Sullivan: Significant gap remains between champ Chiefs and Bills

Jerry Sullivan

All right, let’s dispense with the happy stuff first. It was a magical Bills season, an emotional and unforgettable ride for the team’s devoted followers, a welcome relief from the numbing reality of COVID-19.

They went 13-3, won the AFC East championship and a playoff game — two, as it turned out — for the first time in 25 years. Josh Allen turned into a true franchise quarterback in his third season and broke most of the Bills’ relevant passing statistics.

It was a lot of fun, for the players, the fans and the guys who played for the Bills in the old glory days. Old-timers like Darryl Talley, Thuman Thomas, Steve Tasker and Cornelius Bennett all told me how much the current Bills reminded them of the tight, talented teams that reached four Super Bowls in the 1990s.

There was a lot of truth to that. But on Sunday night, the 2020 Bills went out in a manner sadly reminiscent of the Super Bowl squads, playing their worst game at the biggest moment of the season, getting outclassed, outplayed and outcoached in a 38-24 loss to the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs.

For seasoned Bills watchers, it might have summoned memories of the 1991 team. That team also went 13-3 and broke the franchise scoring record before falling apart in a 37-24 loss to Washington in Super Bowl 26. Eerie, how history can repeat itself.

There is no shame in losing to the defending champions, an irrepressible Chiefs team that has now won 25 of its last 27 games and has the best player in the sport in quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

The Bills came in on a roll, having won 11 of their last 12 games. The Chiefs, who had won eight games this season by six points or fewer, were seen as vulnerable. But once again, critics underestimated KC’s penchant for rising up and playing its very best when the stakes are the highest.

Mahomes showed no signs of his concussion and toe injury. He carved up the Bills’ defense, which rarely got significant pressure on him. They were flummoxed by the Chiefs’ pre-snap motion and allowed Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill to run wild. The Bills played mostly zone and were far too soft and accommodating.

Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator, schooled his Buffalo counterpart, Brian Daboll. The Chiefs mixed up their blitzes, taking advantage of weaknesses in the Buffalo pass protections, and harassed Allen into a ragged evening.

ESPN noted afterwards that Allen had dropped back under pressure 27 times, the most in a playoff game since 2009. It’s an esoteric statistic, but reflective of what a nightmarish night it was for Allen, Daboll and the offense, which failed to make effective adjustments and unleash the team’s usual receiving arsenal.

What happened to the Buffalo wideouts, who had been lauded as perhaps the finest overall group in the NFL? After the loss, people were lamenting the fact that they don’t have someone like Hill, who torched the Bill for 172 yards on nine catches.

But didn’t Stefon Diggs lead the league in catches and yards? Diggs was barely visible when the game was in doubt. He had four catches for 28 yards when the Bills fell hopelessly behind. John Brown was equally irrelevant with two catches for 24 yards, and might have played himself off the team.

Even more distressing was the way Sean McDermott turned timid in the big moments. Twice the Bills had fourth and short near the KC goal line when trailing by double-digits. Both times, he settled for field goals, turning into “old school, conservative coach" guy.

McDermott said he wanted to come away with points, the standard excuse. But remember when Bills fans used to say you don't beat Tom Brady with field goals? The same goes for Mahomes and the Chiefs, who haven't lost a game in which the opponent scored under 31 points since October 6, 2019.

“I thought about going for it on both occasions,” McDermott said. “Maybe if I had it to do all over again I would have went for maybe one of them.”

At least he was being honest. But it’s disappointing to hear the head coach having second thoughts. Going conservative against Mahomes is a sure way to get beat. It’s not about getting points, it’s about getting them in sixes when you have a chance.

McDermott said the Bills will learn from the experience. He promised they’d be back. How far they’ll go and how soon is open for debate. McDermott knows as well as anyone how quickly a team’s fortunes can change in one season in the modern NFL.

Five years ago, McDermott was defensive coordinator on a Carolina team that went 15-1 and lost the Super Bowl with Cam Newton. The next year, the Panthers went 6-10. They’ve had one winning season since. If you want to dig deeper into Carolina history, they’ve won 11 or more games six times and failed to finish over .500 the next year every time.

Allen is a true franchise quarterback, more likely to sustain his success over the long haul than Newton. If you have the quarterback, you can be good for a long time. Look at Tom Brady, who is going to his 10th Super Bowl, or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees. Peyton Manning’s teams always got to the playoffs.

But it’s rationalizing to assume the Bills are on an upward trend and will automatically get back to title games with any regularity. It’s hard, very hard. Philip Rivers just retired with more than 63,000 passing yards and got to one title game. He never made the Super Bowl. Rodgers and Brees got to the Bowl once. So did Dan Marino.

Allen could get to multiple Super Bowls, or wind up like Rivers. You never know. He has played in four playoff games and been unremarkable in three of them. The Chiefs blitzed and got him out of his rhythm, same as the Ravens had a week earlier. Over a stretch of seven quarters, from the start of the Baltimore game to the fourth quarter of the title game, Allen led one TD drive.

The stakes and expectations only get higher from here. I’ve heard people compare this to 1988, when the Bills lost their first AFC title game and eventually reached four Super Bowls. That was a different era, before free agency and salary caps. The NFL instituted the first salary cap in 1994, right after the Bills’ run.

So they were able to keep a team of stars together for a decade and forge the competitive bond that those players see in this year’s team. They underpaid several of the top players from those Super Bowl teams for years. Things are a lot harder in an era of salary caps, huge contracts and free agency.

Teams lose their innocence fairly quickly nowadays. With big success comes big money and large consequences. Mahomes signed a 10-year, $503 million deal after winning last year’s Super Bowl, and the ramifications of that contract will hit the Chiefs harder in the years to come.

The Bills have already given rich new deals to Dion Dawkins and Tre’Davious White. Matt Milano is up for a big payday. Allen will get his reward soon, and it figures to be in the $40 million-a year range. When guys get paid, it has a rippling effect through a roster, making it harder to maintain quality depth.

Allen will get superstar money and be judged accordingly. He’ll be expected to play even better, especially in the playoffs. Until Allen gets to a Super Bowl, he’ll be compared with Mahomes, whom the Chiefs drafted with a pick they got from Buffalo. It’s tough for Bills fans to admit, but Sunday’s game showed that the gap between those two is greater than people wanted to believe.

There’s no reason the Bills can’t build from this and get back to this point, or to the Super Bowl, very soon. Brandon Beane has done a nice job putting together a contender, and he has shown a knack for finding reasonably priced assets for his roster.

Still, their window might not be this open again. In the biggest game of the Beane-McDermott era, the Bills seemed unprepared for the big moment. It only gets more difficult from here.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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