2020 NFL Preview: If the Bills can't knock off the Patriots in the AFC East this season, then when?

Yahoo Sports

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5. 

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

The Buffalo Bills’ nightmare has lasted 20 years.

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When you talk about a player being associated with an opponent’s misery, a few names come to mind. Michael Jordan and the New York Knicks. Cleveland Browns fans still curse John Elway. Chipper Jones wore out the New York Mets. Brett Favre, and then Aaron Rodgers, tortured the Chicago Bears. There’s also Bucky Bleeping Dent and the Boston Red Sox.

Tom Brady and the Bills might top that list. Brady had more wins at Buffalo’s New Era Field than any Bills quarterback since 2001. The Patriots went an astonishing 32-3 in Brady’s starts against the Bills. Brady threw 8,669 yards and 70 touchdowns against the Bills, his most against any opponent. The Bills haven’t won a division title or playoff game since Brady became New England’s quarterback in 2001.

Maybe, just maybe, Brady leaving the AFC East finally opens the door for the Bills to exorcise their demons. Long-suffering Bills Mafia fans can only hope.

The Bills finished last season looking like an ascending team. The defense is really good. Quarterback Josh Allen has his flaws, but he makes plays and did improve last season. The Bills gave the Patriots fits in both meetings and fell just short each time. They should have won both games. They knew they were close. That’s why they sent a bunch of picks to the Minnesota Vikings for receiver Stefon Diggs. A true standout receiver seemed to be the missing piece.

As that was happening, the Patriots were going the other way. We have seen New England brush off personnel losses before, so maybe 2020 will be the same. But the Patriots have had one rough offseason. They already had a big talent drain on defense before starters Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower opted out of the season. On paper, their skill-position talent is among the worst in the league. Cam Newton replaces Brady at quarterback, and while Newton has had a great career, we don’t know how that will work out.

This is the Bills’ shot. The Bills have not won a division title since 1995. Since 2003, the Patriots have won all but one AFC East title, including a current streak of 11 in a row. As impressive as the Patriots’ streak has been, the ineptitude of the rest of the AFC East is just as stunning.

If the Bills can’t get it done now, with a young team clearly on the rise last season, trying to knock off a Patriots team that limped to the finish line last season and then might have had the worst offseason of any NFL team, then when will it happen? If the Bills can’t take advantage of a wounded Patriots team, with perhaps their best roster in at least 20 years, can there be any real hope of it happening the year after, or the year after that?

“I think that what we’ve got going on in Buffalo is a special thing and I’m super fortunate to be a part of it. Again, we need to see results,” Allen said. “So, I understand how big of a year it is.”

It’s somewhat strange to put win-now pressure on a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since Dec. 30, 1995. The Bills have been to the playoffs only twice since the 1999 season. In 2017, they had an ugly 10-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and last postseason, they blew a 16-0 second-half lead and lost in overtime to the Houston Texans. Still, it feels like this is the season the Bills have been building for. Anything less than a division title would be a disappointment.

“If they don’t [win the AFC East], then something’s wrong,” Hall of Fame former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly said on CBS Sports Radio's The Zack Gelb Show. “I mean, Tom Brady is not there to block you anymore. So that, to me, is huge.”

John Brown celebrates with Josh Allen after scoring a touchdown last season. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
John Brown celebrates with Josh Allen after scoring a touchdown last season. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/Getty Images)
2020 season: Offseason grade
2020 season: Offseason grade

Stefon Diggs was the key piece of the offseason. The Bills sent the 22nd pick of the 2020 draft, a fifth- and sixth-round pick in this year’s draft and a 2021 fourth-round pick to the Minnesota Vikings. That’s a lot, but top receivers aren’t easy to acquire. Landing a No. 1 receiver was crucial for the Bills. Buffalo lost some players, perhaps most notably defensive tackle Star Lotulelei when he opted out due to coronavirus concerns. They lost Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips off the defensive line in free agency, but signed defensive end Mario Addison from the Carolina Panthers and drafted Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa in the second round. You can criticize the Bills for overpaying for Diggs, but it fits the urgency of this season.

GRADE: B

2020 season: Quarterback report
2020 season: Quarterback report

Josh Allen is going to be a player who causes disagreement his entire career. Some are high on him and his physical gifts. He did progress in meaningful ways in 2019. He had improvements in completion percentage, touchdown rate, interception rate, passing yards and passer rating. He was much more accurate on throws of less than 20 yards. He has added far more value as a runner than anyone could have imagined. Yet, there are problems. Allen still has issues with deep-ball accuracy, which shows that a quarterback isn’t necessarily a good deep passer just because he has a big arm. Among quarterbacks with 50 deep attempts last season, Allen had the sixth highest percentage of deep throws but was 23rd of 24th in completion percentage, according to Pro Football Focus, ahead of only Kyle Allen. That means Allen throws deep a lot but hasn’t been good at it. Maybe Stefon Diggs will help. Even though Allen improved in his second season, he’s still not at a top-10 level — his completion percentage is still below 60 percent, he is too susceptible to turnovers and he has to figure out how to make plays downfield. His third season will be telling.

2020 season: Most important non-QB
2020 season: Most important non-QB

The Vikings say they did not intend to trade Stefon Diggs as late as the NFL scouting combine in February.

“It just came to a point, I think, where the draft capital we were able to get for him was a good business decision for us and it was also a good business decision for him,” Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said, according to the Pioneer Press.

In other words, the Bills paid a lot and the Vikings couldn’t refuse. And that’s OK for the Bills. Diggs is a great route runner (my colleague Matt Harmon called him the best route runner in the NFL), very good at yards after catch, a fantastic deep target and basically the No. 1 receiver the Bills and Josh Allen needed. If Diggs can put up a big season, it could be the key in Allen making a leap.

