Last weekend, it occurred to me that no matter how things change for Bills fans, no matter how much suffering they’ve endured, football will come up with new and unimagined ways to torture them.
It wasn’t bad enough for the Bills to squander a late 16-0 lead and lose to the Texans in the wild-card game, adding another ghastly chapter to the franchise’s chronicle of postseason torment.
No, they had to watch the Texans blow a 24-0 lead and lose to the Chiefs, 51-31, in Sunday’s divisional round. Patrick Mahomes threw four TD passes in the second quarter alone against a soft Texans defense, one week after Josh Allen and the Bills had failed to score a touchdown in the last 68 minutes of an overtime loss.
There’s no guarantee the Bills would have fared any better in Arrowhead, but no way the Chiefs would have shredded Buffalo’s defense the way they did Houston’s while scoring TDs on seven straight possessions. The Texans were last in the NFL in yards per play allowed, and it showed.
The Chiefs don’t score 50 points — or perhaps even 30 — against the Bills’ second-ranked scoring defense. Of course, the Buffalo offense probably wouldn’t have reached 30, either.
Whatever the case, the Bills actually would have been playing for the right to host the AFC championship game if they’d held on in the wild-card round at Houston.
That’s because the Tennessee Titans, a team the Bills beat on the road in early October, shocked the Ravens on Saturday night and reached the AFC title game as a sixth seed. The Bills were the No. 5 seed. Just imagine.
Whatever the case, there’s long been a tendency to view the NFL playoffs through a Buffalo prism. During the 17-year playoff drought, you could generally find some Buffalo angle to the annual postseason proceedings.
But what matters most in Buffalo, and in any NFL town, is the quarterback. So with the Bills gone, the biggest development over the weekend was the Ravens’ upset loss to the Titans, who won again on the road after stunning the Patriots the week before.
Wait, Ryan Tannehill is going to the AFC title game? The same mediocrity who went 4-7 against the Bills during his seven seasons in Miami? Yeah, but most quarterbacks could win by handing off to Derrick Henry, the best running back in football. Tannehill was a COMBINED 15 for 29 for 160 yards in the two playoff wins.
The bigger story was Lamar Jackson. The presumptive MVP, who led Baltimore to a 14-2 record in the regular season, had a rough night against the Titans, turning the ball over three times as the Ravens got hammered, 28-12.
Jackson threw for 365 yards and ran for another 143, but never has a 500-yard game seemed so lacking. He was 31 of 59 passing and threw high and behind receivers all night. After committing just eight turnovers in the regular season, Jackson had two interceptions and a lost fumble and had a 63.2 rating, his second-worst of the season.
So Jackson is now 19-3 as a starter in the regular season and 0-2 in the playoffs. He was horrible in the Ravens’ wild-card loss to the Chargers as a rookie. The kid was better this time, but it was a very low bar, indeed.
If they’re looking for comfort in the misfortune of others, Bills fans can take solace in seeing Jackson struggle in the playoffs, as Josh Allen had a week earlier. See, even the “unstoppable” Jackson found out that playoffs are a different animal.
Allen reverted to “Wyoming Josh” form in the critical moments against Houston, but he was very good for much of the game. Allen played better in his first playoff start than Jackson has in either of his postseason games — though I have to think he would have produced more than one TD against that Houston D.
Fans are impatient. But it can take time for a young QB to figure it out in the postseason. Tannehill and Kirk Cousins won their first playoff games last week at 31. Jimmy Garoppolo won his first Saturday at 28. Jim Kelly was 28 when he won his first playoff game, Aaron Rodgers 27.
It’s understandable if Bills fans are tired of waiting. I’m sure they noticed that three of the four QBs in the AFC divisional round — Jackson, Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Mahomes — were guys the Bills passed over in the draft.
Jackson just turned 23. He’s even younger than Allen. He said he hates losing, but doesn’t care about his critics, many of whom were merciless after the loss.
“He’s got to respond by being extremely motivated and continuing to improve as a football player,” said Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
Harbaugh sounded a lot like Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott did in defending Allen in their end-of-the season press conferences. Beane said he’s confident that Allen will learn from the playoff loss, that he’ll come back as a better version of himself.
Allen and Jackson will both learn from their season-ending defeats. But the losses will renew questions about the ideal quarterback model, and whether a QB with great running ability and dubious passing accuracy can win big in the long run.
They’re two of the most dynamic — and polarizing — players in the NFL. They’ll both get better, but quarterbacks don’t necessarily evolve in a linear fashion. Allen made great strides in his accuracy over his rookie year but still finished 32nd and last in completion percentage this season.
Some quarterbacks make a big leap in their third NFL season. But some get worse or or stay the same. Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston and recently, Mitch Trubisky, regressed in their third seasons.
Fans in Buffalo will spend the next eight months waiting and wondering to see whether Allen takes another step next season. There will be questions about Jackson, a reigning MVP with a reputation for failing in the playoffs.
For now, both have to live with a promising season that ended with a single playoff game, and a wondrous opportunity lost.