2021 NFL Preview: Bills had a magical season, and now they try to re-climb the mountain

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The image of Stefon Diggs after the AFC championship game, hands on his head in anguish as he watched the Kansas City Chiefs celebrate, is hard to shake. It's one of the more powerful sports images you'll see.

Even if you're not a Buffalo Bills fan, that photo should make you feel something. At that moment it didn't matter that the Bills had a fantastic 13-3 season, breaking the New England Patriots' streak of AFC East titles and winning a couple of playoff games. There was just pain knowing the Chiefs were moving on.

There was a message in Diggs sticking around, as noted in the tweet. He wanted to take it in, burning it into his brain for the 2021 season. There's a mythology in losing the big game, then coming back after that loss and slaying demons. It became part of the normal sports narrative when Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls finally got past the Detroit Pistons. We saw the Milwaukee Bucks use two big playoff disappointments as motivation for an NBA championship.

It does happen that way. Not always, of course.

If you remove your own team, you should be rooting for the Buffalo Bills to win a Super Bowl. The franchise had one great run in the 1990s and famously lost four Super Bowls in a row. Then came decades of pain. The Bills have great, devoted fans. And they haven't been able to celebrate a Super Bowl. Yet.

One big season allows Bills fans to dream. Josh Allen almost won an MVP, having one of the biggest leaps a quarterback has had in a long time. Diggs was a phenomenal addition, leading the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. The Bills dominated the league over the last half of the regular season. A smart coaching staff embraced passing early and often, leading to an offensive surge. The Bills had a wonderful season. They just couldn't win in Kansas City in late January.

The hardest part of the ending was losing one step from a Super Bowl. The second-hardest part is knowing how difficult it is to get back to that point.

“I think our guys understand, and we’ve stressed that all offseason, is that what we did last year was really good but it means nothing,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said, according to the Democrat & Chronicle.

“One of the coaches, I heard him talking to a couple players yesterday talking about re-climbing the mountain. We don’t get to start up here, we’re starting at the bottom. Everything we did, all the success we had, it doesn’t mean anything. Everybody’s 0-0, everybody’s at the start line and we have to re-establish the things that we did well last year.”

The NFL is built for teams to rise and fall quickly. Opponents will adjust to the Bills' pass-happy ways. Buffalo isn't guaranteed to avoid injuries in key spots. Allen's improvement was so rapid that a small step back could happen. Not all positive progress is linear, from a player or a team.

However, there's no reason to not believe in the Bills taking that next step. Allen could fall off, but that seems unlikely. Most of the team returns. If anything, the Bills could bounce back to strong 2019 levels on defense after being a touch disappointing last season.

Maybe this season will have a better ending. Bills fans can only hope.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen had a breakthrough 2021 season. (AP/ Photo Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen had a breakthrough 2021 season. (AP/ Photo Jeffrey T. Barnes)

The Bills were one of the quietest teams in free agency. Nobody coming or going got a total contract of more than $6 million total. The biggest move was adding receiver Emmanuel Sanders. who was still productive for the New Orleans Saints last season at age 33. The Bills, needing a pass rush boost, drafted defensive end Greg Rousseau in the first round and defensive end Boogie Basham in the second round. That could pay off. Mostly the Bills wanted to run it back with their 2020 roster, and who can blame them?

Grade: C


Josh Allen's jump in accuracy might have been one of the most shocking stats of the 2020 season. Allen's first three seasons in completion percentage: 52.8, 58.8 ... then 69.2. That's a big leap, especially since the biggest knock on Allen before he was drafted was his lack of accuracy. Give Allen a ton of credit for working to improve, and to the Bills' coaching staff for putting him in positions to succeed. It's a surprise offensive coordinator Brian Daboll didn't get a head-coaching job in the offseason. That was a big win for the Bills and Allen, too.


The Bills' win total at BetMGM is 11, and unlike other teams in that range, I like the over. I don't think the Bills fall all the way back to 10-7 or worse. Maybe it's a push, but that wouldn't be the worst thing. I also think there's still decent value in the Bills to win a Super Bowl at +1200.


From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Cole Beasley’s market price varies significantly, depending on where you draft. He currently holds a Yahoo ADP of 126; he’s 26 picks cheaper in NFFC rooms. That second market might be onto something.

"Beasley’s coming off a terrific season, but there is internal competition. The Bills added Emmanuel Sanders, who can run most of the Beasley routes, and second-year wideout Gabriel Davis could be ready for an expanded role. Beasley has also made himself a controversial subject with his views on the nationwide vaccination debate, views that appear to be at conflict with the team's stance. Perhaps the team will ultimately shrug off this issue and stand behind Beasley, but we can't ignore the angle completely.

"Bottom line, Beasley just had a surprising career year at age 31. That’s not the sort of thing shrewd fantasy owners are likely to chase after. The Bills could use Beasley, but they don’t necessarily need him. I can’t draft Beasley proactively this season."


In 2019, the Bills were a defensive-first team that carried along a below-average offense. It's true: The Bills ranked 24th in offensive yardage, while the defense ranked third. That completely flipped last season. The Bills had a great offensive season, but the defense fell to 16th in points allowed and 14th in yards allowed. Football Outsiders' DVOA had the Bills 12th in defense. It wasn't a bad year by any means, and the defense played better in the second half of the season. The dream for Buffalo is if the 2019 defense returns, and is married with the 2020 offense. Most of the key members of the 2019 Bills defense are still on the roster, so it's not a crazy notion to think that unit can bounce back and be in the NFL's top five again. If that happens, the Bills would be hard to beat.


Can the Bills run the ball? Do they want to?

The Bills embraced the modern NFL last season, passing early and often. The Bills led the NFL in first-down passing attempts and first-down passing yards. In a win over the Seattle Seahawks, 33 of Buffalo's 35 offensive plays in the first half were called passes. The Bills had 415 yards passing and just 34 rushing (14 of which came from Josh Allen). Usually, teams want a little more balance. But until running backs Zack Moss or Devin Singletary prove to be capable of handling more, the Bills would rather put most of the offense on Allen's shoulders. Singletary averaged 4.4 yards per carry and Moss averaged 4.3, which isn't horrible. Moss is the better bet to have a breakthrough, but it doesn't seem like he'll get enough volume for anyone to notice.


We've already seen it, though in different seasons. If the Bills put together a top-five defense like 2019 and a top-five offense like last season, Buffalo should be the best team in football. Everything seems on the table: Another AFC East title, Josh Allen winning MVP, the best record in the AFC and a Super Bowl championship. And all that needs to happen is the Bills' offense maintaining what it did last season and the defense playing either at 2019 levels or what it showed at times late last season.


Let's say the Bills go 12-5, win the AFC East, win a first-round playoff game and then lose in the divisional round. That would seem like a disappointment. That's the problem with a big breakthrough like the Bills had, with most of the key pieces coming back. The expectation is that the next step will be forward. There doesn't seem to be any real danger of the Bills completely falling off, outside of a massive rash of injuries like the 2020 49ers. But it will be hard to make everyone happy, unless there's a trip to the Super Bowl. That's a lot of pressure.


Counting playoffs, the Bills went 11-2 in their final 13 games, with a Hail Mary loss to the Arizona Cardinals and the playoff loss to the Chiefs. Eight of those wins came by double digits, a sign of a dominant team. I'll have the Chiefs as my top AFC team in the power rankings because they have earned that over the past few seasons. But I might end up on the Bills as my Super Bowl pick. I'd like to see a little better running game and wish there was a dominant pass rusher on the roster, but it's mostly a team without a glaring weakness. And it would be cool to see Buffalo finally celebrate a Super Bowl win.


32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos
20. Dallas Cowboys
19. Washington Football Team
18. Arizona Cardinals
17. Minnesota Vikings
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. New Orleans Saints
14. New England Patriots
13. Miami Dolphins
12. Los Angeles Chargers
11. Cleveland Browns
10. Tennessee Titans
9. Seattle Seahawks
8. Green Bay Packers
7. Los Angeles Rams
6. San Francisco 49ers
5. Indianapolis Colts
4. Baltimore Ravens

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