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How Did the Buffalo Bills Go From the Top of the AFC to the Fringe of the Playoff Picture?

The Bills came into this season with big expectations, and they mostly lived up to those over the early part of the year. But after falling to the Colts on Sunday—the team’s third loss in five games—it’s time to ask how they got here, and how far they can go.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was all good a month ago. The Bills had won five of six, led the league in point differential, and were sitting atop the AFC standings after recently embarrassing the Chiefs on Sunday Night Football. That game felt like a passing of the torch. With Kansas City looking broken, and Baltimore fighting some of the worst injury luck in recent memory, the AFC’s upper crust was crumbling. And that left Buffalo as the clear favorites to win the conference and make the Super Bowl.

Then came the Jaguars game, a 9-6 slopfest in which the Bills produced more turnovers (three) than scoring plays (two). Many wrote that loss off as a flukey result following a string of dominant performances. But now, after a 41-15 ass kicking at the hands of an OK Colts team, that shocking defeat in Jacksonville is starting to feel like a turning point in what was supposed to be a special season.

Buffalo has lost three of its last five, as well as its lead in the AFC East. Plus, the Patriots team that just passed them currently looks like the hottest in football. With seven games left in the season, including a quick turnaround before a Thanksgiving trip to New Orleans, the Bills have gone from a conference juggernaut to the fringe of the playoff picture. How have they fallen? And can they fix it in time to make a run?

It’s difficult to pin any of Buffalo’s four losses on any one issue. The first loss of the recent slide came against a Titans team still powered by a healthy Derrick Henry, who rushed for 143 yards and three touchdowns on just 20 carries. The second, the aforementioned stinker in Jacksonville, could be pinned entirely on the offense, which generated just two field goals against a Jags defense that ranked dead last in DVOA going into that game. Against Indianapolis on Sunday, the Bills tied those two performances together. They allowed Jonathan Taylor to rack up 185 yards rushing and five total touchdowns, and the offense managed just seven points before the Colts’ win probability hit the 99.9 percent mark, per ESPN’s prediction model.

What looked like a team that could earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs is now in a fight for a wild card berth. The Bills currently hold the seventh and final playoff spot in the AFC, and have just a half-game lead over a Steelers team that beat them in Week 1. If Pittsburgh had beaten Detroit a week ago or protected a late lead against the Chargers, the Bills would be on the outside looking in as we head into Thanksgiving. This has not been the Buffalo team that was promised.

When a talented group underachieves like this, it’s typically the result of poor luck. That could come in the form of injuries or some unfortunate bounces leading to an inflated number of turnovers. Well, that is not the case with the Bills. In fact, they have been quite lucky in those two areas. Buffalo’s defense ranks second in turnovers, and no team had lost fewer games to injuries entering this week, per If that wasn’t enough, the Bills have played the league’s easiest schedule by DVOA. It might feel a little premature to start panicking about a 6-4 team that owns the NFL’s second-best point differential, but it’s not a stretch to say the Bills are fortunate to be in this very disappointing spot.

So how did Buffalo get to this point? To answer that, we have to go back to the beginning. And no, I don’t mean the Jaguars game, but rather the season-opening loss to the Steelers, in which the Bills offense managed just 16 points.

There’s no shame in getting worked over by a good Pittsburgh defense, but that game did lay out a blueprint for how opposing units could have success against the Bills offense. Pittsburgh’s game plan didn’t include a lot of blitzing or tight man coverage. Instead, the Steelers played soft zone coverage behind a standard four-man rush designed to contain quarterback Josh Allen. In other words, they wanted to turn Allen into something he’s not: a patient pocket passer.

The Bills star tried his best to pierce some of those tight, downfield windows, but he often had to settle for shorter passes to find completions. Allen finished the game with the week’s fourth-highest average depth of target (9.7 yards), but his average depth of completion (6.5) ranked 15th, per Next Gen Stats. Only two quarterbacks had a wider margin that week, and the discrepancy shows up on his passing chart.

The teams that have beaten Buffalo this season have been able to replicate the Steelers’ plan. In losses, Allen is throwing shorter passes, but, counterintuitively, he’s also holding on to the ball longer in order to throw them.

Josh Allen Has Been a Different QB in Losses

Result aDOT Time to Throw Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback
Result aDOT Time to Throw Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback
Win 9.3 2.64 8.1 0.22
Loss 7.9 2.81 5.5 -0.01
Data via TruMedia

It’s not necessarily the deep throws that defenses are taking away in those losses. Throughout the season, Allen has been one of the NFL’s best passers on throws of 20 or more air yards, per Pro Football Focus’s grading, and he’s throwing even more of those passes than he did during his breakout campaign in 2020. It’s the intermediate areas that have been off-limits, as you can see clearly in Allen’s passing maps:

Via TruMedia

The Steelers defended that area by dropping safeties down after the snap, as The Ringer’s Ben Solak covered back in September. And the Colts took a similar approach on Sunday:

The coverage plan wasn’t quite as simple as Colts cornerback Kenny Moore made it out to be there. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was constantly throwing changeups at the Bills’ young quarterback, never allowing him to get comfortable or know what Indy would do next. Sometimes the Colts would rotate from single-high to two-high. Sometimes it would be the opposite. Other times the safeties would stay in their pre-snap alignment. The method would change snap to snap, but the goal remained the same: Make Allen hold on to the ball.

