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

Buffalo Bills sign ex-Giants RB Devonta Freeman to practice squad

New York Giantsm Devonta Freeman

The Buffalo Bills made a pair of roster moves as they prepare for their Divisional matchup against Baltimore on Saturday.

The Buffalo Bills announced a series of roster moves prior to Saturday’s night AFC Divisional Playoff matchup against the Baltimore Ravens (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC). In conjunction with the placement of running back Zack Moss on injured reserve, the team added rusher Devonta Freeman to their practice squad and activated offensive lineman Jordan Devey to their 53-man roster.

Freeman, 28, partook in five games with the New York Giants earlier this season, picking up 172 yards over five games (four starts). The two-time Pro Bowler was placed on injured reserve in November with an ankle ailment before landing on the reserve/COVID-19 list. He was outright released on January 7.

His best performance in blue was a 60-yard output on 17 carries in an October loss in Dallas. Freeman scored the first and only Giants touchdown in that same game. Previously, Freeman led the league with 11 rushing scores during the 2015 season as a member of the Atlanta Falcons. He reached two Pro Bowls as an Atlanta representative and has appeared in five postseason games, scoring a touchdown through the air or on the ground in each of them. Freeman was notably a member of the Falcons’ 2016-17 squad that reached Super Bowl LI.

With Moss placed on injured reserve, his postseason is over thanks to the required three-week stay that comes with such placement. Moss had 47 total yards during the Bills’ Wild Card win over the Indianapolis Colts in Orchard Park. Devin Singletary will likely shoulder a larger load, while other reserve rushers on the active roster include T.J. Yeldon and Taiwan Jones. Freeman joins Week 17 star Antonio Williams on the practice squad, with the latter scoring twice in the blowout win over Miami.

Devey, who celebrated his 33rd birthday on Monday, joins the Bills’ active roster after spending most of it on their practice squad. He was previously activated for the Bills’ October visit to East Rutherford to take on the Jets. Devey previously started six games during the 2014 New England Patriots’ run to Super Bowl XLIX and also has earned a playoff start with Kansas City. He has partaken in 43 games overall (21 starts) since entering the league in 2013 as an undrafted free agent out of Memphis.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills RB Zack Moss possibly out for rest of the postseaon

The Buffalo Bills’ Wild Card victory was marred by the loss of the rookie running back, who was injured in the second half.

The Buffalo Bills may be missing one of their youngest contributors as their postseason run continues.

According to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, there’s fear within the organization that rookie running back Zack Moss may miss significant time with an ankle injury sustained during Saturday’s victory in the AFC Wild Card playoffs. Moss put up 47 yards (21 rushing, 26 receiving) before leaving due to an ankle injury. Dr. Matthew Provencher, the injury analyst for Fox Sports’ NFL coverage, had a slightly more optimistic outlook, forecasting that Moss could return in time for a possible appearance in the conference title game should take victory in their Divisional round contest next weekend.

Moss, 23, was chosen in the third round (86th overall) in April’s draft out of Utah. He would split the top rushing duties with Devin Singletary, tallying 481 yards and four scores on the ground. Moss also established himself as a short-yardage receiving threat of the backfield with 95 yards on 14 receptions, one of which went for a touchdown. Overall, 35 of Moss’ 126 touches went for first downs.

With Moss out, the Bills will likely rely on Singletary in the run game, and could potentially use one of their reserve rushers in an expanded role, including T.J. Yeldon or Taiwan Jones. Antonio Williams, who has been on and off the Bills’ practice squad all season, could likewise be an option after he scored two touchdowns in his NFL debut in the Week 17 regular season finale against Miami.

With their 27-24 win over Indianapolis on Saturday, Buffalo (14-3) will now await the results of Sunday’s action to see who they’ll host in the Divisional round. They will take on the highest-remaining seed from the Wild Card aftermath, which puts any team except seventh-seed Cleveland on the table.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: Resurgent rushers looking to continue momentum building

Having reached triple digits in three of the last five games, Buffalo Bills rushers are ready to roll into December.

The glory days of the Buffalo Bills have long been defined by the antics of a strong game, more or less emulating the streaking buffalo that has graced their helmets since 1974. Wray Carlton and Cookie Gilchrist led the way during their AFL championship days, famously followed by O.J. Simpson, who sat in second place on the NFL’s all-time rushing upon his retirement. Thurman Thomas and Kenneth Davis then became reliable presciences during the AFC title streak. Even the dark times provided relief through the legs of Joe Cribbs, Fred Jackson, Travis Henry, and Willis McGahee.

As the Bills seek to form a new consistent brand of glory days, the run game is rising to the occasion.

Buffalo (8-3) enters their most hopeful December yet, one where they’re well on pace to earn their first division title since 1995. The team may be new to the AFC penthouse, but they’re well aware that they’ll have to be clicking on all cylinders to make some postseason noise and officially put the league on notice. Head coach Sean McDermott spoke about it in the earlier stages of the fall.

“Most coaches would say they want to hit their stride in November, December, when the leaves are coming off the trees,” McDermott said, per Mary Margaret Johnson of WIVB on November 3. “Overall, at the end of the day, you’re trying to win one game. Rosters change week to week, lineups change week to week, challenges normally come, and with COVID, we’re trying to find one week wins and do the best you can to put the best lineup out there.”

One area where the Bills are starting to peak is the aforementioned run game.

Exciting as the idea of Josh Allen torching opponents with both his arms and feet may be, Buffalo sought to get their run game rolling. The unit appeared to be well set for the future with Devin Singletary set to return after a strong rookie season (775 yards, fourth amongst first-year rushers). Buffalo would also replace the Jets-bound Frank Gore by drafting Utah’s Zack Moss in the third round of the 2020 draft proceedings. Bills general manager Brandon Beane was hopeful was Singletary’s finesse and and Moss’ physicality would be the next step forward for an offense on the rise.

“Devin has that shiftiness. Zack’s going to be more of that banging in there,” Beane said after the draft, per Alex Brasky of The Daily News (Batavia). “He’s going to lower that shoulder and try to, a little bit like Frank did at an older age for us. I see that role.”

But with the blocking names in front of them changing more than those on the North Park Theater’s marquee, the Bills rushing attack had struggled in the early going. The team managed to get off to a strong start, but a challenging stretch, when the Bills lost two of three in October, coincided with the run game working on a streak of earning less than 100 yards.

The display was particularly scary during an October 19 loss to Kansas City, one of the two teams ahead of the Bills for AFC supremacy. As Clyde Edwards-Helaire broke loose for 161 yards, the Bills mustered only 84 on the ground as a team. Singletary struggled to the tune of 32 yards on 10 carries in defeat.

Keeping the pace of a strong rookie season proved to be a challenge for Singletary. He struggled to reach the 300-yard mark over his first seven games, averaging less than four yards a carry. He noted the big plays that came naturally in his debut failed to resurface in modern times.

“Making big plays, creating big plays. We haven’t been able to do that yet,” the struggling sophomore Singletary said after the game, per Jourdon LaBarber & Dante Lasting of BuffaloBills.com. “We’ve got to find a way to get that going.”

Singletary’s words, however, proved prophetic and he found a way to get things rolling again.

Two weeks after the Chiefs’ visit, the Bills battled the New England Patriots, often seen as a weekend for plenty of Western New York fans to skip due to an infamous streak of futility against the AFC East monopoly-holders. Singletary, helping co-author a new narrative in Orchard Park, came up big with a team-best 86 yards on 14 carries, 59 of that tally coming in the second half. Assistance came in the form of Moss, who tallied 81 yards on an equal number of carries, and he also punched in his first NFL touchdowns. They wound up being the difference in the 24-21 Buffalo victory.

“This is probably the most I felt like myself just from everything from top to bottom,” Moss remarked afterwards, per Jenna Callari of WKBW. “I was just happy I was able to come out and be ready to go in a game like this. I was really comfortable today and want to build off that going into the rest of the year.”

As the Buffalo run game continues to surge forward, they continue to fulfill Singletary’s prophecy. With a more balanced offense, the Bills are well positioned to make their first legitimate postseason run. That was on display during their most recent win, a game where three turnovers could’ve threatened to destroy what they were building.

Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers to wrap up the November slate could’ve been the type of trap game that caused Buffalo to fly off the rails, a game that might’ve left them uncomfortably sharing the top spot in the AFC East with Miami. But a strong attack from the run game helped them finish things off. There were no antics from Allen or Stefon Diggs necessary to close out the win. Even if Allen tallied a score on the ground, it was the running that kept things rolling, with Singletary and Moss uniting for 141 yards. Their magnum opus came on the final drive, when Moss opened things up with a 31-yard gain, followed by a 24-yard tally from Singletary that set Tyler Bass for a de facto game-winning field goal from 43 yards way.

Things weren’t fully perfect just yet. A lost Singletary fumble led to a Los Angeles field goal. Moss was penalized 15 yards for taunting. But the Bills made sure that their offensive fate goes far beyond Allen. The quarterback (18-of-24, 157 yards, 2 total touchdowns, 1 INT) expressed his gratitude and hope for more after the game in Heather Prusak’s report for WIVB.

“Our guys did a great job, Zack and (Moss) carried the ball extremely well, they ran hard,” Allen said. “When my number’s called I gotta make some plays too but our guys did a good job blocking up front and you put the ball in your backs’ hands and let them do things and they were great today.”

Singletary explained that the success against the Chargers partially stemmed from an increased emphasis on the rushing attack in practice that week, mentioning that the team ran “an extra drill” leading into LA week.

“It wasn’t even full speed, it was kind of like half speed but just seeing the guys get to their landmark,” Singletary said in Prusak’s report, mentioning how it helped the Bills prevaild in a physical game. “It helps us get to our landmark it just kind of helps the offensive line and the running backs get a feel for each other and it showed today.”

Singletary and Moss will look to carry on momentum in their next game on Monday night, as they battle the San Francisco 49ers in Glendale, Arizona (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags