How the Bills created stability and regained the AFC East throne

Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports
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The Bills are an interesting case study for teams in a rebuild. The classic NFL structure has a team hiring a GM first, then the GM (in conjunction with ownership and maybe a club president) hires the coach. But that structure over the last decade has had some notable, and successful, exceptions. Kansas City (Andy Reid), Seattle (Pete Carroll) and San Francisco (Kyle Shanahan) hired the coach first, and the coach helped find the GM. Buffalo did the same. Four months after giving McDermott a five-year deal to coach the team, owners Terry and Kim Pegula gave Beane a five-year deal to be the general manager.

Talking to Beane on Saturday night, I found it interesting that he brought one very specific point in his interview with the Pegulas. It’s something they wanted to hear, and needed to hear, from a bright and respected young (40 years old) personnel man on the cusp of getting a GM job somewhere.

“When I interviewed with the Pegulas—and I think Sean’s interview was probably similar—we were talking about stability and it’s gonna take time,” Beane said. “We’re gonna revamp this roster. You can’t sit there and say, ‘In four years we’ll win a division championship. In six years, an AFC Championship.’

“One thing we discussed in that interview was how many head coaches, how many GMs, had been through here? I said, ‘You just bought the team. This is not on you. But every time we turn over the coach, every time we turn over the GM, we’re doing Coach Belichick and his great staff a favor. Every AFC East team that churns their head coach and GM over, that’s doing him a favor because stability is so important.’ Look at the teams that constantly win: New England, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Green Bay. Stability was the number one, most important thing to me—stability and then just drafting, and staying true to the culture we’d try to build and foster.”

Saturday’s rout of the Broncos was fitting in a lot of ways to what this team has become, right down to the bus ride to Invesco Field. “Our fans can’t even go to the games this year,” Hughes said, “but when we boarded the buses this morning at the hotel—thousands of miles from home, in Denver, Colorado—we’ve got Buffalo Bills fans cheering for us. I mean, COVID sucks, and I feel for our fans because they can’t be there in this great season. But they find ways to support us.”

Josh Allen threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns and ran for two more, but he wasn’t the only Buffalo pulverizer. The Bills grinded out 182 rushing yards too, and they’ll need to be able to do more balanced offensive things to be a great team in the postseason.

The Allen story is a rarity—a quarterback who had major accuracy issues in college and his first two years as a pro, but went to school in the offseason to fix it. He consulted mechanics maven Tony Romo and his own throwing tutor, Jordan Palmer, in the offseason. (“To make drastic changes in your mechanics, you’ve got to be coachable. And Josh worked on it every day,” Palmer said). Allen’s 70-percent day in Denver typified his season. He’s up 10 percentage points in accuracy (.588 last year, .687 this year) and 10 touchdowns (20 last year, 30 this year, with two games left) and looks like a much more comfortable player than he was.

When Allen broke into the NFL two seasons ago, he relied too much on his fastball. But Saturday he showed the range he’s developed. When he needed the fastball, like on the 22-yard touchdown dart to Jake Kumerow fit perfectly between two Broncos, he had it. Allen also had the perfect loft on a 27-yard completion under a heavy Denver rush.

And, of course, Allen has a franchise receiver now in Stefon Diggs. The 11-catch, 147-yard day for Diggs went almost unnoticed because Diggs seems to do it every week. He leads the NFL in catches (111) and receiving yards (1,314), when every defense he sees lines up to try to stop him.

I told Beane I’d been critical of how much he traded to Minnesota to get Diggs: the 22ndnpick in the first round, plus fourth, fifth and sixth-round picks. (The Vikings threw back a seventh-rounder to Buffalo in addition to Diggs.) There was the point of a favorable contract—a deal that runs through 2023 at an annual average of $14.4 million—and this factor I hadn’t considered.

“We were picking at 22,” Beane said. “By what we gave up in a draft, on the draft-trade value chart, giving up the five and the six and then the four next year, and getting back the seven, would’ve got us to about the 17th position. In my mind, I wasn’t convinced that we were gonna find a player of his caliber at 17, 18, wherever we could’ve traded up to get. That was the genesis for it.”

The pre-draft gossip had the three top receivers in the draft—Henry RuggsCeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy—gone by about mid-round. The next guy, probably, was Justin Jefferson. In retrospect, Beane couldn’t have known he’d have been able to get Jefferson at 22, and obviously didn’t think he was worth the price to trade up to ensure getting him. Of course, Jefferson has been the best rookie receiver in football, picked by Minnesota in the slot Buffalo dealt. One more factor, from Beane: “This was an offseason that the pandemic was starting and we weren’t sure what kind of offseason we were gonna have. How much of an impact was a rookie receiver going to be able to make? We got a quarterback on a rookie contract. I just thought it made sense for us to add a proven commodity and Stefon was looking for a fresh start.”

The Bills not only might have the best wide receiver in the game this season in Diggs, but also the best slot receiver in Cole Beasley. The ex-Cowboy is having a sneaky great year: 79 catches, 950 yards, while making a team-friendly $4.4 million.

One last point I find interesting about the Bills: their reverence for special teams, their high regard for field-position football. When you have an explosive offense like the Bills, it’s rare to hear the GM get asked about one or two significant under-the-radar player acquisitions and have him mention . . . the return specialist?

Andre Roberts,” Beane said. “He’s really changed field position a lot for us. Our special teams coming into this game, we’ve ranked in the top 10 in all four main ones—punt and punt return, kick and kick return. Most people talk offense, defense. People don’t talk about our special teams enough.”

The Bills will be a formidable foe in January, with a strong-armed and maturing quarterback, a defense allowing 21.5 points a game over the last half-season and those special teams. A shame they won’t have their fans in-house for their first home playoff game in forever (a 1996 loss to Jacksonville), but, as Hughes said, “They’re the Bills Mafia. They’ll figure out some way to celebrate this.” It started with a 1 a.m. airport-welcome for the team Sunday, fans not socially distant but appearing masked on a 23-degree night. As the Bills deplaned and headed home to sleep, it felt like the start of something big in Buffalo.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.

NFL Week 13 awards: Nick Bosa, defenses steal show

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Offensive Players of the Week

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati. What a show of cool-under-pressure excellence by Burrow. He was unshakeable, hitting 25 of 31 for 286 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. His most impressive moment came with less than two minutes left, as the Bengals had third-and-11 at the Kansas City 28 with a three-point lead, hoping to hang onto the ball and run out the clock rather than kick a field goal and give Mahomes an entire minute to drive for six points. Burrow was in the pocket for about two seconds when Chiefs DE Mike Danna broke through the line on the strong side. When Danna hesitated for a half-second (appearing to make sure Burrow still had the ball), Burrow took advantage to thread a perfect ball to a closely-covered Tee Higgins, hitting him in stride for a first down to ice the game. Burrow moves to 3-0 against Mahomes – all in this calendar year. Honorable mentions to Jonah Williams, Cordell Volson, Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins on the offensive line who, less than a year after Burrow endured 20 sacks in the postseason, have held two of his tormenters (Tennessee and Kansas City) to one sack each in consecutive weeks.

A.J. Brown, wide receiver, Philadelphia. This was the game Brown had circled on his mental calendar—the Titans coming to Philadelphia seven months after the Titans traded Brown to Philadelphia—and the drama did not disappoint. Brown’s 40-yard TD pass from good friend Jalen Hurts in the second quarter put the Eagles ahead for good, 14-7, and Brown’s well-covered 29-yard TD catch in third quarter gave the Eagles all the insurance they’d need. For the game, Brown caught eight balls for 119 yards and those two scores as the Eagles routed the AFC South leaders.

 

Defensive Players of the Week

Bobby Wagner, linebacker, L.A. Rams. Ahead of this game Wagner, who spent the first 10 seasons of his career with Seattle, downplayed the significance of facing his former team for the first time, calling it “just another game,” in classic unruffled veteran speak. But Wagner’s performance Sunday was fit for a revenge game, including two sacks, two QB hits, three tackles for loss and a gritty, momentum-shifting interception in the third quarter when he muscled the ball out of the grip of Seattle’s Tony Jones. The Seahawks came away with the win, but Wagner was everywhere Sunday, reminding his former team of the impact player he can be.

Nick Bosa, edge, San Francisco. The definition of a valuable player is one who’s at his best when moments are the biggest. Bosa sacked Tua Tagovailoa twice when the game was in the balance, and when times were desperate at the two-minute warning of the fourth quarter, Bosa strip-sacked Tagovailoa, and the fumble was returned for a rub-it-in late TD. When Bosa is in form, the Niners can win games with their D. They did Sunday.

Chandler Jones, defensive end, Las Vegas. It was a breakout night for Jones, one that will go at least part of the way to quieting critics of the mismatch between his $51 million contract signed this offseason and his impact on the field so far in 2022. Jones entered the day with just a half-sack on the season but brought down Justin Herbert three times, part of relentless pressure that also yielded him five QB hits and a pass defended in the Raiders’ 27-20 win over the Chargers.

Jalen Pitre, strong safety, Houston. The second-round rookie from Baylor, who has been a bright spot in a terrible season for the Texans, saved his best for the Deshaun Watson return to Houston Sunday. Pitre had an NFL-best 16 tackles in Week 13, and he added an interception that, at the time, was crucial—he picked off Watson three yards deep in the end zone on a bad decision by the quarterback. The Texans have a lot of holes to fill for 2023, but strong safety isn’t one of them.

 

Special teams players of the week

Donovan Peoples-Jones, receiver/returner, Cleveland. While Deshaun Watson struggled mightily in his first game back, Peoples-Jones saved the Browns from eternal first-half damnation. Down 5-0 with four minutes left in the second quarter, Peoples-Jones took a punt at the Cleveland 24-yard line, got hit by three Texans, weaved to the right sideline and won a footrace for a 76-yard TD. Boy, did the Browns need that.

Greg Zuerlein, kicker, N.Y. Jets. Scored 12 straight points between late in the second quarter and midway through the fourth, almost enough to lift the Jets to an upset of the Vikings in Minnesota. His five field goals—from 48, 60, 36, 30 and 26 yards—in five tries made this day reminiscent of some of the biggest Greg the Leg games.

 

Coach of the Week

Lou Anarumo, defensive coordinator, Cincinnati. This was a huge win for the Bengals, their fourth straight, against a powerhouse Chiefs squad. Today, the “Big Play Bengals” moniker was a perfect fit for Anarumo’s defense, including two key plays in the final quarter. It’s rare we see Travis Kelce lose the ball – in fact, Bengals linebacker Germaine Pratt was responsible for Kelce’s first lost fumble of the season, halting the Chiefs’ first drive of the quarter and keeping the game within reach. Then, with Cincy up 27-24 in the final five minutes, Joseph Ossai sacked Patrick Mahomes on third and three to force a 55-yard Harrison Butker field goal attempt that sailed wide right, and just like that, the Bengals are 8-4. Anarumo interviewed for the Giants vacancy last season, and he’s rumored to be a head-coach candidate again this year. Neutralizing Kelce and helping the Bengals keep pace with the Ravens in the North can’t hurt his chances for a big job.

 

Goat of the week

Matt Patricia, assistant coach, Patriots. Not because Mac Jones yelled either at him or out of frustration Thursday night in the 24-10 loss to the Bills, or because offensive players subtly questioned Patricia’s play-calling after the game. But because the Patriots have developed zero downfield passing game, with nobody remotely threatening the secondary. Against the Bills, just seven of Mac Jones’ 36 passes went 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage or farther. You could argue that Jones—who completed just one of those seven throws—didn’t play well enough to deserve the trust of Patricia to throw to intermediate and deep areas. What I would say is Jones, the previous week against Minnesota, had completions of 26, 34, 16, 14, 37 and 40 yards on throws 10 yards or more past the line of scrimmage. The Buffalo game was a regression of major proportions. Patricia needed to build on the Minnesota game and did not.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column

Joe Burrow giving Cincinnati Bengals edge in AFC

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I’m fascinated by the pennant race in the AFC North. Baltimore and Cincinnati are tied for the top spot at 8-4. The Ravens have the tiebreaker with a win over the Bengals in Week Five; they have a rematch at Cincinnati Week 18. Their comparative schedules give the Ravens a slight edge, mostly because Cincinnati has a dangerous Monday night game against Buffalo at home in Week 17.

