Divisional Round Care/Don't Care: Bills loss to Bengals exposed flaws we should have seen all along

Things I care about

The Bills were overrated

This feels like hindsight analysis. An easy acquisition or some folks might even say a convenient excuse to make for Buffalo after a disappointing playoff exit. Maybe that’s a fair retort.

However, it’s been made clear how many roster holes the media glazed right over when penciling in Buffalo as the clear-cut Super Bowl favorite heading into this season.

And I’m not just talking about being made clear on Sunday afternoon. The games have been telling us the harsh truth all season that we overrated this roster.

Let’s start on defense. A unit that was good not great all year was embarrassed against the Bengals. You can certainly point to injuries. They’ve been a problem in the secondary and prized offseason addition Von Miller wasn’t available for the playoffs. The fact that adding Miller was even necessary in the first place shows that the investments they’ve made have not worked out. It’s looking more and more like Miller’s presence was indeed necessary and not a luxury.

If you were generous, you could have called the Miller signing the “icing on the cake,” for the Bills' defense. The rest of the layers didn’t hold up. Those guys weren’t bottom-shelf ingredients either.

Bills defensive line investment

2019 1st round – Ed Oliver
2020 2nd round – A.J. Epenesa
2021 1st round – Gregory Rousseau
2021 2nd round – Boogie Basham

This offseason:
Von Miller $20 mil APY
Daquan Jones $7 mil
Tim Settle 4.5 mil

— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) September 9, 2022

This highly resourced defensive line crumbled against an under-manned Bengals team. If you told a non-NFL fan watching the game that one team was starting three backups on the offensive line, they’d never guess it correctly.

That brings us to the offense. The line was always going to be the weakest point of the scoring unit. That showed itself consistently to end the season, especially in Buffalo’s two playoff games.

You can overlook pass protection or run blocking woes when you have elite skill position talent. The Bills obviously do not and were never going to. The Bills have two elite players in Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs. That is it. Everyone else they wagered on playing above their level. They lost those bets.

Gabe Davis was aggressively steamed up fantasy draft boards because people do not watch film or understand players. That is harsh but it is true. Davis erupted in the divisional round last year because the Chiefs' undermanned defense busted zone coverages and had players fall down. There was far more evidence all over Davis’ resume, on film and on paper, that he wasn’t ready to be a clear-cut, every-down WR2. He’s a really dangerous deep threat; great on corner, nine and post routes, but he is not a reliable technician and just does not separate well enough in the short to intermediate areas. Davis was a Day 3 draft pick who thrived in a limited role. That’s where he should stay.

Isaiah McKenzie didn’t make the leap to full-time slot receiver after being a career kick return/gadget man. The team signed Cole Beasley back to the roster toward the end of the year. That didn’t go well. Tight end Dawson Knox is a solid player but faded from the offense for large stretches and had to pass protect more than expected. Buffalo never seemed to want to put too much on rookie Khalil Shakir. Understandable, he was a Round 5 pick.

The running game remains a huge work in progress. They’ve spent a ton of Day 2 picks on the running back position but have yet to find a featured player. Not that one could emerge behind the line anyway. It would be nice to hand some of the game-plan off to a high-quality back in these weather-impacted playoff games. The Bills can’t do that with a straight face right now.

The Buffalo offense was far too Josh Allen in chaos mode/Stefon Diggs being great or bust this year. The longer they asked Allen, a quarterback who may have been dealing with the effects of an elbow injury for most of the year, the more he compounded mistakes.

Allen went into superhero mode in the playoffs last year. When he wasn’t that player for stretches this season, the team around him wasn’t close to good enough. It is objectively unreasonable to ask just about any quarterback, no matter how great they are, to be that player from start to finish of an entire NFL season.

And make no mistake, Allen is a great quarterback. One of the five best in the league without a doubt. He is 26 years old and will get another crack at a Super Bowl before it’s all said and done. But only one team wins it per year.

This was not the Bills’ year despite all the preseason hype because the roster simply was not good enough and we should have seen it coming. It was made clear all year long. Sunday’s loss to a far superior Bengals team just provided the loudest exclamation point.

How the Giants attack the offseason

The Giants took it on the chin in their playoff exit, getting thoroughly outclassed by a superior team in the Eagles. The 2022 season was still a wild success by any measure for a New York operation that was cutting players late in the offseason just to sign their rookie class and was supposed to be headed for a multi-year rebuild.

Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll had a lot on their plate last offseason just to get the Giants on the right track. They’ll be busy once again with multiple big decisions to make on offense alone.

Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley are slated to hit free agency. It would be hard to imagine the Giants wanting to bid farewell to either after the seasons they just had in Daboll and Mike Kafka’s offense. Yet, the franchise tag is only available to one.

If I had to guess, I’d imagine the Giants tag Barkley and play chicken with his deal as so many second-contract running backs have aged poorly. That could be inviting an unpleasant situation with a locker-room leader and star-level player who absolutely deserves to be rewarded.

