ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Hours after the Buffalo Bills' blowout 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals ended the team’s season, Stefon Diggs was talking with fellow wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie and asked a simple question without a simple answer.
“How? Every year it’s the same thing. How? What do we need to do?” McKenzie recalled Diggs saying about the team's struggles in the playoffs.
“I don’t know, bro,” McKenzie replied. “What do you think is the problem?”
As the Bills look back and break down where things went wrong, falling short in the postseason -- after a 13-3 season in which the offense and defense ranked No. 2 in scoring -- makes the question that much harder to answer and the issue that much harder to get corrected.
The Bills' front office and coaching staff have work to do to figure out how the team can win when the stakes are highest.
In each of the past four seasons, the Bills have reached the playoffs. In the first year, 2019, a young Bills team lost in the wild-card round to the Houston Texans. In 2020, they took a big step forward but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. Last season, the Bills lost once again to the Chiefs, but in overtime of the divisional round after giving up a lead with 13 seconds left in regulation.
Then came Sunday's loss at Highmark Stadium that made the Bills the first Super Bowl favorites not to advance to a conference championship game since the 2015 Seattle Seahawks. A loss that, as McKenzie and Diggs discussed, leaves more questions than answers.
After an unprecedented season that took a significant emotional toll from start to finish, the storybook ending never came. What went wrong?
Lack of offensive support
Against the Bengals, the Bills looked unprepared and outmatched. That falls on coach Sean McDermott, who on Monday said, “I'm a big believer in you are who you are in the last game of the season, in terms of what you saw on the field. And that's what you have to address.”
The offense was limited to a season-low 10 points, and quarterback Josh Allen did not throw a touchdown pass for only the second time this season.
The inability to score was not representative of season-long problems, but the Bengals limited Allen’s ability to connect with his receivers and use his legs. The quarterback was sacked only once but hit 15 times (tied for Allen's fourth most this season). During the regular season, Allen was the third-most-hit player in the league (209).
It's a byproduct of Allen's physical style of play. But general manager Brandon Beane addressed the punishment Allen takes in his end-of-season news conference for the second straight year.
“[Allen] gets out there, and he thinks he’s a linebacker sometimes,” Beane said when asked what the Bills can do to limit his hits. “... I think this year there was some times and some games where he felt for whatever reason, maybe we weren’t rolling the way we wanted to in the passing game and he was like, I’m going to put it in my hands, and he trusts himself. ... He’s got to trust our playmakers and then our playmakers have to make plays.”
The team's overreliance on Allen to put the team on his back and save the day is partly due to its inability to run the ball consistently. While there was improvement during the second half of the season -- finishing the season second in yards per rush by running backs (4.9) -- Allen was still the team’s leading rusher against the Bengals (eight carries for 26 yards). The team’s running backs combined on 11 carries for 37 yards. Allen finished the year as the team’s rushing touchdowns leader (seven).
The passing game couldn't get on track against the Bengals, either.
Allen connected with Diggs, the Bills' No. 1 receiver, on just four of 11 targets, a season-low catch percentage (36%). A hot start for Diggs, in what was on pace to be a career year, ended on a flat note with two 100-yard receiving performances in the last nine games of the year. When defenses took Diggs out of the game, the offense struggled to attack with other receivers.
Receiver Gabe Davis, who had just two catches for 34 yards in the Bengals loss, struggled all season to make the jump from No. 4 receiver (his role in 2021) to the No. 2. The Bills led the league in drops (34), and Davis led the team with nine of them.
Meanwhile, running back Nyheim Hines -- whom the Bills traded for right before the deadline -- had just one reception for 4 yards against the Bengals.
It was only his 13th offensive touch with the Bills despite the team's longstanding search for a back who could contribute as a receiver.
“That's something that our offense looked at, and sometimes it takes time to learn the playbook,” McDermott said. “After that point, really, it's something that I felt we could have done a better job with right there and make him more involved in the passing game."
McDermott gets his share of the blame, getting too conservative at times with his decision-making against the Bengals. He elected to punt on fourth-and-10 from the Bengals' 41-yard line with less than a minute remaining in the second quarter and on fourth-and-2 from the Bills' 20-yard line at the end of the third quarter despite being down 14 points.
His first-year offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey went through some growing pains too, making some questionable playcalls throughout the season. While the offense had good moments, it too often felt out of sync.
