The Bills were 13 seconds from advancing to their second consecutive AFC title game, but, inexplicably, they allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to tie last season's divisional-round playoff game and win in overtime. Thirteen seconds.
"Sick to my stomach," GM Brandon Beane said.
That blip of time made for an excruciatingly long offseason of indigestion and second-guessing, but it was also the impetus for the NFL's biggest free-agent signing, the landing of future Hall of Fame defensive playmaker Von Miller on a massive $120 million deal. The Los Angeles Rams rented Miller for eight games last season on their way to winning the Super Bowl, a go-for-broke blueprint the Bills weren't shy about stealing. They now have a superstar on defense to complement quarterback Josh Allen on offense.
But after the bitter lessons of 2021, Buffalo's chances of winning an elusive NFL title will be as much about what takes place between the ears as what takes place between the lines.
Nine starters return to a unit that has blitzed the NFL the past two seasons. Allen has proven himself the gem of the 2018 quarterback class, throwing for over 14,000 yards, rushing for more than 2,300 yards, scoring 135 TDs and leading his team to three consecutive playoff appearances. With the proven ability to carry his team on his back (nine TD passes, 149.0 rating in two playoff games last season), Allen gives the Bills their first elite QB since Jim Kelly. The addition of veteran Case Keenum, who replaces Mitchell Trubisky (Steelers), continues Buffalo's long tradition of solid insurance policies.
The biggest change for 2022 is Ken Dorsey's promotion from QB coach to offensive coordinator. Head coach Sean McDermott has given Dorsey the OK to add some wrinkles, but he won't in any way rein in Allen's unique skill set, or do anything to disrupt the chemistry he has built over two seasons with star receiver Stefon Diggs.
Rounding out a deep receiving corps are Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie and newly signed slot target Jamison Crowder. Davis, a 2020 fourth-round pick, had a breakout game in the playoff loss to the Chiefs with eight catches for 201 yards and a record four scores. Crowder has had a consistently good NFL career and replaces the departed Cole Beasley. In total, Allen's targets are a complementary array of speed, size and quickness.
At running back, Devin Singletary made a strong case late for the undisputed No. 1 job. Over the final four games, including playoffs, he gained 305 yards and scored six TDs on 68 carries. Second-round rookie James Cook is a pass-catching back who could make free agent Duke Johnson expendable while taking snaps away from backup Zack Moss.
Athletic tight end Dawson Knox, meanwhile, is coming off his best season. Once plagued by the dropsies, he snared 49 passes for nine TDs, many at critical junctures. The addition of former top prospect O.J. Howard, an afterthought in Tampa Bay, adds the best depth at tight end the Bills have seen in years.
Four out of five starting linemen are back: center Mitch Morse, tackles Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown and guard Ryan Bates. Morse and Dawkins rate solidly with their best NFL peers, while the 6'8", 311-pound Brown was a nice surprise as a rookie. The Bills matched an offer sheet for Bates and handed over a contract averaging $4.2 million along with the permanent starting left guard spot. Free agent Rodger Saffold III, 34, will slide seamlessly into right guard in his 13th NFL season. Free agent tackle David Quessenberry and center Greg Mancz add stronger depth alongside Ike Boettger and Cody Ford.
McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are the architects of an elite unit. Still, Buffalo's epic defensive collapse in its playoff loss to Kansas City was a reality check nobody could ignore.
Enter a player of Miller's caliber as part of a front seven overhaul that will keep the Bills' defense among the league's elite, but, more importantly, will give it a much-improved chance of making that one crucial play needed to seal wins when the stakes are the highest.
Miller, 33, an eight-time Pro Bowler and the NFL's active sack leader with 115.5, proved he had plenty of those plays left in helping the Rams to a ring. How the Bills deploy the edge rusher extraordinaire in their 4-2-5 alignment will be a matchup puzzle for opponents, a weapon McDermott and Frazier haven't had before.
"I'm a coach's dream," Miller says. "Whatever they want me to do, I'm going to do it."
Meanwhile, Buffalo's reengineering of its defensive front was a case of out with the old, in with the, well, old. Six veterans were not retained as free agents or were released, including Jerry Hughes, Star Lotulelei and Mario Addison (team-high 7.0 sacks). They were replaced by Tim Settle, DaQuan Jones, Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips, four experienced pros who will all play in Buffalo's eight-man rotation.
Lawson, a former first-round pick, and Phillips are former Bills who left in free agency two seasons ago and eagerly wished to return to finish what they helped start.
Inside, the 320-pound Jones will be a nice complement to the quicker skill set of rising star tackle Ed Oliver, who last year came into his own with four sacks, 14 QB hits and 10 tackles for a loss. On the edges, Miller will bookend second-year man Greg Rousseau, last year's first-round pick who cut his teeth with 50 tackles, four sacks and 10 QB hits.
Linebacker has been thin, but third-round pick Terrel Bernard (4.59 speed) has the tools to back up both Tremaine Edmunds in the middle and Matt Milano on the weak side. Former first-round pick Edmunds, a freakish athlete at 6'5", 250, has topped 100 tackles each of his four seasons but has yet to dominate games as expected. Miller's presence should help that. Milano flies to the ball and had 15 tackles for a loss last season.
Lastly, Buffalo will again field one of the NFL's top secondaries, providing Pro Bowl left corner Tre'Davious White can return to form following a Thanksgiving Day ACL injury. White, who has 16 career picks and 60 pass breakups, is likely to miss the early part of the campaign. If so, Dane Jackson, a 2020 seventh-round draft pick, will step in again. He did not allow a touchdown in six emergency starts. Jackson is also a candidate to start at right corner, where there's an opening after Levi Wallace (Pittsburgh) was lost in free agency.
The leading candidate for the job, though, is rookie Kaiir Elam, the team's first-round pick out of Florida. Elam has Day 1 starting ability, and his press coverage skills will allow Frazier to be more aggressive in his calls. Taron Johnson (76 tackles, one interception) returns as one of the NFL's top slot cover men; the Bills play nickel almost exclusively.
Safety is headache free. It's where Buffalo returns first-time All-Pro Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. They were McDermott's first building blocks and show no signs of slowing.
Since the beginning of 2020, Tyler Bass has established himself as one of the NFL's top kickers, hitting on 84.8 percent of his field goals (6-of-10 from 50 yards or better) and 98.2 percent of his extra points. Matt Haack (career-low 42.9 average) had an off year and will have to hold off rookie Matt Araiza, an NCAA record-holder at San Diego State. McKenzie (24.3 average) has kickoff return flair, but lightning-fast Marquez Stevenson (9.4 average) will challenge to take over full-time punt return duty.
With four playoff appearances in five seasons, the talent-rich Bills are established as the team to beat in the AFC East. But the biggest challenge remains advancing out of a rugged AFC that got even stronger with the additions of veterans Russell Wilson (Denver) and Matt Ryan (Indy). Bitter playoff losses to Kansas City two years in a row have hardened Buffalo and taught lessons. It's time to quit saying, "Next year."