The Jones situation is also quite interesting. The Giants passed on his fifth-year option less than a year ago. As much as those of us on the outside doubted he’d have a season like this, so did the Giants. Now we get to find out how much they want to bet on him in the future. It’s hard to imagine Jones wants to leave a system that just revived his career in, or that some other team would now value him more than the Giants. There has to be some sort of shorter-term, non-Kyler Murray albatross contract both parties can agree on.

Then there’s the matter of adding pieces around these two if they’re back. The Giants might have found a nice rotational piece in Isaiah Hodgins to keep in the wide receiver room long-term, but otherwise, that’s a blank-slate position. The free-agent market doesn’t offer many gems but the Giants should be considered a quality destination if the trade market heats up.

No matter how it plays out whether both, one, or (unlikely) neither of Barkley and Jones are back with the team, I think the Giants are in a good position. They have the head coach and the ecosystem figured out long-term. How they go about building around that will be one of the most fascinating stories of the offseason.

Things I don’t care about

Pretending with Dak Prescott

The Cowboys quarterback and the team, in general, will always get media attention. Often times that will be sensationalized or taken too far.

When Dak Prescott has what can only be described as an unacceptable game as he did in San Francisco, the criticism is deserved. Prescott consistently made poor decisions, put the ball in harm's way and worst off capped things with a pitiful second-to-last drive for Dallas. The defense played more than well enough to secure a Cowboys win. It was a hard matchup but the offense and particularly the quarterback let the team down.

The problem is what to do with this information. An overreaction on either side of the coin would be foolish.

Prescott will be the team’s quarterback next year. Pretending otherwise is not even a realistic or frankly serious conversation. Dak is a great starting quarterback and someone you can win with. The danger is pretending he’s anything else much longer.

As mentioned in the Bills section, teams too often just count on their quarterback to fix everything; to elevate the entire roster beyond each player’s individual level. That is certainly the case with Dallas.

The Cowboys walked into this season with a player ready-made to make the leap to superstar status in CeeDee Lamb and bet on him to deliver. He did just that but that was about the only gamble Dallas won.

I am a huge Michael Gallup fan but asking a player so fresh off a late-season ACL tear to just be himself and be a 1B receiver to Lamb in 2022 was ridiculous. He’ll be better next year but this year was a near waste. Their third-round rookie Jalen Tolbert never contributed and this team ended up giving major snaps to T.Y. Hilton and Noah Brown. No one is scared of that, especially down the field.

Prescott will enter his age-30 season in 2023. He is squarely in “he is what he is” territory. There’s a part of me that is worried he’s entering into a zone where he’s writing checks his arm can’t cash. He was never the most physically gifted thrower from an arm strength perspective. While he’s such a good pre-snap processor, those holes can tighten quickly post-snap. That’s an issue quality defenses can squat on and non-vertical routes exacerbate.

The Cowboys need to assemble a far better offense around him to win big games and not keep ramming into the same wall in the postseason. Let’s not pretend like it’s simply impossible to get past that stumbling block with Dak as the quarterback. However, let’s not spend any longer in the fantasy land that they’ll ever get past it because of him.

Any Jaguars negativity

I can’t remember a team that had a right to feel as good coming out of a playoff loss than the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Cris Collinsworth used the word “healing” to describe the work Doug Pederson had to do after taking over as the head coach. That shows you the state this team was in coming out of last season. Clearly, Pederson did that work and more.

No matter what the future holds for Trevor Lawrence and wherever you’d like to slot him in the quarterback ranking debates, the guy got back on track in his second season. The Jaguars have head coach and quarterback figured out. That goes a long way.

Not only that, they even held their own against the Chiefs, losing by just seven points. Of course, that comes with a Patrick Mahomes injury asterisk but they don’t have to walk into the offseason with the disgust of being outclassed in a blowout or suffering through endless jokes like the Cowboys for an embarrassing final play. They can walk into the offseason heads held high with nothing but hope and optimism after dramatically outkicking expectations.

While essentially every other team I wrote about here has to start scheming their way into adding a difference-maker to their passing game, the Jaguars might have already checked that box.

I want to remain only cautiously optimistic about what Calvin Ridley will be for the Jags after such a long layoff from football. However, his recent Twitter activity suggests that he’s dialed in and hungry to get back on the field. There’s no denying that a player with his separation skills on the outside is exactly what Lawrence needs. The Jaguars aren’t a Ridley away from the Super Bowl and I’d bet on them making another pass-catching addition — a true big-bodied ball-winning X-receiver would be nice — but we know for a fact they’re destined for a receiver upgrade. We don’t need to play hypotheticals.

The Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t make a Super Bowl run but they already got their young quarterback a playoff win and hope should abound throughout that building. They have a legitimately enviable foundation.

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