“There’s a first year for everyone. And I thought Dorsey really did some good things, and there's some things that he can learn from as well,” McDermott said. “And I know this -- when you're committed to a cause, and you work hard at things, and you put the team first, that you learn from experiences. And so, like all of us, we have to learn from the experience.”
Defensive line inconsistency
The Bills had what seemed like an advantage against the Bengals: Cincinnati's offensive line was missing three starters. But the Bills' defense struggled to pressure Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who was hit seven times but got the ball out quickly and efficiently, leading the offense to 30 first downs, the exact same number the Bills gave up in the playoffs vs. the Chiefs last year. Buffalo has allowed 30 or more first downs in a game only nine times since 2000.
The Bills' defense was plagued by injuries all season -- especially with the loss of pass-rusher Von Miller, who was brought in to be a difference-maker in big games. The Bills' inability to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks was a major problem. The Bills finished the season in a four-way tie for 14th in sacks with 40. But their pressure fell off after losing Miller to an ACL injury in his right knee. With Miller, the Bills were averaging 10 quarterback hits per game. Without him, it was just 8.2.
The team has invested extensively in the defensive line, with multiple first- and second-round picks over the past four years, but the Day 2 picks have fallen short with defensive ends AJ Epenesa (16 tackles in 15 games) and Boogie Basham (2.0 sacks) not taking enough steps forward. Beane also said that they expect 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver to "find a little bit more" going into his fifth-year option season.
“I thought we were probably more inconsistent than I would have liked to have seen this year, particularly after Von went down,” McDermott said. “I thought each one of those guys had their games where they played well, just overall as a group, I felt like we were a little bit too inconsistent.”
Going the free agent route to get help is about to get much harder. Allen’s cap hit is going to rise from $16.4 million in 2022 to $39.8 million in 2023. That will affect what the Bills can do.
Unlike last year, when the front office made a splash by signing Miller, it will have the difficult task of trying to add to the roster while working to be cap-compliant. The biggest free agent decisions to impact the roster will come with safety Jordan Poyer and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
“Von's that ticket for this year too because we still got to pay him,” Beane said. “And so, when we made that move, that was, 'All right, here's your big-ticket expense.'”
Emotionally unprecedented year
Here is where statistics are thrown out the window.
The Buffalo community dealt with far more than what happened on a football field over the past eight to nine months. In May 2022, a racially motivated mass shooting took place at a Tops grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, killing 10. Historic blizzards hit the city of Buffalo, killing at least 47 in Erie and Niagara counties, with downtown Buffalo hit especially hard.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a team that has had to deal with so much on and off the football field, whether it’s injuries or natural disasters, weather -- I’ve never been a part of a team that had to deal with so much, and we handled that," Miller said.
The Bills also dealt with safety Damar Hamlin nearly dying on the field after suffering cardiac arrest during the middle of the first quarter of the Bills-Bengals regular-season game, with Hamlin's condition uncertain for multiple days. Fortunately, his recovery continues to progress.
"I feel honored and I feel privileged to be associated with the Buffalo Bills," Miller added. "From the Damar Hamlin situation, the way that the training staff and everybody reacted, and the way my teammates were able to push through that, and the Tops shooting and to see everybody’s heart and mind go to the community."
Guard Rodger Saffold said the tumultuous season took a toll.
"This was a tough season, it was a lot of adversity. I mean, it was emotionally draining for obvious reasons, you guys all saw that," he said. "... I just kind of feel like we were tired. You know, guys were exhausted during the week and our coaches did the best they could to try to modify the week to get us back to snuff. But it was just uncharacteristic things that were kind of happening. So I have to kind of put that into a factor, not as an excuse. Just, you know, this team has been fighting for so long and fighting through all this adversity, you run out of gas at some point."
Safety Micah Hyde also said the team just ran out of gas, and the tired feeling was prevalent throughout the locker room cleanout day. There was no guideline for dealing with so many difficult events so quickly. Minding everyone's mental health is something that has been openly discussed at One Bills Drive over the past month. But despite the traumatic final month and disappointing ending to the season, McDermott was proud of his team.
“I think just the resilient nature of our team, winning 13 games in the regular season,” McDermott said on what will stick out from the season. “I think that says a lot about our players, that says a lot about our coaches."