Transforming a winning culture into a championship culture is the final and most difficult step for coach Sean McDermott and his Buffalo Bills. Yet they believe they have the talent to go with the mindset necessary to achieve this in 2021, following an exhilarating run to the AFC Championship Game last season.
They feature perhaps the deepest and most loaded roster in team history. Their players have all bought in, with many having taken less money to remain instead of departing in free agency. What's more, they somehow kept all their coordinators, virtually unprecedented in this day and age of impatient franchises looking to start over with proven coaching talent, often after just one losing season.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who helped craft the NFL's second-most proficient offense in 2020, interviewed with some teams but didn't make a move. Ditto for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who has been a head coach and no doubt will be again.
But for 2021, the focus is on getting the Bills to the Super Bowl and finally winning it to wipe out the heartbreak that has lingered for three decades since falling four straight times in the penultimate game from the 1990-1993 seasons.
Of course, it starts with quarterback Josh Allen, who was runner-up for the NFL MVP award after throwing for 4,544 yards and 30 TDs against 10 interceptions in 2020. That led to a monster six-year contract extension this offseason that was made possible in large part by the below-market deals many of his teammates took to remain in Buffalo, giving the Bills extra salary cap flexibility.
All but one of the Bills' offensive regulars (wide receiver John Brown) are back, with Stefon Diggs (league and personal highs of 127 receptions and 1,535 yards) and Cole Beasley (personal highs of 82 receptions and 967 yards) coming off their finest seasons and being joined in the receiving corps by accomplished veteran Emmanuel Sanders (8,619 career receiving yards) and ascending second-year man Gabriel Davis, whose average of 17.1 yards per reception led all Bills who caught more than one pass.
Their offensive line, led by left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Mitch Morse, returns intact and figures to be healthier this time around, adding to their opponents' difficulties.
Running back Devin Singletary has come back quicker and stronger after a regression in 2020. He'll be pushed by second-year man Zack Moss, whose season-ending injury suffered in their first playoff game was felt in the postseason, and newcomer Matt Breida.
Allen's legs are the intangible here, though. In addition to being 6-5, 240 pounds, he's a fearless runner (sometimes to a fault) who last season rushed for 421 yards and eight TDs.
That tends to make him just as dangerous when plays break down as when they don't.
Last season, Buffalo's defense wasn't as strong as the team had grown accustomed to under McDermott and Frazier. The run defense was average at best and the pass rush produced just 38 sacks.
Still, the Bills finished with 26 takeaways, good for third in the league.
This year, they are counting on the return of defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who opted out of last season, to enhance a defensive line stacked with fellow DTs Ed Oliver, Vernon Butler and Harrison Phillips and a good amount of young ends (rookies Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham, second-year man A.J. Epenesa and newcomer Efe Obada) to complement veterans Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison.
But where the Bills really shine is at linebacker and in the secondary.
Matt Milano (11th) and Tremaine Edmunds (24th) each are ranked among the NFL's top 32 linebackers entering the season by Pro Football Focus, which rates their safety tandem of Micah Hyde (14th) and Jordan Poyer (15th) similarly.
Tre'Davious White is widely regarded as a top-10 cornerback in this league, with fellow starter Levi Wallace always seeming to improve his play and fend off all challengers for that second outside spot.
Their nickel corner, Taron Johnson, also is pretty good. He plays in lieu of a third linebacker around 90% of the time as the Bills feature a nickel base.
Fans may remember his 101-yard interception return for a touchdown against Baltimore in the playoffs last January.
Although they no longer will be a surprise, they're going to be just about impossible to stop with the weapons they've been able to keep on offense and enhance on defense and special teams.
Tyler Bass became one of the league's most reliable field-goal kickers by season's end in 2020, his first in the league.
Their schedule doesn't appear terribly difficult, either. At least on paper.
The Bills face only six opponents who made the playoffs last year, and nine of their 17 games will be against teams who have turned to new starting quarterbacks. Four of those will be AFC East games as the New York Jets and New England Patriots are going with rookies Zach Wilson and Mac Jones, respectively.
Predicted Depth Chart
WR: Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis
LT: Dion Dawkins, Spencer Brown, Tommy Doyle
LG: Jon Feliciano, Ike Boettger
C: Mitch Morse, Ryan Bates
RG: Cody Ford, Ike Boettger
RT: Daryl Williams, Tommy Doyle
WR: Emmanuel Sanders, Jake Kumerow
WR: Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie
QB: Josh Allen, Mitchell Trubisky
FB: Reggie Gilliam
RB: Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Matt Breida and Taiwan Jones
TE: Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney
DE: Greg Rousseau, Jerry Hughes, Efe Obada
DT: Ed Oliver, Vernon Butler
DT: Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips, Justin Zimmer
DE: Mario Addison, A.J. Epenesa, Carlos Basham
SAM: A.J. Klein, Tyler Matakevich
MLB: Tremaine Edmunds, Tyrel Dodson
WLB: Matt Milano, Andre Smith
CB: Tre'Davious White, Taron Johnson
S: Jordan Poyer, Damar Hamlin
S: Micah Hyde, Jaquan Johnson
CB: Levi Wallace, Dane Jackson, Siran Neal
K: Tyler Bass
P: Matt Haack
LS: Reid Ferguson
PR: Isaiah McKenzie
KR: Isaiah McKenzie