Can the Bills thrive under increasing pressure and expectations?

Sport

From 1990 through 1993, the Buffalo Bills made it to the Super Bowl every single year. It’s one of the most underappreciated accomplishments in league history. The 2020 and 2021 Bills did not get there. And yet it feels like the current Bills have the exact same pressure and expectations to win the Super Bowl in 2022 as the Bills of 30 years ago ever did.

It’s strange, for a variety of reasons. The AFC currently has 13 legitimate contenders — maybe 14 if the Jaguars turn things around suddenly under the guidance of Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson. And somehow the Bills have emerged from that morass of quality franchises as the favorites to get to the Super Bowl and win it.

Not the Chiefs, who beat the Bills in each of the last two postseasons and who still have Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid. Not the Bengals, who emerged from the meat grinder in 2021 to make it to the Super Bowl by doing what the Bills have failed to do — beat Kansas City in the playoffs. The Bills are the ones with the weight of the football world on their shoulders.

It’s not an erroneous assessment of the team, not with Josh Allen at quarterback, Stefon Diggs and emerging star Gabriel Davis at receiver, newcomer Von Miller at pass rusher, and few glaring weaknesses. The close-but-no-cigar experiences of the past two years coupled with the assessment of the team’s supreme talent have created a sense that it’s Super Bowl or bust for the Bills.

So what happens if it’s bust? What if the season ends with a failure similar to the 13-second fiasco that resulted in the Bills seeing an epic playoff win become an epic fail? It’s easy to pin it all on losing the coin toss in overtime; the Bills would have never gotten to the coin toss in overtime if they’d managed the final 13 seconds better than they did.

In a thorough breakdown of the aftermath of the 13-second from Tyler Dunne of GoLongTD.com, it’s clear that the failure turn a lead after 59 minutes and 47 seconds into a win over the Chiefs (and, potentially, the franchise’s first ever Super Bowl win) places extreme pressure on the man responsible for managing the situation: coach Sean McDermott.

As he enters his sixth season as head coach of the team, McDermott has to be feeling that pressure. He has to be wondering whether someone higher in the organization than him will wonder whether McDermott has taken the franchise as far as he can, if the can’t take them to the Super Bowl this year.

That’s what the Broncos did with John Fox after a Super Bowl loss and a premature exit in the 2014 postseason. They hired Gary Kubiak to finish the job — and the Broncos won a Super Bowl in his first year.

This doesn’t mean McDermott can’t get it done. But it’s fair to wonder what happens if he doesn’t, given the height of the bar that the Bills are collectively facing. It’s also fair to wonder what that pressure will do to the Bills, especially since the man who ran the offense in 2020 and 2021 has become the coach of the Giants, and Ken Dorsey is stepping into the driver’s seat for a team that is expected to win the race before it even begins.

Here’s the point. Maybe the pressure shouldn’t be so great on the Bills. Maybe they shouldn’t be so widely presumed to be destined to get to Phoenix in February. If they weren’t, maybe they’d actually have a better chance to get there.

Whatever happens in the AFC, the teams are good and the margins in the playoff games are razor thin. The Bills, Chiefs, and Bengals can make it to the Super Bowl. The Ravens, Steelers, Broncos, and Colts can make it. The Raiders, Chargers, and Titans can make it. The Patriots, Dolphins, and even the Browns can make it.

If you’re scoffing at the breadth of teams that can get it done, ask yourself this question. What would you have said a year ago about the Bengals possibly winning the Lamar Hunt Trophy?

So, yes, it’s odd that there’s so much pressure on the Bills when there are so many good teams in the conference. But that’s just the way it is. And it’s a factor no different than a fluke injury or a goofy bounce of the ball or a bad call at the worst time.

It’s a baked-in bit of adversity the Bills will have to handle as they try to finally do what they’ve never done. And it makes them as sympathetic as any frontrunner has ever been.