ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The 70,733 fans who filled darned near every seat at Highmark Stadium on Sunday needed to squint through the snow, driving at times, to see their Buffalo Bills down on the field. It was fine. They’re used to it. Armies of workers toting leaf blowers and shovels worked to keep the yard lines clean, an effort to give a clear view of what was transpiring in this AFC divisional-round playoff game.
The view, though, wasn’t of a Bills team with which those fans are familiar. Pull the stocking cap over your eyes and double-cover them with your mittens. The better team won Sunday and convincingly. And the better team wasn’t the Buffalo Bills.
The team making that statement undeniably true: the Cincinnati Bengals, who all but delivered a clinic in a complete 27-10 victory that set up a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game at Kansas City. Joe Burrow vs. (presumably) Patrick Mahomes. Cue the hype. It will be worth it.
The game the NFL expected — the game the Bills expected — will not happen. When the expectation is to reach and win the Super Bowl, there is a speeding-car-into-cement-wall suddenness when it ends. Just look at the face of Josh Allen, the Bills’ star quarterback, reduced to a confused everyman by Cincinnati’s plan and Cincinnati’s players.
“Disappointment,” Allen said as he stared into the middle distance. “You play to win. Our goal is to win a Super Bowl, a world championship, and we didn’t accomplish that. Everything that happened this season is null and void. It sucks.”
The pressure of a vise comes for a team with this window, when Allen and star wide receiver Stefon Diggs and so many of these Bills are in their primes. They are the right combination of young and experienced. They endured the near-tragedy of watching a teammate, safety Damar Hamlin, collapse and need CPR midgame against these very Bengals less than three weeks ago in Cincinnati. The Bills handled it all — until Sunday.
“Everything is here,” tackle Dion Dawkins said. It is the belief in the locker room. It is the belief around the league. It has not yet happened.
“It’s a sick feeling,” running back Devin Singletary said, and he could only repeat himself. “It’s a sick feeling.”
The Bills hadn’t scored fewer than 17 points all season. They managed a little over half that. The Bills averaged more than three offensive touchdowns per game. They scored one. They blinked, and they were down 14-0.
“We were expecting their best punch,” Allen said, “and they came out and punched us.”
It was just about a knockout, which left the citizens here woozy. Buffalo knows — too recently and too well — that the four straight trips to the postseason that Allen and Coach Sean McDermott have provided aren’t guaranteed to continue. From the 2000 season through 2016, not only did this stadium not host a playoff game, the Bills didn’t appear in one — period.
They churned through six coaches in that time. Neither Gregg Williams nor Mike Mularkey nor Dick Jauron nor Chan Gailey nor Doug Marrone nor Rex Ryan — man, that’s quite a list — could find a path to the postseason. The legendary teams coached by Marv Levy and quarterbacked by Jim Kelly, they almost seemed like figments relegated to NFL Films footage. Did that happen here?
So these opportunities, they matter in Buffalo because they’re more fleeting than guaranteed. The fans who stoked their wood fires and wore their Bills Zubaz and No. 17 jerseys and drank their Labatt Blues and Busch Lights in the yards turned into parking lots along Big Tree Road partied with excitement and anticipation. But it wasn’t laced with privilege. These fans know what it’s like to go without. A playoff game against an offense as good as Cincinnati’s? If they could chew fingernails through snow gloves, they would.
The expectations were established not just because they lost a classic divisional-round game in overtime a year ago at Kansas City but because of the way they opened this year, with a shellacking of the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams on the road. By Halloween, the Bills had avenged their loss to Kansas City and were 6-1.
There were shaky moments, most recently last week’s playoff victory over a Miami Dolphins team that started a seventh-round rookie at quarterback. But this kind of start? Think about how easily Burrow and the Bengals moved the ball on their first two possessions.
The first drive featured four completions on four attempts, the last to his favorite receiver — former LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase, who should never be as open as he found himself for a 28-yard score. The second drive featured five completions on five attempts, the last a perfect toss to tight end Hayden Hurst on third and seven that went for a 15-yard score.
It was silly. After each team had the ball twice, the Bengals had run 16 plays for 146 yards, the Bills six for 11. Highmark Stadium wasn’t rollicking. It was apprehensive. With good reason.
A word about the Bengals: They went to Kansas City after that classic Allen-Mahomes shootout and cared not at all, beating the Chiefs to reach the Super Bowl. They’re headed to Arrowhead Stadium again for a second straight AFC championship game — a game they absolutely have a chance to win even if a banged-up Mahomes plays.
The arc of their season is almost the opposite of Buffalo’s — an 0-2 start, merely .500 on Halloween. They haven’t lost since. Burrow is a marvel, and his stat line Sunday — 23 for 36 for 242 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions — doesn’t capture how in control he seemed all day.
“He’s extremely smart,” McDermott said. “And they’ve got some pretty good weapons around him.”
He leads the Bengals forward. The Bills are stuck in neutral. There are important free agencies looming. Is the window closing?
“No,” McDermott said, all but scoffing. “No. No. This is a good football team. You learn from things like this. You keep knocking on the door.”
The door, to this point, has remained closed. When the Bills failed to convert on fourth down midway through the fourth quarter — and Allen had to be pulled from the turf by one of his linemen — the crowd began heading for the exits.
Winter is just hitting its stride around here, a winter that won’t be filled with football. Training camp opens in July. There are a lot of long, cold nights between now and then, when the Bills will reassemble to chase the goals they have not yet met.