Baltimore: at Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, at Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Cleveland, at Tampa Bay, at New England, Buffalo, Baltimore.

But the quarterback gives the Bengals a big edge:

Baltimore: Lamar Jackson suffered a knee injury that will sideline him for an undetermined amount of time. Tyler Huntley, a nice backup, will hold the fort.

Cincinnati: Joe Burrow’s last seven weeks: 6-1, NFL-best 118.1 rating, 74.7 percent accuracy.

In the last two weeks, Burrow has beaten Tennessee and Kansas City in one-score games, playing his best when the best was required. The throw that blew me away watching the highlights of this game was a throw that was next-to-impossible to execute, at a time when the stakes of the game were high.

The situation: Cincinnati led 27-24 with 1:59 left in the game and had third-and-11 at the KC 28-. Kansas City had no timeouts left. If the Bengals converted here, they could run out the clock with two or three kneeldowns. If they were stopped here, Evan McPherson would be called on to try a field goal to stretch the lead to six points. So this third-down snap was everything.

Per NFL Next Gen Stats, here are the odds Burrow faced:

Next Gen had that Chris Jones, Mike Danna and Frank Clark all crossed the line of scrimmage faster than what’s considered the league’s above-average get-off time of .75 seconds. Danna, who came across in six-tenths of a second, was bearing down on Burrow as he readied to throw in a hurry.

The receiver, Tee Higgins, running a post route, never had more than two yards of separation from Kansas City cornerback Joshua Williams. Watching the replay, Williams looked like he was velcroed to Higgins.

Burrow threw the ball a split-second before getting hit by Danna. At the time of the throw, Williams was 18 inches from Higgins. In his shirt, in other words. When the ball gets to Higgins, he is contacted immediately (and maybe a tick before the ball gets there) by Williams. Burrow got hit. Higgins caught the ball. Gain of 14. Game over.

“You know the quarterback they have over there,” Burrow said. “We can’t settle for a field goal there or else [Patrick Mahomes] goes down the field and wins the game. We had to find a way to get that conversion, and Tee Higgins made a big play, just like he did in the AFC Championship.”

A few things come to mind about this Cincinnati team:

The offensive line is better. Shredded last year in the playoffs and early this year while the group was getting experience together, the five men up front are giving Burrow championship protection. In the last four games, Burrow has been sacked five times—including one each by Tennessee and KC in the last two games. Those two teams bedeviled Burrow in the playoffs last year. The leadership of free-agent center Ted Karras has been important.

They’re superb when games are tight. I attribute much of this to Burrow, who has a cool gene, the way great ones in the clutch have had. Each of their three playoff wins last January was a one-score game; Cincinnati’s last three wins have come by 7, 4 and 3 over the Steelers, Titans and Chiefs. His throw to Higgins and his clinical explanation for it illustrate why he and Mahomes might be the two quarterbacks with the best clutch play late in games right now.

The defense is not just along for the ride. In the last four weeks, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo’s unit has allowed an average of 318 yards with opposing passers completing just 60.1 percent. Mahomes was good Sunday (223 yards, one TD) but not dominant. Anarumo’s going to be a popular head-coach interview come the post-season for teams trying to figure how to beat Kansas City; he’s 3-0 against KC since January.

Even if the Bengals have to play road games through the playoffs, I doubt it’d bother them after winning in Nashville and Kansas City last year. That Week 18 game against the Ravens could determine everything, which is why I think it has the best chance of being game 272—the Sunday night game of the last weekend. It could have the most at stake of any final game. My money’s on Burrow if that happens.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column