ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Through heavy snowfall, players on the powdered field were difficult to decipher, visages veiled by a white haze.
The Buffalo Bills were out there. A version of them, anyway. The Highmark Stadium crowd strain their eyeballs and synapses if they wanted to remember the preseason Super Bowl favorites instead of whomever the Bills had become by Sunday, an overmatched team with no answers.
Where else would you rather be than right here, right now? The Cincinnati Bengals proved it didn’t matter where the game happened or that they had to wait three weeks or that they were expected to lose by a touchdown.
The Bills managed one touchdown and one field goal, ending their campaign with a bleak 27-10 defeat. A promising season is over two games away from the Super Bowl, never mind the Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s devastating,” Bills tight end Dawson Knox said. “No one saw our season ending right now.”
Many will view the Bills’ 2022 season as a failure.
In context, they thrived.
They did not reach the finish line, yet they survived.
The Bills overcame several hardships and continued to win. As dark as the mood was when safety Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped beating, his inspirational recovery underscored the sentiment Buffalo just might be a team of destiny.
Similar to looking through Sunday’s frigid gauze, we can see enough of whatever transpired the past few months to recognize either a football collapse or a triumph of the human spirit. Inside a quiet Bills locker room, however, exhausted athletes couldn’t see through the pain.
“It’s pretty clear in my eyes,” special-teams captain Taiwan Jones said. “We overcame so much adversity. This team, this town, we went through a lot. We won a lot of hearts. People got behind us, but I feel like we let them down.
“We set out on a mission. We set a goal. We have a standard. In my eyes, it’s a failure of a year.”
Each player handled disappointment his own way.
Stefon Diggs fumed during and after. Early in the second quarter, the star receiver yelled at Josh Allen about throws being too low and in the fourth quarter gestured wildly on the sideline, trying to get Allen and quarterbacks coach Joe Brady to acknowledge his existence. Neither would engage him. Diggs bolted from the locker room before coach Sean McDermott’s addressed the team. Practice squad running back Duke Johnson chased after Diggs to coax him back. Diggs slipped back inside, but dashed the moment McDermott was done.
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Bills safety Jordan Poyer, with glassy eyes, walked around the locker room, dapping and bro-hugging teammates he might never play with again. “Love you,” center Mitch Morse said, clasping his hand on left tackle Dion Dawkins’ neck.
Allen was the last to remove his uniform and pads. He sat within his locker stall and stared at nothing in particular. The left elbow of his white undershirt was blood-soaked.
“When that clock hits zero and we don’t move on to next week, it’s painful,” Jones said. “This group that overcame so much won’t be the exact group that comes back next year.
“You can’t help but think about it. You work so hard and make sacrifices. You want to see your guys win. Not to be able to see that hurts.”
Talent is but one factor in determining a champion. Chance remains omni-influential.
What does it mean mathematically to be the preseason Super Bowl favorite among 32 teams? Chances remain lopsided against pulling it off.
Implied odds gave the Bills a 14.3 percent at Caesars Sportsbook. ESPN’s Football Power Index gave them a league-high 6.9 percent chance to win it all.
Champions must be lucky along the way. Or in Buffalo’s case, simply not encounter unprecedented misery.
“You could write a book on this season with the amount of adversity we went through,” Bills left guard Rodger Saffold said, “not just the team but the entire community.”
A football defeat is trivial compared to what Western New York endured in 2022. A racist gunman murdered 10 and wounded three at an East Side supermarket in May. A Christmas storm crushed the region again, the death toll in Erie and Niagara Counties up to 47 so far. On New Year’s Eve, five children ages 2 to 10 died in a LaSalle neighborhood house fire.
The Bills were leaned upon for respite, but the organization suffered its share.
Bills co-owner Kim Pegula hasn’t been seen in public since June, when she was hospitalized with an undisclosed medical condition. Tight end Dawson Knox’s brother, Florida International linebacker Luke Knox, died two weeks before the season began. In Week 2, captain and safety Micah Hyde suffered what eventually was a season-ending neck injury in the same game an ambulance drove onto the field for cornerback Dane Jackson’s scary neck injury.
A November blizzard chased the Bills out of their Week 11 home date with the Cleveland Browns. The schlep to Detroit forced the Bills to play three games in 12 days — a highly unusual Sunday-Thursday-Thursday trifecta — all on the road. The Bills somehow went 3-0, but Allen’s star waned as the offense — and his sprained right elbow — ratcheted agita. Allen was the leading MVP candidate deep into October, but he plummeted down the list and finished the season with an NFL-high 19 giveaways.
