Bills defy expectations by ending playoff drought

The Buffalo Bills ended the season with a 10-3 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday. Here’s a recap of the season and what’s next:

Season grade: Above average. The Bills exceeded preseason expectations to finish in the middle of the NFL pack for the regular season. The Bills had a minus-57 point differential, the NFL’s 29th-ranked offense and 25th-ranked defense entering the final weekend. Despite these stats, they defied expectations and made the playoffs, perhaps a building block for the future.

Season in review: It was a season of peaks and valleys for the Bills that saw them climb to 5-2, tumble to 5-5 and recover late in the season to earn their first playoff berth since 1999. The Bills finished 9-7, marking only the third time since their now-ended postseason drought began in 2000 that they have posted a winning record.

The Bills’ fast start helped them stay out of the basement of the AFC, where they were expected to finish after firing coach Rex Ryan and eventually general manager Doug Whaley following a 7-9 record last season. The makeover of the Bills’ front office and coaching staff led to significant turnover on the roster, including the trades of wide receiver Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby during training camp, as well as midseason deals that sent away defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and added wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. First-year coach Sean McDermott further rocked the boat when he benched veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor for rookie fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman in what became a blowout loss Nov. 19 to the Los Angeles Chargers. Peterman threw five interceptions before being pulled at halftime.

While McDermott’s quarterback change flopped, he ultimately will be judged on his ability to change a losing culture in Buffalo. Despite turning over more than half of his roster from 2016, McDermott’s team performed better than expected and gave owner Terry Pegula what he said in August he wanted: respectability.

Biggest play of season: Benjamin’s offensive pass interference penalty on first-and-goal from the Jaguars’ 1-yard line in Sunday’s wild-card game. The Bills were given second life in the red zone when the Jaguars jumped offside on a field goal attempt, but Benjamin’s flag pushed Buffalo back to the Jaguars’ 11-yard line. The Bills then failed to gain another yard on that possession, settling for a field goal. Having a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line and not scoring a touchdown was inexcusable, and the Bills’ inability to get into the end zone probably cost them the game and their season.

He said it: “It’s not the end result we wanted, but it’s been such a tremendous ride and it’s been so fun to battle with these guys. I felt like through the adversity we faced all year, it drew this group tighter and guys took it upon themselves and took it personal. That’s how we are walking out the door. People were saying we weren’t going to win anything. I am proud of the leaders on this team and proud of the guys. We fought our butts off to get here and it’s not satisfactory just to get here and lose. We have a goal set to win a playoff game.” -- Bills guard Richie Incognito, after Sunday’s loss to Jacksonville.

Key offseason questions

Biggest draft need: Quarterback. Taylor has an $18 million cap number next season but can be released with $3 million in dead money. If the Bills do not view him as their quarterback of the future -- and they have given little indication they do -- then it makes sense to release him or try to trade him before a $6 million roster bonus is due in March. That would leave only Peterman on the roster at quarterback and he is not ready to take the reins. The Bills would likely find their starting quarterback high in the draft, potentially using their extra first-round pick (No. 22, from Kansas City) or second-round pick to move up in a trade.

Free-agency targets: Defensive tackles. Kyle Williams said after Sunday’s loss that he had “plenty of time” to decide whether to return for a 13th season, but either way, the Bills need help up the middle for a run defense that ranked 29th. The draft is a strong possibility, but if the Bills release Taylor, they should have $50 million or more in cap space to spend.

Who plays middle linebacker? When he was the Carolina Panthers' defensive coordinator, McDermott had one of the NFL’s best players, Luke Kuechly, manning the middle linebacker spot. McDermott inherited Preston Brown in that spot from the previous regime in Buffalo and there were mixed results this season. Brown is an unrestricted free agent, so he can leave on his own or the Bills could decide not to re-sign him. That would begin a search to find a replacement in the draft or free agency at one of the most important positions in McDermott’s defense.

Is a change needed at offensive coordinator? The Bills' offense will look much different next season if there is a change at quarterback, especially if the Bills opt for a more traditional pocket passer over the mobile style of Taylor. The combination of Taylor and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison never seemed to click, as evidenced by the Bills’ 176.6 passing yards per game, 31st in the NFL. Neither Dennison nor quarterbacks coach David Culley has a history of developing a young quarterback, so it could be helpful for the Bills to bring aboard a coordinator with that experience.