Hosting the AFC Championship Game won't necessarily guarantee the Buffalo Bills a Super Bowl berth. But it would be a decent sign that they are on more equal footing with the Kansas City Chiefs, who on Sunday trounced the Bills en route to their second straight Super Bowl.
Thus, general manager Billy Beane set that as his team's next goal in an evolutionary process that took them on the road for Sunday's matchup.
"The Chiefs are the gold standard," Beane said in a Zoom meeting with reporters on Wednesday. "This is three straight AFC Championships they’ve been in ... and now back-to-back Super Bowls. They’re the gold standard of the AFC and maybe the league. We'll find out here next week.
"We still have to win the AFC East. We want to host playoff games here. Now we want to host that AFC Championship Game in Orchard Park. That will be a goal for us next season. We definitely have work to do for next year, though."
Coach Sean McDermott said on Tuesday that they can't just pick up in 2021 where they left off and assume they'll make it that far again.
Bean on Wednesday echoed that sentiment.
"Nothing we did will matter when we start this offseason or start camp," Beane said. "Every team is built up of new players, so we'll have to hit the reset button. We've got a lot of work to do to try and get this thing going and build a team that can earn its way back to where we were and hopefully further.
"... I still think we need to be very honest with where we’re at. We’re still not a Super Bowl team. ... We made a great step last year and another step this year, but we still have to go further. The goal here is to win that game. And until we get in that game to compete for it, we can’t win it."
Salary cap challenges
A major obstacle standing in the way of improvement is the contract status of many key players.
Quarterback Josh Allen is coming off a breakout season and still has two years left on his rookie contract. But he's eligible for an extension that could save the Bills millions if they get the deal done now rather than wait as the price for great quarterbacks continues to rise.
Linebacker Matt Milano, a valuable defensive piece, has an expiring contract and will be rewarded with a rich contract by someone else if the Bills are unable or unwilling to pay him what the market will command.
Ditto perhaps to a lesser extent for offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams.
Tremaine Edmunds, another linebacker, still has a year to go on his rookie deal. But he's also eligible for an extension that could give the Bills better flexibility down the road if it's taken care of now.
Normally these problems wouldn't be as intense. But the coronavirus pandemic has lowered and in some cases eliminated attendance in 2020, zapping the league's profits substantially. That means the 2021 figure each team must be under, which is based on total revenues from the year before will be lower than the previous year for the first time since its 1994 inception.
The 2021 figure could be as low as $175 million. Had the pandemic not happened, $210 million would have been a reasonable figure around which to plan.
As it stands without any adjustments, the Bills are on the books for around $178 million in 2021, according to overthecap.com. That eans they won't have a lot of flexibility and could be looking to let go of starters such as defensive tackle Vernon Butler, who had a lousy year after signing a free-agent contract, and/or fellow defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson, who was OK in 2020 but is due to count for $8 million against the cap in 2021, with none of it guaranteed.
Beane deliberately structured many of the free-agent contracts this way since taking over in 2018 to allow him to
"At this point, as we get clarity on the salary cap from the league, that will tell us what decisions we have to make," Beane said. "There will probably be some very tough decisions to be made."
One thing is certain, according to Beane: "We're going to have to draft well," he said. "This is not going to be a free agency where we can be as aggressive as in the past. We still want to draft, develop and sign some of our own players. I would not anticipate any blockbuster deals like a Stefon Diggs-type move."
Beane has spent a lot of money on the defensive line without the desired results.
"We had quite a few changes on the defense from last season," he said. "I felt that we did a nice job as the season progressed. We weren't happy with how the run defense performed. We also have to affect the quarterback more."
Although he thought the group as a whole played better in the second half of the season, he still is facing big decisions.
But they're going to need more from defensive tackle Ed Oliver going into his third year.
"Ed is playing really well," Beane said. "If people want to just look at sack numbers, he doesn’t have those. But he impacts the game, not only the pass game but the run game. He’s growing, he’s learning."
Targeting the tight ends
One area the Bills will look to upgrade is tight end, a deficiency that was glaring in their playoff loss to the Chiefs, who took away Buffalo's deep passing game.
"I thought it was up and down," he said of the position.
Beane said Dawson Knox started to find some success toward the end of the season.
"But it was never where the opposing defense was like, `man we’ve really got to stop their tight ends from going off,' " he said.
As good as the third-year quarterback proved to be in 2020, his best years are ahead of him, Beane suggested.
"He's his own worst critic, so he knows what he has to do to be better next season," he said, "and he's going to come back humble and hungry. He's shown people what he can do in this league, and I think he hasn't even reached his ceiling yet.
"Most of the games when teams didn't give him the home-run ball, he took what was given to him and he checked it down. It's understanding the game and what the defense is giving him."