OPINION: Convincing defeat to Bengals should have Bills asking big questions

What comes next for the Bills after their 27-10 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday?

Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) - Another Buffalo Bills season is over. All that promise despite many obstacles, in the end, grounded in defeat.

The Bills have been, arguably, the best team in the National Football League for three years. In that stretch – 49 games – the Bills have a point-differential of plus-489, a crazy 9.97 point-per-game edge.

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But all they have to show for it, playoff-wise, is three frustrating and deflating endings.

Because of the manner in which they lost on Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals and the difficult challenges they face roster-wise, we’ve arrived, perhaps, at the start of a new chapter in their story.

In 2020, the Bills’ AFC Championship loss to the Kansas City Chiefs was a letdown, but the season went down as progress. Last year’s playoff defeat to the Chiefs rightly invited in forensics to scrutinize the end. But apart from the now infamous final 13 seconds of regulation, there was every reason to feel good looking forward.

While those losses maybe called for peeks inside to check on the structure, this one to Cincinnati requires a more thorough examination.

Last year, we wondered (and still wonder) about the details of how the Bills let the Chiefs game get away. This year, we want to look at everything.

Last year, the bones were good. This year? Doc wants an X-ray.

It’s because the Bengals game was so one-sided – a beating at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, at home no less – but also because when you go three years without the breakthrough, you have no choice but to re-examine.

Broader questions arise about your makeup, from all corners. Even from the inside; Isaiah McKenzie relayed that after the game Stefon Diggs asked him “How? Every year? It’s the same thing.”

It isn’t too much the same, really.

Last year, Josh Allen reached video-game cheat-code levels, while this year wrapped on a glitchy 10 points.

One thing that is similar? Diggs’ performances himself. A meager three receptions for seven yards last year, and a 4-for-35 performance on Sunday.

Diggs’ apparent tirade on the sideline, as Allen buried his head seeming to ignore him, perhaps will linger as the most indelible image of the game.

The Bills pushed their proverbial chips in last year, and no one blamed them. They were this close last year, and with the likes of Diggs, Mitch Morse, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, you had a just-right roster of talent and experience, one with which there was no other place to stand than 'Go For It.'

The Bills couldn’t have leaned into the strategy any more than by signing Von Miller in free agency.

Even their draft looked the synergetic part.

In Round 1 they drafted Kaiir Elam to start at, arguably, their only position of need, cornerback (which, oddly, he didn’t right away).

In Round 2 after trading down twice, they picked running back James Cook, who seemed a niche piece as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Even general manager Brandon Beane, himself, called Cook a “sub back”. A second-round pick announced as a part-timer at an easily replaceable position. I mean, eek, but OK.

It all could be justified. They had as good a chance as anyone this year, and you don’t want to fall short not having done your most to put a Super Bowl winner on the field.

The thing is, they fell short anyway.

The 2021 Los Angeles Rams did the same and pulled it off. Good for them, because had they not parlayed a playoff 4-seed into four playoff wins – three by three points – their strategy a year later would look disastrous.

This year’s Rams were 5-12, and again they’ll enter a draft without a first-round pick.

The point is to win, though. For all the luck there is in football, the Rams did it. The Bills did not.

Last year’s plan was an easy call. This year’s will be much more complicated.

Allen’s salary cap hit now skyrockets. Important veterans such as Poyer and Tremaine Edmunds are among 21 soon-to-be unrestricted free agents on the Bills’ roster. A team for which it was challenging to name needs last year now appears to have several – wide receiver, offensive line, and, depending on free agent departures, all over the defense.

It’s funny, I guess, how so sharply and suddenly attention can pivot from what’s right about a team to what’s wrong about it.

Beane has earned as much credit as possible under the sun for building this Bills team. The trade for Diggs, the way he’s kept players like Matt Milano, the late-round picks that became important players, if not starters.

This season, Beane’s Bills were The Model: 47-18 over four years, consistently ranking at, or near the top in offense and defense. The Super Bowl favorite, a team that with its drafts and shrewd moves is the envy of most of the NFL.

But with one sudden, sad loss to Cincinnati, now they’re a team that’s repeatedly fallen short. That will watch Championship Weekend from home, or Cancun, or wherever. That hasn’t drafted a Pro Bowl player in four years.

Tough gig.

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We’re all very curious to see how Beane navigates this offseason.

Will there be significant changes to the coaching staff? Will he retain a defensive cog or two (Edmunds? Poyer?) and squeeze the Bills’ cap challenges for the future even further, perhaps a stride toward the messy cap picture the Bills lived in five years ago when Beane arrived? In kind, will he trade up in the draft as he’s done often to get players he thinks he needs with which to win now?

I doubt we’ll see the opposite concept, one we’d be inclined to describe as any version of rebuilding. They’re too good. They were too close.

The Bills’ proverbial window closed some, but it is still open. General managers are not on lifetime contracts, and Beane - for all his success - hasn’t even made a Super Bowl here, let alone win one.

I predict a busy offseason, maybe an aggressive one.

Whatever happens, it feels like a new place we’re in. They’ve been good, even great, but they haven’t won. They’ve been lauded for their excellence, and are now about to be questioned for their mettle.

It’ll be interesting, and I’m here for it.

Photo credit Losi and Gangi
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