The process of winning a championship in the NFL is a little like riding a roller coaster. There’s a slow build out of the gate but some thrills along the way, with some drops and fluctuations in both height and speed that culminate in the peak, after which boom! — the ride is over.
For most teams, this peak resides somewhere before the Super Bowl (think the 2017 Jaguars), making their journey the football equivalent of the worst roller coaster you’ve ever been on. Just like you step off that ride muttering to yourself, “I waited in line for hours for that?” — that’s how the sudden closing of the Super Bowl window hits the teams that fall short.
While this fate befalls most teams on the road to the Super Bowl, it doesn’t befall them all. Interestingly enough, of the 40 teams that have lost conference championship games from 2000-2019, eight bounced back to reach the Super Bowl the next year. That’s 20 percent!
And five of those eight went on to become Super Bowl champions, including the 2004 Steelers, 2011 Ravens, 2013 and 2015 Patriots and 2018 Chiefs.
Translation: While extending a title window is incredibly hard, it’s not impossible.
And while the Buffalo Bills are coming off a 38-24 loss to the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, it’s clear they have the stuff to join that group one day.
For starters, it’s clear Sunday’s loss hasn’t diminished the confidence of their young core, notably 24-year-old quarterback Josh Allen.
“We don’t want to be them, we don’t want to be anybody else, but we want to be the best versions of ourselves here,” Allen calmly told reporters Monday, less than 24 hours after their loss. “We think that’s good enough.”
It’s a notable statement, especially since Allen also spent a healthy amount of time repeatedly showing respect to the two-time defending AFC champs.
“They’ve hosted three AFC championship games in a row and back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, so yeah that’s what every team wants,” Allen said. “They play with a lot of energy, they played with a lot of fun, and it seems like their locker room really cares about each other, too. I can’t say enough good things about how they play on the field.”
Allen sees a lot of good things about his team, and so do I. Start with the fact that the foundation for contention is set in place, with only three of Buffalo’s 23 players who logged 50 percent or more of the offensive or defensive snaps (all offensive linemen) set to be unrestricted free agents this March.
And while the Bills will see some offseason reshuffling due to the $175 million projected salary cap for 2021, four of their five Pro Bowlers — Allen, receiver Stefon Diggs, cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds — are also slated to be back, with return specialist Andre Roberts the lone looming free agent.
The continuity extends to the front office and coaching staff, with extensions already given to general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott, who are expected to be far more aggressive and eschew field goals against the juggernaut Chiefs next time around. What’s more, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, a key in Allen’s rapid development, is expected to remain in Buffalo. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier remains in the running for the Houston job, but if he doesn’t get it, he stands to return as well.
It all adds up to a bright future, especially after the Bills won their first division crown and playoff game since 1995 and finished with their best record since 1991.
The Bills’ immense frustration toward the end of the AFC championship game was interesting. When Allen tossed a ball at Chiefs lineman Alex Okafor after a sack, prompting Okafor to stand over him and jaw, this caught the attention of Bills linemen Jonathan Feliciano and Dion Dawkins, who each ran over and were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for pushing and yelling at some Chiefs.
The response of his linemen who rushed over to defend their quarterback indicates a tight-knit group. I like that, and it reminds me of how defensive Mahomes’ teammates are of him, too.
Speaking of Mahomes, he was brilliant Sunday, just the latest legendary performance from a man who could one day go down as the greatest quarterback of all time. Beating him figures to be a monumental task for the next decade, one that will require some luck. However, no team wins the Super Bowl every year, and the league would be more interesting if the Chiefs had an AFC rival, much like the early ’90s Cowboys had the 49ers, the early Brady Patriots had Peyton Manning’s Colts, and so on.
For the Bills to position themselves as the Frazier to the Chiefs’ Ali, they’ll likely need to do it with the same roadmap the teams that have beaten Brady in the postseason have needed the past two decades — namely a great defense and a quarterback playing at a high level who can match him play for play.
In both those areas, the Bills are positioned to give themselves a fighting chance. Buffalo’s defense ranked 12th in DVOA this season and figures to try to upgrade the pass rush in the offseason.
As for Allen, who shared All-Pro second-team honors with Mahomes this season, well, he’s already vowing to be better in 2021.
“We’re by no means done,” Allen said. “Next [season] … I’m super excited already, super excited about this whole process of feeling this hurt and this pain, and letting it fuel me and using it in the right way, and focusing everything that I have into trying to become better and trying to become the best version of myself and the best quarterback for this team in order to help us win football games.
“I get the feeling that’s how a lot of guys feel right now. We’re not satisfied, obviously.”
There’s work to do this offseason. And after Beane goes about refining the roster, it’s still up to Allen and the 2020 returnees to prove that they have what it takes to be among the 20 percent of conference championship game losers who bounce back to take it one step further the next seson.
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