rest of the NFL that their Super Bowl dreams are just as legitimate as those conjured in Kansas City.

“We’re going to come out swinging out the gate. That’s just Buffalo Bills football,” Hughes said in a report from Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. “We find a way to put our backs against the wall, that’s our mentality. Once that kickoff happens, you’re getting us. You’re getting dogs, you’re getting controlled aggression. We’re coming at you.”

“This is an organization, being the Patriots, that (has) given the Bills fits over the years,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said in the postgame, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “It’s a win in both games against the Patriots and then to win the way we did tonight, I think it just speaks volumes about our players and coaches and the team that (general manager Brandon Beane) has put on the field.”

Hughes was all too gleeful to add that, after years of enduring New England’s bullying, it was fun to be on the dealing end of it.

“I was telling some of the guys on the sideline, I haven’t had this feeling in Foxborough ever,” Hughes said in the Parrino update. “This was a nice feeling to come back here in this stadium and return a nice punch in the face. It felt good.”

One could write a book about the dubious streaks this magical season has ended. Buffalo knows their most vital streaks…particularly those of postseason futility…loom large.

But this slaying of the metaphorical New England dragon shouldn’t just scare the Patriots’ faithful…but the rest of the league as the playoffs approach.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

Buffalo Bills: 3 stars from Monday’s win at New England

The changing of the guard in the AFC East was officially completed with the Buffalo Bills’ blowout win in Foxboro.

The holiday may be a time for forgiveness and unity…but the Buffalo Bills weren’t interested in bestowing such virtues against one of their greatest tormenters.

Buffalo (12-3) put up 476 yards of offense and watched Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs make team history in their seasonal wrap-up with the New England Patriots. The ensuing 38-9 victory allowed the Bills to clinch their first season sweep of the six-time champions since 1999. They also earned the most one-sided victory for an opponent at Gillette Stadium since its opening in 2002, breaking a record set my the San Francisco 49ers earlier this season.

The Bills are no longer able to catch the Kansas City Chiefs for the top seed in the AFC playoffs but are now guaranteed to place no worse than third in the opening bracket. Buffalo currently holds the second seed thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker with Pittsburgh. Such a seeding will also allow the Bills to avoid the defending champion Chiefs until the potential conference title game.

ESM has game balls to hand out from a downright historic evening on the road…

3rd Star: TE Lee Smith

2 receptions, 31 yards, 1 TD

Smith is one of two leftovers from the Bills’ postseason drought, currently in the midst of his second stint and sixth season with a charging buffalo on his helmet. Used primarily as a blocker, Smith almost got into the scorebook last week but his touchdown in Denver was erased by a penalty. The Buffalo offense had him covered this time around, though, as he would score a four-yard touchdown in the latter stages of the first half to put Buffalo up 17-9. Smith would later earn a 27-yard reception in the fourth quarter to set up Allen and Diggs’ third and final scoring hookup on the evening. His 31-yard output was his highest since November 2018, when he was a member of the Raiders.

2nd Star: QB Josh Allen

27-36, 320 yards, 4 TD, 4 carries, 35 yards

Another week, another breakthrough performance for Allen, who is eliminating any remaining doubters he had left. More Buffalo history awaited him on Monday, as Allen’s fourth and final score of the evening, his 34th of the season, broke Jim Kelly’s single-season record for touchdown passes. That mark had stood since 1991. Relieved for Matt Barkley in the fourth quarter, Allen is 40 yards away from breaking Drew Bledsoe’s record tally for single-campaign yardage.

1st Star: WR Stefon Diggs

9 receptions, 145 yards, 3 TD

Finally armed with a team capable of conquering the AFC East, the Bills were more than happy to flex their muscles in front of a New England team that has bullied them since the turn of the century. Diggs, engaged in a war of words with J.C. Jackson all night, and his incredible run-after-the-catch prowess were some of their most prominent displays of supremacy, His 50-yard score just before halftime more or less snapped the Patriots’ will. That score allowed Diggs to make Buffalo history in style, as he surpassed a pair of historic years from Eric Moulds to become the Bills’ single-season leader in receiving yardage. Diggs is also on pace to finish the year as the NFL’s leader in both receptions and yardage, which would be a first for a Bill in both categories.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills celebrate Christmas with gifts, style, and song

The Christmas holiday only added to the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills’ ongoing festivities in Orchard Park.

With apologies to Lexus, the Buffalo Bills have been the true providers of a “December to Remember” in 2020.

With the Christmas season in full swing, the Bills are enjoying one of the most successful and publicized campaigns in team history. Buffalo (11-3) has won four in a row, including each of their three December contests. That trio has each been televised to a national audience, and that trend will continue on Monday when the Bills battle the New England Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN). They can clinch the second overall seed in the AFC playoff bracket with a win over the Patriots and a Pittsburgh loss to Indianapolis on Sunday.

In the midst of their preparation, the Bills did take some time to acknowledge the holiday as they prepare to head to Foxboro. For example, it began to look at lot like Christmas at the team facility this week, appropriately on December 24. Quarterback Josh Allen bore a green sweatshirt under his practice jersey, bearing the insignia “Felic Navidad” and an animated image of namesake and starting offensive lineman Jon Feliciano dressed as Santa Claus. Receiver Stefon Diggs likewise appeared to be clad in such a hoodie. A certain Buffalo defender gave a whole new meaning to “White Christmas”, as cornerback Tre’Davious White wore gold cleats adorned with wreaths, holly, and lights.

The Bills also made time for gift-giving during the week. Fortunately for the fans, these Christmas surprises came not through Sunday turnovers, as they kept the exchange to off-the-field…heck, maybe even off-the-road…endeavors.

Buffalo receivers had a special surprise for receivers coach Chad Hall, coming together to purchase the former Air Force second lieutenant with a new Ford F-150 pickup truck. Hall’s emotional reaction was captured in a video since deleted from Isaiah McKenzie’s Instagram page but preserved by The Bills Wire’s Bradley Gelber.

As a team, the Bills commemorated the holiday by having their players sing the seasonal carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. The video’s introduction features general manager Brandon Beane channeling Randy Quaid’s character from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, clad in a bathrobe and Bills winter hat. Beane also jokingly laments that he and the front office were unable to find better singers for the holiday season.

Buffalo will conclude their regular season in Orchard Park next weekend against Miami.

 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags