ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The preseason expectations couldn’t have been higher for the Buffalo Bills. A franchise that has never won a Super Bowl became the favorite to capture the Lombardi Trophy after an offseason that included making a splashy free agent signing in future Hall of Famer Von Miller.
A season unlike any other followed, but the end came abruptly Sunday as the Cincinnati Bengals came out in their divisional round meeting looking more prepared and quickly dictated the pace in a game in which the Bills never found their footing.
Buffalo became the first preseason title favorite to not reach a conference championship game since the Seattle Seahawks in 2015. The Bills were held to their fewest points this season and averaged 3.3 yards per rush, their lowest mark in any game over the last two seasons.
The disappointment and frustration for the Bills lingered in different ways after the 27-10 loss — the first home playoff loss under coach Sean McDermott and the franchise’s second home playoff loss since the 1970 merger (previously 13-1).
Quarterback Josh Allen sat at the back of his locker stall, in full uniform, talking to backup quarterbacks Case Keenum and Matt Barkley and spending time on his phone before eventually moving to shower.
Several players chose to exit the locker room quickly after the game, but most notable was wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who first tried to leave with his things before some coaches were able to come down to the locker room. He was brought back to the locker room by practice squad running back Duke Johnson, then quickly left soon after around when others began leaving, per multiple reporters present.
McDermott said Diggs, one of nine team captains for a second year in a row, was in the locker room when he addressed the team “and that’s what matters most.”
“He’s a competitive guy. That’s what makes him good is what you saw,” McDermott said. “He’s very competitive, like we all are. We work extremely hard at these jobs to be the best we can possibly be, and it hurts. I wouldn’t want a guy that doesn’t hurt, right? So, when you put it all on the line out there, we put it all on the line, and tonight it wasn’t good enough. That’s the part that stings.”
Diggs also showed his frustration on the sideline halfway through the fourth quarter after a Bills drive ended on downs. Standing in front of Allen, who was sitting on the bench, he was seemingly yelling in his quarterback’s direction, his arms outstretched.
“He should be frustrated; we’re all frustrated,” wide receiver Cole Beasley said. “He’s a fiery guy, competitor, but that’s what you love about him. So, if he was happy about the situation, you wouldn’t want the guy on the team. So, he’s right in the way that he reacted.”
In the loss to the Bengals, Diggs had the lowest catch percentage in his three seasons with Bills, including the postseason, catching 4 of 11 passes (36.4%) for 35 yards. In the second half, he had one reception for 8 yards on five targets.
The second half of the season for Diggs was not as smooth, with 985 of his 1,429 regular-season receiving yards having come in the first nine games and seven of his career-high 11 receiving touchdowns. Diggs showed frustration on the sidelines at other times this season, including when McDermott consoled him during the Bills’ Week 11 win against the Cleveland Browns.
“In perspective, I feel like the position I play is, I mean, as a receiver, you want the ball,” Diggs said prior to Week 16. “I’d be more worried if a receiver didn’t want the ball in comparison to a guy that does want the ball, but I mean, I feel like I want to win.”
Even as the Bills had the game against the Bengals within two scores throughout most of the first half, the Buffalo sideline seemed to lack energy at times and the team struggled to get in the game. Many players in the postgame locker room didn’t have answers for what exactly went wrong, with Allen saying the offense “just couldn’t find it.”
“There was no real energy, juice, no momentum,” linebacker Matt Milano said. “Usually we’ll get a stop, offense will score or offense will score, defense will make a turnover, something, something to bring some change of momentum, but there was none of that this week.”
With emotions high following an unprecedented past month for the team, the Bills now go into the offseason with a variety of key questions to answer after falling short yet again.
“This is what you work so hard for all offseason, all season to get in the playoffs and make a push and get to the Super Bowl and win it,” McDermott said. “So, there’s no second-place trophies. You do learn valuable lessons from this experience. And then you put your head down and go back to work.”