The Buffalo Bills had a good season. They went 13-3. They won their third straight AFC East championship and a playoff game.
It doesn't matter. Not even a little bit. This was the season that everything lined up for the Bills to finally win a Super Bowl. They were favorites to win the championship coming into the season. And they didn't even make the NFL's final four.
The Cincinnati Bengals started fast against the Bills and ended Buffalo's season in the divisional round with a 27-10 win. The Bengals move on to the AFC championship game to face the Kansas City Chiefs, who are relieved they'll host that game instead of playing at a neutral site against the Bills in Atlanta.
The Bills started the season fast but didn't look great in the second half of the season. The Bengals were the better team from the start of November on. Cincinnati was clearly the better team Sunday. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen wasn't very good and was outplayed by Cincinnati's Joe Burrow. He didn't have a lot of help. Buffalo's defense didn't take advantage of the offensive line injuries for the Bengals, who moved the ball at will. It wasn't just that Buffalo lost. The Bills weren't even close. It's a disheartening way to end a season that began with high hopes.
The Bills had nowhere else to go but a Super Bowl entering this season as favorites. Anything less than at least a trip to the title game would be looked at as a failed season. Even with a good core and a star quarterback, a Super Bowl window can close quickly. The Bills had a great chance to finally bring a Lombardi Trophy to Buffalo. Then the season was suddenly over, long before Bills fans hoped it would be.
Bengals have a huge start
Fans tuning into the game on CBS got a nice treat, with a layer of snow on the ground and the snow continuing to fall as the game kicked off. The Bengals weren't bothered in the slightest.
They looked like they were on a clean field while the Bills' defense was on an ice rink. On Cincinnati's first drive, Burrow hit all four of his passes for 65 yards and a touchdown to Ja'Marr Chase. The Bills went three-and-out and the Bengals drove downfield again. On a third-and-7, Burrow hit wide-open Hayden Hurst in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. The Bengals had a quick 14-0 lead. They had 146 yards and nine first downs, and the Bills had run just three plays. Then the Bills went three-and-out again, and didn't get a first down until the second quarter.
The Bills came alive on that drive, which resulted in an Allen quarterback sneak for a touchdown. The Bengals led 14-7 but it felt like the Bills were right back in the game. They weren't. Burrow led the Bengals right back downfield with little resistance. Buffalo was supposed to crush the Bengals' offensive line without three starters, but the snow seemed to slow down the Bills' pass rush. The Bengals' line held up just fine all game and Burrow kept getting whatever he wanted. So did Cincinnati's running game. Chase had a touchdown overturned on a controversial replay review, but the Bengals still got a field goal and had a 17-7 lead.
The Bills were playing catch-up from the first drive of the game, and the Bengals weren't going to let them close the gap.
Bills' season ends in disappointment
The Bengals gave up a long drive to start the second half but the Bills stalled inside the 10-yard line and settled for a field goal. Cincinnati responded with a long drive that ended with a Joe Mixon touchdown run. The Bills couldn't afford to trade field goals for touchdowns.
After Mixon's touchdown, Allen found Gabe Davis deep on third-and-2. Davis had the pass in his arms and he dropped it. That's how the day went for Buffalo. The Bills never got back in the game after that. It's hard to say what was more disappointing for Buffalo, a defense that played well all season but couldn't get any pressure against the Bengals and couldn't stop anything Cincinnati did, or an offense that looked like it had no idea how to move the ball.
It's a rough end for the Bills. Buffalo was in line for the No. 1 seed before its game against the Bengals was canceled due to Damar Hamlin's cardiac emergency on the field. With the top seed, the Bills would have gotten a bye and played the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round. Instead, they were a half-game behind the Chiefs for the top seed. But, based on what we saw Sunday, the Bills probably wouldn't have beaten the Bengals on that Monday night in the regular season either.
The ending to the Bills' season was abrupt and entirely unsatisfying. Buffalo could get to the Super Bowl next season. The pieces are in place and the Bills will continue to be aggressive in adding players. But the league changes fast and you never know when the opportunity has passed.
On a snowy day, a long offseason began in Buffalo.