“We were the Super Bowl favorites,” said Saffold, “but then it felt like we were doubted week after week after week. Oh, we don’t have Brian Daboll anymore … Oh, Josh has deteriorated … Oh, this offense can’t win the Super Bowl …
“Just as much as we needed to ignore the noise about being Super Bowl favorites at the beginning of the year, we had to push through that at the beginning of the year. It’s topsy-turvy.”
Those football criticisms were germane in both postseason games.
The Bills’ lukewarm performance last week would not have beaten most teams in the tournament field, but they played third-string, seventh-round, rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson and the Miami Dolphins. Allen threw two interceptions and fumbled three times, losing one for a Dolphins touchdown. The Bills won by only three points.
Cincinnati wooshed across the snowy turf Sunday, scoring early, bopping Allen around and leading by at least two scores over half the game.
Any quibbles over the NFL’s postseason schedule makers being overly generous to the Bills — letting them play Sunday in Orchard Park and permitting a neutral-site AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs — were rendered moot by the Bengals’ immediate dominance.
The popular story line about Buffalo’s defense trampling a patchwork offensive line didn’t pan out. Joe Burrow, hit just three times, was tranquil. The Bengals amassed 30 first downs, a postseason record for them and for a Bills opponent in regulation. Buffalo also surrendered 30 last year against Kansas City in overtime.
Bengals ballcarriers routinely made defenders miss in slippery space. Joe Mixon ran for 105 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, tight end Hayden Hurst and tailback Samaje Perine each had five receptions.
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Buffalo got thinner and thinner in the secondary. With Hamlin watching from a suite above the tunnel end zone, his replacement, Dean Marlowe, departed with a groin injury late in the second quarter. A collision between Poyer and top cornerback Tre’Davious White forced them out of the game with head injuries early in the fourth quarter.
Bills playmakers were muted. Allen was their leading rusher with eight attempts for 26 yards and a touchdown. Diggs had one more catch and two more yards than slot receiver Cole Beasley, signed off the street last month.
Although McDermott denied it, the Bills looked like they’d hit the emotional wall.
Trudging up the stadium tunnel into the cold and snowy night, injured edge rusher Von Miller was not his usual, verbose self. But he remained optimistic.
“I’m still trying to process it,” Miller said. “No more victories, but we overcame a lot. I’m proud to be a Buffalo Bill. You just got to deal with it. We did a lot of good stuff. We got a great team. I’m excited what we can do next. This will motivate us, of course.”
Buffalo will lose some important players. Allen, Diggs and Miller account for $78.6 million of the 2023 salary cap. White, left tackle Dion Dawkins and linebacker Matt Milano take up another $44 million. The six of them together project to take up about half the cap.
Four captains just finished the final year of their contracts: Poyer, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, Jones and Tyler Matakevich. Other possible free agents include tailback Devin Singletary, offensive linemen Saffold, David Quessenberry and Bobby Hart, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, edge rusher Shaq Lawson and cornerback Dane Jackson.
Even if the Bills lose no one (but they will), there will be holes to spackle. There likely will be a vacancy or two on McDermott’s coaching staff.
Yes, the Bills won 13 games, took the AFC East crown and notched first-round playoff victory. But they’ve slipped farther from the Super Bowl each of the past three winters. They played for the AFC title two years ago, came 13 seconds away from winning a divisional playoff game last year and were blown out Sunday, losing the first home playoff game under McDermott and only the second in club history.
The organization now has six months to regroup before training camp at St. John Fisher College.
As much as the Bills would have preferred to keep practicing and playing for another three weeks, they obviously need the rest. Their season was grueling and complicated and traumatic.
Even so, they crave the Super Bowl. That’s why they’ll struggle for a while with the concept 2022 eventually will be remembered as one of the most incredible in franchise history.
That’s tough to see — in the melancholy moment — through the season’s thick fog and through Sunday’s snowy filter.
“It came with a lot of blessings,” Jones said. “Our brother, D-Ham, like the doctor said, he won the game of life. That’s the best gift that came out of this year. That’s a special group.
“I hate that we didn’t complete our mission. We faced a lot of adversity, but so did 31 other teams. My goal was to win the Super Bowl. I believe we should’ve made it there.”
(Photo of Josh Allen: Kareem Elgazzar / USA Today)