By design, the NFL is meant to be a league of parity. The league rewards bad teams with, at least in theory, an easier schedule than the division winners, access to higher draft picks, and more.
So, in a theoretical world, the difference between the haves and the have-nots shouldn’t be that large, and the collective talent levels shouldn’t vary too much from team to team. As a result, each year there are many games decided by a single score (eight points or less). The good teams find ways to win those close games, while the lesser teams find ways to lose those contests.
During the 2021 season, the Buffalo Bills claimed their second consecutive AFC East divisional title and finished the regular season with an 11-6 record, good for the No. 3 seed in the AFC. Counting the playoffs, in their 12 victories, the Bills outscored their opponents by a margin of 425-183, an average of 35.4-15.3 per game.
But despite their solid performance last season, there was one area where Josh Allen and the Bills could have performed better: in one-score games. Buffalo went an astounding 0-6 in games decided by one score, including their instant classic, 42-36 overtime setback against the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.
So, what if the Bills, who had the regular season’s top defense and a high-flying offense that averaged 28.4 points per game (third highest in the league) had found a way to emerge victorious in their one-score games?
Well for starters, the Bills at 16-1, would have wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the AFC and ensured that the road to the Super Bowl traveled through Orchard Park.
A large chunk of those close games that head coach Sean McDermott’s Bills managed to lose occurred thanks to some late-game drama. But what if Buffalo had found that clutch trait and won their one-score games? Let’s take a game-by-game look at this “what if?” scenario.
Week 1: Pittsburgh Steelers 23, Bills 16
This one was somewhat possible to win, and the Bills have only themselves to blame after a mistake-filled season opener. An offense that would score the third-most points in the league was held 12 points below its season average, went 1-of-4 in the red zone, and committed three offensive holding penalties. The Bills put the ball on the ground four times but were fortunate to only lose one of their fumbles. The special teams were anything but, as Pittsburgh blocked a Matt Haack punt for a touchdown.
Week 6: Tennessee Titans 34, Bills 31
This one was definitely winnable. In fact, the Bills had every right to win this game vs. their AFC South rivals. In a back-and-forth contest that saw seven lead changes, Josh Allen engineered a late-game drive and had the Bills in position to earn consecutive primetime wins, only to be stuffed on a 4th & GOAL run up the middle late in regulation. Bonus pain points on Derrick Henry’s 76-yard touchdown run that saw the Titans appear to benefit from a no-call when they committed holding (or illegal block in the back) for a tug and shove on Tre’Davious White.
Week 9: Jacksonville Jaguars 9, Bills 6
Besides being nearly as winnable as it gets, this loss is right up there among the worst regular-season setbacks in franchise history. After directing the offense to field goals on its first two drives, the Bills did not score again against a porous Jags defense. Josh Allen turned the ball over three times, including two interceptions and a fumble on a drive when the Bills were already in Tyler Bass field goal range. Ugh.
Week 13: New England Patriots 14, Bills 10
In awful, windy conditions at Highmark Stadium, the Bills lost to a New England team that passed the ball only three times. Despite the atrocious passing conditions, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dialed up 30 passes compared to 25 runs, while New England ran 46 times for 222 yards—an average of 4.8 yards per rush. The Bills were held to a season-low 230 yards of offense and came away with only ten points on four drives inside the New England’s 20.
Week 14: Tampa Bay Buccaneers 33, Bills 27 (OT)
This was a tale of two halves, as Buffalo fell behind 24-3 at intermission, only to outscore Tom Brady and the Buccaneers by the same 24-3 margin in the second half. Bills fans thought Josh Allen might have finally bested Brady when Allen marched Buffalo deep into Bucs territory late, but Allen misfired on a pass to Stefon Diggs, the Bills settled for a field goal that forced overtime, and following a punt in OT, the Bucs walked off on a 58-yard TD pass from Brady to Breshad Perriman. Pain.
AFC Divisional Round: Kansas City Chiefs 42, Bills 36 (OT)
All the Bills needed to do was contain Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and the Kansas City offense for 13 measly seconds and Buffalo would host the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game. Alas, Buffalo decided to kick it deep instead of doing a squib kick, and it took Mahomes three plays to drive for the game-tying field goal. Buffalo lost the coin flip, and a gassed Bills’ defense allowed Mahomes to drive 75 yards in six plays to the game-winning TD. Vomit
What if they won those games?
For the regular-season games it would have been quite a swing. Rather than 11-6, Buffalo would have capped the greatest regular season in franchise history, going 16-1 and easily claiming the top seed in the AFC. Now, unlike the 2021 Bills, most teams aren’t unlucky enough to lose all their one-score games. So what if they were a toss up and Buffalo went even 2-3 in their close games? Those extra two wins would have been enough to lift the Bills to a 13-4 mark and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
The silver lining in this what-if exercise? In all six of Buffalo’s setbacks in one-score games, the Bills realistically had a shot at victory. Since playing well in close games is a trait exhibited by good teams, and since the Bills are the preseason favorites to win their first Super Bowl, let’s hope Buffalo is able to convert a few of last year’s close losses into wins in 2022.