In a Buffalo season filled with tumult, controversy and drama, with the team’s Super Bowl window seemingly up for referendum every week, the 2023 Bills might wind up better constructed for the unique challenges of Western New York football than any of their recent predecessors. They might also be more hardened for the postseason than ever before.
As counterintuitive as that may seem, and for all the scrutiny that Coach Sean McDermott, GM Brandon Beane and their locker room have endured since the spring, it’s not so far-fetched that this Buffalo team could be the one to break through and reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season. If the Bills can actually get to the playoffs, of course. Which is the rub of all rubs.
Despite self-inflicted errors and mind-numbing defeats, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s mysterious offseason departure and quarterback Josh Allen’s dismay over the firing of offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, the revelation of bizarre remarks made by McDermott years ago regarding 9/11 and the constant rumblings about wide receiver Stefon Diggs’s discontent, few teams are playing better than this bunch over the past month. After years of cruising to the AFC East title and challenging for the AFC’s top seed, these Bills (8-6) have charted a very different path that might actually steel them for the playoffs.
They are far more balanced on offense, with the best offensive line of the McDermott/Beane offerings, and seem better suited to Western New York winters. They also have managed to rally and coalesce in ways previously unimaginable.
“If they get in, they might not lose,” said one general manager, whose team has faced many of the best teams in the NFL and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not at liberty to publicly handicap the playoffs. “No one in this conference is going to want to play them. They look like that team that’s peaking at the right time.”
The Bills have seemingly done nothing the easy way, with questions about their “Super Bowl window” percolating even before they were whipped by the Bengals at home in the divisional round last January, ill-equipped to battle the elements of a driving snow and suffering from sideline meltdowns along the way. Things reached their nadir this season after a 12-men-on-the-field penalty fueled Denver’s comeback win at Buffalo in Week 10, dropping the Bills to 5-5 and prompting Dorsey’s ouster. They stood on the precipice of either implosion — validating all the predictions of impending demise — or a collective rally to salvage their season.
“You find out what your team is made of in times like that,” Beane recently told me.
The Bills are 3-1 since that loss, dropping a heartbreaker at Philadelphia in overtime in which they outplayed the Eagles, then winning in Kansas City after the bye. They’ve adopted a time-of-possession-oriented style while still racking up 29.3 points per game (third in the NFL since Week 10), transforming a bombs-away offense to now funnel through a previously nondescript, do-everything running back in James Cook.
It culminated in a thorough trouncing of Dallas on Sunday in which perennial MVP candidate Allen need barely raise his arm to throw a pass (finishing with seven completions) in a 31-10 win, and in which the Bills seemed perfectly at ease in the rain and cold. They displayed an offensive physicality not previously obvious outside of their hard-nosed quarterback, with a commitment to the run aiding a defense that has weathered major injuries and is not as statistically dominant as some of McDermott’s past units.
“I didn’t do a good enough job in the past of building the roster in a way that could adapt to different types of situations,” Beane said when asked if this roster if better built for Buffalo. “Bad weather, fast turf, slow conditions, bad turf, heavy run game, heavy pass game. I think this group has given the play-caller more multiplicity in terms of adjusting to what type of game it is. I’ve really tried to learn from my mistakes and try to do a better job with that than I have in the past.”
New offensive coordinator Joe Brady has excelled at getting Allen, Cook, power back Latavius Murray and speedster Ty Johnson all involved, catering their usage to weaknesses in opposing defensive fronts. Beane took some heat in the offseason for investing in guard Connor McGovern in free agency and utilizing a second-round pick on another guard (O’Cyrus Torrence), but it seems to be working now, with right tackle Spencer Brown (the 93rd pick in 2021) thriving as well.
“This is the best line Brandon’s put together since he’s been there,” said a high-ranking executive from a team that faced the Bills this season, who is not permitted to comment on other clubs’ personnel. “I know he took a lot of [crap] for some of the moves he’s made, but they’ve become a more physical football team.”
Allen needs just four passing touchdowns to join Cam Newton as the only players in NFL history with 30 passing TDs and 10 rushing TDs in the same season. He can still drop back and throw for big numbers if needed, as recently evidenced against the Jets and Eagles. But the Bills are doing it all a bit differently now.
They have leaned back into activating Allen’s legs on designed runs and keeping the ball in his hands in the red-zone after interceptions took a toll. Cook is 32 yards from becoming Buffalo’s first 1,000-yard rusher since LeSean McCoy in 2017. Since Week 10,Cook is fourth in the NFL in scrimmage yards (141 a game) after rolling up over 200 against Dallas.
The Bills were in shotgun 75 percent of the time in the first 10 weeks but have cut back to 70 percent since, while embracing a more under-center rushing attack(105 such runs the first 10 games; 71 in the last four). They have ramped up their use of motion, and have gone from running the ball 41.2 percent of the time under Dorsey (20th in NFL) to 51.5 percent under Brady (second).They have also gone from 25.4 rushes a game through 10 weeks (20th) to 38.8 rushes per game since (first).
“They are built better for Buffalo right now, I’d agree with that,” said former NFL offensive lineman and longtime analyst Brian Baldinger. “You have to give Joe Brady a lot of credit for changing their identity. They are playing to the strengths of … McGovern and O’Cyrus and Brown. That’s a very good group up front right now.”
Over the last four games, the Bills have held the ball for an average of a staggering 35 minutes 50 seconds — more than a minute longer than the next-best team (Chicago) — after being middle of the pack in time of possession through 10 weeks. Their revamped high-percentage passing game has help curtailed the crushing turnovers that threatened their season; Buffalo’s giveaway rate is down significantly since the coordinator change. They are a Cook dropped sideline pass in Philadelphia from being undefeated since that Monday night loss to the Broncos. And there is reason to believe the best is still to come.
Veteran tight end Dawson Knox is still adjusting in his return from a broken wrist, so the best of Buffalo’s new 12 Personnel looks — pairing Knox with first-round pick Dalton Kincaid — might not have yet appeared. The Bills could still win the AFC East with a little help from the Dolphins, and their brutal schedule is subsiding, with games against the Chargers (Saturday night) and Patriots before the finale at Miami. They resisted any urge to splinter, and seem better aligned with their geography than at any point since Allen’s arrival in 2018. If they can somehow manage to bring postseason football back to Buffalo, things might be very different this time around.