Buffalo Bills made jump, but Chiefs remain their 'measuring stick' in AFC

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills believe they'll be back.

What else can they say after Sunday's 38-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game?

The Bills are young; most of their core players are either signed to multiyear extensions or still on their rookie deals. Their coaching staff, while not completely clear of uncertainty with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey drawing interest from other teams, should remain largely intact for the fourth straight year.

And now, they're experienced -- even if that experience is the pain of falling short of something the franchise has never accomplished.

"It stings to get this far. Sometimes the further you go, the harder it is to lose," Bills coach Sean McDermott said. "It's a learning experience for us as an organization. We've got to obviously get back to work."

Buffalo has little to be ashamed of after winning its first AFC East title since 1995 and its first two playoff games since the turn of the century. The Bills entered the playoffs arguably the hottest team in the NFL, winning nine of their last 10 games en route to the AFC's No. 2 seed.

Quarterback Josh Allen, although he had his lowlights in Sunday's game, blossomed into the franchise quarterback general manager Brandon Beane hoped for when he traded up to draft him in 2018. Allen set single-season franchise records in every major passing category and earned his first Pro Bowl selection and possibly an MVP vote or two. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs could not have envisioned a better Buffalo debut season as he finished as the NFL's leader in receptions and receiving yards.

But the league's next great quarterback-wide receiver duo wasn't enough. The Bills aren't at Kansas City's level quite yet.

"They're the reigning Super Bowl champs for a reason and they were the better team tonight," Allen said.

Last season's playoff loss felt different. A blown 16-point lead against the Houston Texans stuck in the Bills' minds all offseason and was part of the reason for the team's offensive renaissance. It was obvious Buffalo needed reconstruction on that side of the ball, and until it happened nobody could say to any degree of certainty that the Bills would win the AFC East in 2020.

But now, barring a major trade -- Houston's Deshaun Watson to the Miami Dolphins, perhaps? -- the Bills should enter the 2021 season as favorites to defend their division title. They don't need major construction on either side of the ball; but that's not to say they're ready to run it back next season.

Decisions loom

The backfield duo of Devin Singletary and Zack Moss was not effective enough in 2020. Beane will need to give the pair another go next season or address the position this offseason. Cody Ford's return from a torn meniscus should help solidify the offensive line, but Beane will likely have to decide between re-signing Jon Feliciano or Daryl Williams, both of whom can become free agents soon.

Linebacker Matt Milano is Buffalo's biggest pending free agent and should be high on Beane's priority list. The Bills might consider changes in an effort to tailor their defense to stopping Kansas City, which is clearly the looming obstacle standing in the way of any AFC team's hopes of reaching the Super Bowl.

"At the end of the day, this is our measuring stick," McDermott said. "If you lose in the AFC Championship Game, that's the team we've got to beat. So, we've got to do everything with that in mind this offseason."

It got them this far -- Beane traded for Diggs and drafted two wide receivers last offseason in an effort to keep up with the AFC's other high-scoring teams. Maybe that means adding even more weapons and speed on offense. Buffalo tied with the Tennessee Titans for the league's second-best offense behind Kansas City this season, but still seemed like it was on a completely different tier.

Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, in particular, did whatever they wanted throughout Sunday's AFC title game, combining for 290 yards and two touchdowns on 24 catches.

"They're a great football team for a reason, they're defending champs for a reason," Bills safety Micah Hyde said. "They've got weapons all over the field. Obviously, a lot of people try to limit them, giving up explosive plays up top, so they just run the ball. We tried to stop the run, and they've got guys on the outside [Kelce) and [Hill] who can kill you.

"You saw tonight, [Kelce] was open, [Hill] was just catching these little short balls or whatever and going off. It was difficult."

Beane probably didn't sleep much Sunday night; the idea he hasn't given McDermott and his coaching staff enough to work with keeps him up at night, and the Bills certainly didn't look like they had enough against one of the NFL's best teams.

But they're close.

And as Diggs stood by himself after the game, watching the Chiefs celebrate their second consecutive conference title, it's not difficult to imagine red and blue confetti surrounding an elated Bills team at this time next year.

"It's going to fuel us. I have no doubt in my mind that we will be back," Allen said. "We're still young and we're only going to get better. That's one thing I take from this. We're close. The results weren't good tonight, but I'm super proud of how our team fought all season and how we bonded together."