Bills tight end Dawson Knox was standing in front of his locker inside the fieldhouse on Wednesday, talking about the need for athletes to have a short memory and to put bad plays and difficult losses behind them.
The players all tend to channel their head coach, Sean McDermott. You know, take them one game at a time. The past is the past. The 24-hour rule and all that stuff.
So, Knox wasn’t exactly thrilled by the follow-up question: How could a team that tied an NFL record with 20 straight wins by 10 or more points also be riding a streak of seven consecutive losses in one-score games?
“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Knox said. “It’s one of those things we’ve got to work on.”
Does it bug you guys at all, I asked?
“What do you think?” Knox said with a laugh. Then he gave a look that signaled it was the end of the interview.
Well, the Bills have to be a little miffed by the one-score thing. Maybe it’s circumstantial and random, but when a team continues to fall short in close games, it becomes an issue — especially a team favored to win the Super Bowl.
They don’t have to apologize for winning all those games by blowouts. But when expectations are sky high, a team gets judged accordingly, by the very highest standard. Out in the football universe, they dissect a team’s every move, and they look for any flaw that might be your undoing in January.
Whether the Bills like it or not, that epic meltdown against the Chiefs in last year’s division round hovers over them like a dark cloud. The inability to finish that game cost them a chance at the Super Bowl and left some to wonder if McDermott is capable of winning when it matters most.
The Bills gave a noble effort in a 21-19 loss at Miami last Sunday, dominating for much of the day despite injuries and oppressive heat, and narrowly missing a chance to attempt a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.
“I feel like we just got to do a better job executing at the end of the game,” said cornerback Taron Johnson. “That’s what it comes down to when you’re tired in that fourth quarter. It’s easy to make mistakes, you know? So we really just got to buckle down and make sure we stay focused and execute.”
Focus. Execution. It’s still another failure in a one-score game. That makes seven in a row, counting playoffs, going back to a 27-24 win over the Colts in the 2021 Wild Card. Granted, you don’t get in a lot of nail-biters when you’re blowing so many teams out. But it’s a puzzling trend.
McDermott was predictably defensive when asked about his team’s curious inability to win those one-score contests.
“I think we’ve shown that,” he said. “You can look back, as I said as few weeks ago when I was asked this question about close games. In 2020, we were 5-1. In 2017, we were either break-even or pretty good there, too (they were 6-3).
“The NFL is a game of close games, right? So, we’ll be in close games. We have to continue to work on executing down the stretch in order to win those games.”
McDermott said the team spends a lot of time on late-game situations. One can only surmise that he spent many a sleepless night going over the fateful final 13 seconds in regulation last January in Kansas City.
“It’s an ongoing conversation,” he said. “We spend a lot of time on those last two-to-three plays of the game situations, on all sides of the ball. You see us working on two-minute out there quite a bit, as much as I’ve ever been around, to be honest with you.
“I think our process is right and we’ve got to continue to execute in the final moments of the game.”
McDermott is certainly right that the NFL has a lot of close games. It’s especially true in the playoffs. Last year was perhaps the most closely contested postseason in history. The last seven games — the four division round games through the Super Bowl — were one-score games.
Six of those games, in fact, were decided by exactly three points. The only one decided by more than three was the Bills’ 42-36 loss at the Chiefs, and that went to overtime.
It’s stunning to re-examine that division round in retrospect. Three teams (the 49ers, Rams and Bengals) all won on a field goal as time expired. If the Bills had taken care of business in the final 13 seconds of regulation, all four road teams would have won by three points in the divisional round.
When offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey went ballistic in the press box after the final play in Miami, it seemed as if he was channeling an entire organization’s frustration at failing, once again, to finish a close football game.
Josh Allen, never one to entertain a critical notion, didn’t think the OC’s eruption reflected a larger concern.
“No, I don’t think it was that frustration at all,” Allen said. “You show me someone that’s OK with losing, I’ll show you a loser. He’s passionate about his job and what he does. We all feel the same way.
“We want to win football games and that’s it.”
Maybe they’ll win the rest of them by double digits and render the discussion moot. The Bills are scary when they’re on a roll. Last year, they had a plus-194 point differential in the regular season, the best in the NFL — and easily the largest ever for a team that lost six games.
If they’d won one of those close games, the Bills would have hosted that division round game and maybe gone on to win the Super Bowl. Win all the blowouts you want, but the close ones make all the difference.
The Bills played heroically in Miami, but they made half a dozen crucial gaffes — “self-inflicted wounds,” as Knox put it. They realize that such mistakes will be fatal in January, when the margin of error, and the scores, become narrow.
“Across the board, whatever team you pick out, they’e going to have some self-inflicted wounds like that,” Knox said. “It’s always better this time of year than later, because you have more time to work on it.”
Those other teams weren’t picked by the majority of NFL experts to win the Super Bowl. At some point, the Bills need to figure out a way to close out those close games if they hope to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the first time.
If not, the most talented team in the league could go down as the greatest front-running team in NFL history.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.