The Bills are backsliding and now they’re just mid

Windows rarely slam shut. Instead the seals fail, the rails become worn, and they slowly slide down before becoming permanently stuck. The Buffalo Bills’ window is inching its way down. The once-reliable structure is failing and something has to change before this becomes too far gone to salvage.

In isolation there’s not much to worry about when it comes to losing by six points to the Bengals, but the devil is in the details. The 2023 season is as weak as Cincinnati has looked since Joe Burrow arrived, and Sunday Night Football never really felt like a one score game until late in the fourth quarter. The 5-4 Bills should be convincing. They should be not only the class of the AFC, but perhaps the entire NFL — yet after nine games they’re outside the playoff bubble, 9th in the conference standings, and have the Texans nipping at their heels.

Sean McDermott has been largely immune from criticism since taking over the Bills’ head coaching job in 2017. It’s understandable, because turning around one of the league’s most hapless franchises earns an abundance of goodwill, but now McDermott is in his seventh year this has become an organization unable to get over the hump. When the moment is the largest, this team has faltered — and as it pertains to this season they’ve slid back into simply being a middle of the road NFL franchise that no longer warrants being considered amongst the NFL’s elite.

How is a team that’s finished with double-digit wins each season since 2019 now struggling to deal with equal or inferior competition? The factors are numerous, but come back to a singular point: Hubris.

We watched every team around the league make moves to get better in the offseason, but especially the already elite ones. In many ways the only team other than Buffalo that didn’t get markedly better were the Chiefs, but coaching has shown time and time again that Kansas City remains the best-prepared team in the league that has a tremendous edge over the field based on scheme work alone.

The Bills, on the other hand, have not been nearly as accomplished in prep. They chose to roll with essentially the same roster as a year ago — and didn’t make a special effort to solidify their weaknesses in the draft by taking tight end Dalton Kincaid in the first round when they already had Dawson Knox. These factors, coupled with their faltering run game has made this team very one-dimensional on offense. Josh Allen is being expected to play hero ball every game, and the margins are so thin that even being slightly less successful in scoring, and throwing slightly more interceptions is enough to take a 13-3 team from a year ago, and turn them into a 5-4 team now.

Essentially nobody is rising to Allen’s level, or helping him out in any meaningful way. Stefon Diggs isn’t playing as well, the run game is less impactful, and the defense — once the hallmark of the Bills, is a bit of a mess.

Discipline has been the biggest issue for the Buffalo defense this season. A year ago they were one of the most reliable units in the NFL, missing just 6.9 percent of tackles. That has swelled in 2023 to 10.9 percent. The pass rush is more feast or famine, leading to more sacks than a year ago — but fewer total pressures. The secondary is allowing a higher average passer rating, and to cap things off they’re on pace to give up more penalties.

This all falls at the feet of McDermott, who has bitten off more than he can chew since taking over the defense since Leslie Frazier announced he was stepping away from the team. It’s unclear what a better option would have been, and it’s true the alternative could have been worse — but there’s little doubting that the Bills really miss Frazier’s guidance on defense.

This is a coaching staff built off the persistent hiring of former Panthers staff from McDermott’s time in Carolina. In total five of the Bills’ position coaches or advisors come from the Panthers, and there’s a marked similarity in that franchise’s resounding inability to establish consistency.

Where do the Bills go from here? That’s up to them. They can keep going as-is, continue being very good but not great, and slowly watch as their window shuts completely. Or, this organization can understand that things have started to turn the wrong way and make changes now to salvage their team. This doesn’t mean firing the coaching staff outright, but there needs to be some greater control over the quality of people coming in to work under McDermott — and he needs to stop calling the defense because the experiment hasn’t worked.

Winner: C.J. Stroud

It doesn’t matter that the Buccaneers are a mediocre football team, because C.J. Stroud stepped up in a major way. This was an important performance because it signaled how the rookie can bounce back from adversity.

Stroud’s Week 8 performance against the Panthers wasn’t great. It didn’t just register as a blip on the radar, but also drew more comparisons between Stroud and Young, and who is the best quarterback from the 2023 NFL Draft. A lot of rookies get swallowed by the drama of these moments, but Stroud bounced back and made history instead.

Stroud beat the rookie passing record by throwing for 470 yards in the Texans’ win over Tampa Bay, and was damn-near perfect in everything he did. A lot is made about Stroud’s individual excellence, and it’s certainly there — but Houston has done a phenomenal job building to Stroud’s strengths, and adjusting when things don’t work.

The rookie is built for long-term success thanks to Nico Collins, Tank Dell and Dalton Schultz who have formed an underrated, but successful trio that are leading to major success. It’s clear this roster still has a ways to go before we can say the Texans are truly ready to contend, but they’re so much better than they looked preseason it’s remarkable.

You love to see it.

Loser: Bryce Young

It’s not all his fault, but the Panthers rookie QB really didn’t help himself on Sunday against the Colts. This was a statement game for Frank Reich as he wanted to stick it to Indianapolis, and his team sucked out loud.

This was the first game of Young’s career where he started to force passes out of desperation, and the Colts made him pay for it. The demoralizing part of this loss was that everything that looked great about Bryce in Week 8 against the Texans vanished on Sunday. The offensive game plan was stale and predictable, the Colts were able to sit in zone defense all day, knowing nobody on the Panthers could beat them — and bracketing Adam Thielen was the cherry on top.

Young was woefully ineffective, and the only silver lining from his three interception, two pick-six performance is he’ll hopefully learn he can’t test NFL defenders like this again.

Winner: Baltimore Ravens

This is such a funny football team, and I kind of love them. On paper there’s very little reason to believe in Baltimore on offense — but it just keeps on working. As it stands the Ravens might be the best team in the AFC right now outside of the Chiefs, and that’s not hyperbole.

The 2023 Seahawks aren’t exactly elite competition, but they’re a pretty decent team — and the Ravens beat the tar out of them. Defensively this team can contend with anyone in the NFL, and they’ve quietly crept to a 7-2 record on the season that’s being slept on by a lot of people.

On any given Sunday the Ravens could be one of the scariest teams in the NFL who are ready to surprise, and I’m buying into them big time as we hit the back-end of the year.

Loser: Miami Dolphins

I absolutely love this team, really I do. I love their offense, I love their coach, I love how they are revolutionizing the NFL. What I don’t love is that Miami doesn’t seem ready to hang with the elite in the AFC this season, and that’s a shame.

It’s true the Dolphins have taken a big step forward. Their record speaks for itself — but it’s also okay to admit they’re not ready to contend. This teams’ three losses have all come against good teams in Buffalo, Philadelphia and now Kansas City. Their wins have, for the most part, come against some of the worst teams in the entire NFL.

This makes Miami a bit weird to evaluate moving forward. Their offense is certainly elite, but there’s not much more to write home about — and as we progress we see more and more teams finding ways to stop their gadget plays and take the electricity out of the offense.

Ultimately this looks more and more like a team who will be bounced in the second round of the playoffs, and that’s a shame for a team that is so much fun to watch.

Loser: The Bears’ defense

Tyson Bagent sucks, and that is what it is — but it’s a hell of a thing to trade for the best available pass rusher at the deadline and then proceed to get almost no pressure against the Saints.

This is much more than a Montez Sweat problem. Truth be told, he was fine — but just fine. Certainly not almost $100M fine, but we can cut some slack as he adjusts to a new team. The issue is that this defense wasn’t able to generate any consistent pressure against a Saints team that’s allowed 21 sacks on the season, tied for 19th in the NFL.

You can rose-colored glasses this and say “they only lost by one score,” but that’s really downplaying just how far this franchise has fallen. This team is 28th in points allowed, despite playing one of the easiest schedules in the NFL.

The Chicago secondary is decent, but the defensive line and linebackers are so poor it doesn’t matter. This is a huge indictment considering this was a long-time strength of the team.

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