The Buffalo Bills had strained for four years to conquer the Kansas City Chiefs, to close a margin both minuscule and gigantic. Two years ago, it was 13 seconds. On Sunday night, it was a few widths of a football flying on the wrong side of a yellow upright. In the end, it is everything. The Chiefs are champions, and Patrick Mahomes is an all-time great at age 28. The Bills are divisional-round fodder, and Allen is a force of nature forced to wonder when, or perhaps whether, his turn will come.
The Bills’ 27-24 defeat Sunday at Highmark Stadium provided a new level of disappointment and soul-searching for a star-crossed franchise. It was the kind of loss that forces big, uncomfortable questions: Are the changes necessary to overcome the Chiefs small or structural? Is Coach Sean McDermott capable of carrying the Bills to a championship? What now?
“I don’t think it’s a big change,” Allen said. “We got to find a way to score one more point than they do. Every season, if you don’t win, it’s a failed season. That’s the nature of the business. There’s one happy team at the end of the season, really. When it’s not you and you’re so close, it sucks.”
In Buffalo’s locker room, it felt like a mixture of shock and resignation. The Bills have been a regular season juggernaut for four years, winning four consecutive AFC East titles and averaging 12 victories. They have one lopsided loss in the AFC championship game and three divisional-round exits to show for it. Three of those losses have come against the Chiefs, and the last two ripped their guts out.
“Disbelief,” wide receiver Trent Sherfield said. “It still doesn’t feel real.”
If the Bills were going to conquer the Chiefs, it should have been Sunday night. They had maxed out their salary cap for two years and built their team with the expressly stated intent to topple Mahomes and Kansas City. They had sauntered into the postseason on a six-game winning streak, the longest in the NFL. The Chiefs had entered more vulnerable than ever before under Mahomes’s stewardship, forced to play a road playoff game for the first time since Mahomes became the starter.
AFC divisional playoff game
The Bills were banged-up on defense, yes, especially at linebacker. But they pushed the Chiefs to the brink all night. The Bills took the lead four times. They did not commit a turnover. They had a first down on the Kansas City 27-yard line, down three points, with 2:42 remaining. Bills players could be asked, with justification, how Sunday’s loss fit among the others. “It’s always hard,” center Mitch Morse said.
“Um,” Allen said. He paused for three seconds. “It sucks. Losing sucks. Losing to them, to anybody, at home — it sucks.”
Allen would not say the opponent made the loss sting more. It would be hard to believe that’s true. Mahomes, his friend away from the field, owns all the titles Allen wants. Mahomes just advanced to his sixth consecutive AFC championship, and he could still repeat as a Super Bowl champion and hoist a third Lombardi Trophy. Mahomes turned 28 early this season, and the few quarterbacks with more playoff victories than his 13 require only surnames for identification: Brady, Montana, Bradshaw, Elway, Manning. He can catch the latter three next week in Baltimore.
For roughly three hours Sunday night, Allen matched Mahomes. He passed for 186 yards and a touchdown. He rushed 12 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns. On a scoring drive before halftime, Allen accounted for 74 of the Bills’ 75 yards and finished it off with an unstoppable two-yard plunge into the end zone.
“I mean, these were the games I watched growing up, the great quarterbacks going up against each other,” Mahomes said. “Hopefully, we’re making those memories.”
The memories are only bad in Buffalo. McDermott spoke late Sunday night like a coach comfortable in his status. He looked to the future as if his place in it was a given.
“We’ll turn over every leaf this offseason,” McDermott said. “I’m fully confident in this football team, fully confident in our staff. We’re within a whisker of tying that game and maybe even taking the lead there against the defending world champs. We just didn’t do enough tonight to win this game.”
The Bills, though, have already changed so much around McDermott. They fired defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier in the offseason, and McDermott took over defensive play-calling duties. McDermott fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey midway through this season and replaced him with Joe Brady.
“One hundred percent, it starts with me,” McDermott said. “I take full responsibility. We didn’t do enough to win the game.”
One moment could be scrutinized most. Early in the fourth quarter, the Bills faced fourth and five at their 30-yard line. McDermott made a concession that had become obvious. “Just felt like we were having a hard time stopping them,” he said.
The Bills lined up to punt. Instead of kicking, they snapped to up man Damar Hamlin. The Chiefs sniffed out the fake and tackled Hamlin for a two-yard gain.
“We only have one chance, so I wanted to be aggressive,” McDermott said. “It obviously didn’t work, but it’s a decision I made, and I’ll live with it.”
Trying to keep possession was a logical choice. But if McDermott had decided his defense couldn’t stop the Chiefs, why not keep an offense that had been humming on the field? Why place the game in Hamlin’s hands rather than Allen’s?
“We felt good about the look going into the week,” McDermott said. “I understand what you’re saying about keeping Josh out there. It’s just where we were on the field in relation to the element of surprise. Obviously, we didn’t execute.”
The Bills received a reprieve when Mecole Hardman fumbled through the end zone on the Chiefs’ ensuing drive. Both defenses stiffened until 8:23 remained in the fourth quarter, when the Bills took over on their 20, down by three, a situation made for Allen to redefine his career.
“I love 17 [Allen] with everything I’ve got,” Bills wide receiver Khalil Shakir said. “When 17 got the ball in his hands, anything can happen.”
Allen piloted the Bills downfield, converting on fourth and three with a quick toss to Shakir in the flat. By the two-minute warning, the Bills had moved the ball inside the Kansas City 30.
“We had the game in our hands,” running back James Cook said.
On the first play out of the break, Allen dropped back and saw two options: Stefon Diggs wide open crossing underneath and Shakir about to break open in the middle of the end zone. Allen went for the touchdown. Just as he released the ball, though, Chris Jones pushed left tackle Dion Dawkins into Allen. “I just couldn’t get into the throw,” Allen said, and it sailed harmlessly to the blue turf in the end zone.
After Allen scrambled but couldn’t find any open receiver, Tyler Bass trotted onto the field to tie the game. He could feel the wind, the typical, predominant left-to-right breeze at that end of the stadium. He knew he needed to start the kick a little left. But Bass blocked it right off his foot. Once it started fading, the wind pushed it wide right.
“Snap was good, hold was great,” Bass said. “It hurts, man. It’s a feeling that I can’t even describe.”
Allen wished the Bills had not required a kick to win. The Bills’ dearth of explosive plays may have been the deciding factor. Their longest play gained only 18 yards. As much as they controlled the ball, their inability to pick up large chunks of offense doomed them as they did not score in the fourth quarter. Diggs, the star wideout who slowly disappeared over the second half of the season, caught only three of the eight passes Allen threw him, for 21 yards.
The Bills will have to think about it all over another bitter offseason. They will have to watch the Chiefs play for another championship. Mahomes finally came to their stadium in January. He left the Bills with another loss and a pile of questions without answers.
“Here, there, it doesn’t matter,” Allen said. “Losing sucks. I don’t know what else to say.”