2020 season: BetMGM odds breakdown
2020 season: BetMGM odds breakdown

Clearly I’m pretty high on the 2020 Bills. Their over/under win total at BetMGM is 8.5 and it would be quite disappointing if they are 8-8 or worse. And, of course, I like the Bills to win the AFC East.

2020 season: Yahoo's fantasy take
2020 season: Yahoo's fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Stefon Diggs is one of the best wideouts in the NFL, and a darling of the scouting and stat-evaluation crowd (waving at you, Matt Harmon). There isn’t a pro organization that wouldn’t welcome Diggs with open arms, and Diggs himself is overjoyed to escape a Vikings team he no longer wanted to play for. 

“But it could take time for Diggs and Buffalo QB Josh Allen to really click, especially given the unique challenges of preparing for this season. And while Diggs is one of the most precise route runners around, Allen’s game is more tied to athleticism and spontaneity — and often riddled with bouts of wild passes. I think Diggs and Buffalo can eventually be a nice fit, but I will not draft Diggs proactively this summer.”

[Create or join a 2020 Yahoo Fantasy Football League for free today] 

2020 season: Stat to remember
2020 season: Stat to remember

The Bills’ defense ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in the following categories: points allowed, yards allowed, passing yards allowed, touchdown passes allowed, interceptions, passer rating allowed, rushing yards allowed, rushing touchdowns allowed and also yards, plays and points allowed per drive. Of the 14 defenders who registered at least 50 tackles, only one was past his 30th birthday. This is a young, well-coached defense that has an NFL defensive player of the year candidate in cornerback Tre’Davious White and other intriguing talent like linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and defensive tackle Ed Oliver. It’s possible the Bills’ defense is the NFL’s best this season.

2020 season: Burning question
2020 season: Burning question

Can the Bills beat the Patriots in their two meetings?

To win the AFC East, the Bills need to figure out how to actually collect a win or two against the Patriots. I know, high-level analysis there. The head-to-head record is simply gruesome. Since Dec. 17, 2000, the Bills are 4-35 against the Patriots. They have a current seven-game losing streak against New England. The Bills played the Patriots tough last year. Josh Allen’s concussion in Week 4 was the key moment in a 16-10 loss because Matt Barkley couldn’t lead Buffalo to a score and threw a crushing interception in Patriots territory at the end. In Week 16, the Bills had a fourth-quarter lead at New England and also moved inside the Patriots’ 10-yard line in the final minutes before stalling in a 24-17 loss. The Bills could have won both games, and need to figure out how to finish this season.

“Obviously, we have the talent to beat them. We just haven’t executed at a high enough level,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who retired this offseason, said after that Week 16 loss, according to the Buffalo News. “And when you play championship-caliber teams, you have to do that and we, for whatever reason, don’t.”

2020 season: Best case scenario
2020 season: Best case scenario

Even if Josh Allen doesn’t make any significant improvement, the Bills are good enough around him to win the AFC East. What if Allen puts it all together and becomes a top-shelf NFL quarterback? Allen did improve last season. He has obvious skills. Stefon Diggs will help, as would a jump from all his supporting cast: running back Devin Singletary, tight end Dawson Knox and receiver John Brown. Allen led NFL.com’s MVP darkhorse list, and bettors were excited to wager on Allen for MVP. I’m not that excited for Allen in 2020, but I do think he could have a really nice growth season. If Allen is even in the top five of that MVP race, the Bills might be closer to the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens than we think.

2020 season: The nightmare scenario
2020 season: The nightmare scenario

Stefon Diggs hasn’t always been the best teammate, Josh Allen’s accuracy is still an issue and the Patriots are living in the Bills’ heads. What if the Patriots come to Buffalo in Week 8 and find a way to win? Winning the AFC East might seem like an insurmountable challenge at that point. Even worse, what if the Miami Dolphins or New York Jets have a breakout and pass the Bills? It has been 25 years since the Bills won the AFC East. Failing to break that streak this season would be devastating. The Bills haven’t had this much talent in years, and the Patriots haven’t been this vulnerable since Tom Brady was at the University of Michigan. As we asked in the headline: If not now, then when?

2020 season: The crystal ball says ...
2020 season: The crystal ball says ...

The Bills have hit on a lot of draft picks, seem to have a good head coach in Sean McDermott (his previous Nathan Peterman enthusiasm aside) and don’t have a lot of weaknesses. I don’t assume Josh Allen will be worse than last season, and he should take some steps forward. Unless Allen takes a big leap, I don’t think the Bills can be on the level of the Chiefs or Ravens, and I’m not sure I foresee Allen ever being among the top 5-10 quarterbacks in the NFL. But a division title and a playoff win would be a satisfying season after so many dry years, and I think the Bills accomplish both this season.

2020 season: Previous previews
2020 season: Previous previews

32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Football Team
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23. 
Las Vegas Raiders
22. 
Los Angeles Chargers
21. 
Houston Texans
20. 
Arizona Cardinals
19. 
Minnesota Vikings
18. 
Chicago Bears
17. 
Los Angeles Rams
16. 
Cleveland Browns
15. 
Pittsburgh Steelers
14. 
Denver Broncos
13. 
Indianapolis Colts
12. 
Philadelphia Eagles
11. 
Seattle Seahawks
10. 
Green Bay Packers
9. 
New England Patriots
8. 
Tennessee Titans
7. 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
6.
Dallas Cowboys
5.
Buffalo Bills
4. 
San Francisco 49ers
3.
New Orleans Saints

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