The Colts accomplished that. Allen’s 2.91-second average time to throw was his second-highest of the season, per TruMedia. And with the pass rush confining Allen to the pocket, he couldn’t find a lot of downfield opportunities. He finished the game with 209 passing yards and two interceptions on 31 attempts. And it was just the third time this season that he was held under 9.0 air yards per attempt, per Pro Football Focus.

Being a young quarterback who is used to throwing the ball all over the field, Allen can get impatient and force a throw or two into coverage. We saw that on his first interception against the Colts, which came against a three-man rush.

There, Indy is playing a two-deep man coverage with a free defender spying Allen in the pocket. Once the Bills passer starts to move, that spy begins his pursuit. You can see Allen look for an escape route before it’s closed by the spy, and then look downfield again and throw a pass right to a safety. It’s a bad decision, but one caused not by incompetence so much as by impatience, which might now be festering into frustration.

Buffalo’s issues on offense are not unlike those we’ve seen in Kansas City this season. Defenses have found more effective methods for taking away the deep throws that fueled the Bills and Chiefs in 2020. And without an effective run game, neither team has been able to get defenses out of the structures that allow them to do it.

Brian Daboll has failed to put together a rushing attack that complements the Bills’ spread passing game out of the gun, so he’s gone under center to operate a more diverse ground game. That’s mostly a personnel issue, as the Bills don’t have versatile tight ends or blocking backs. When Daboll wants to get into passing formations, he’s mostly relegated to three-receiver sets. Those are great for throwing the ball, but there are only so many run concepts that call for just five blockers, and most of them are of the zone-blocking variety. The problem: Buffalo isn’t very good at blocking for those runs. The Bills rank 27th in success rate on zone runs; they lead the league in success rate on man-blocking runs, per Sports Info Solutions.

The Bills offense hardly seemed like a problem before Week 9 in Jacksonville. It came into that game leading the NFL in scoring, after all. But that stat is lacking some important context: The defense, thanks to an unsustainable turnover rate, was providing the offense with the best average starting field position in the league at the time, per Football Outsiders. The Patriots have since overtaken them in that stat, but the Bills are still on track to finish with the fourth-best average starting field position of the last 10 seasons.

Best Average Starting Field Position, Since 2012

Team Starting Field Pos. Offensive DVOA Season Result
Team Starting Field Pos. Offensive DVOA Season Result
2013 Chiefs 32.74 15th Lost in wild-card round
2019 Patriots 32.64 11th Lost in wild-card round
2021 Patriots 32.58 16th ???
2021 Bills 32.49 14th ???
2017 Ravens 32.21 21st Missed playoffs
Data via Football Outsiders

That may explain why a team that’s scoring so many points still ranks outside of the top 10 in offensive DVOA. Now that Buffalo’s turnover luck is starting to regress toward the mean—games against the Jets don’t count—the deficiencies of the offense are just more apparent. But we can’t put all of these recent losses on the offense. The defense—and the run defense in particular—has certainly played a role.

We can pretty much excuse the defense for the Steelers and Jags losses, as it allowed only one offensive touchdown between the two contests. But the same cannot be said for the Titans and Colts losses. In those two games, the defense gave up a combined 410 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Obviously both featured performances by two elite backs in Henry and Taylor, but the defensive front got pushed around by aggressive offensive lines in each instance. A lot of that can be explained by Bills coach Sean McDermott’s defensive philosophy, which prioritizes defending the pass. That means more defensive backs on the field and fewer loaded run boxes.

When you play in a conference with the Chiefs, McDermott’s philosophy makes a ton of sense. But in order to get another shot at Kansas City in the postseason, the Bills will have to get through New England. And now the bad news: The Patriots own the league’s most physical run game, and they are more than willing to use it. While the rest of the NFL has fully embraced the spread revolution, Bill Belichick has gone in the other direction and built an offense straight out of the early 2000s. McDermott’s defense, built with the modern passing game in mind, isn’t necessarily equipped to take on such a challenge.

With two games against their divisional rivals coming up in the next five weeks, the Bills will have to solve their run defense issues in a hurry. If they can’t, that puts even more pressure on this disjointed offense … against maybe the greatest defensive tactician in the history of the sport. Sunday may have felt like rock bottom for this talented Bills team. But things could get a whole lot worse over the next month.