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2022 Buffalo Bills: Looking at quality of opponent

Quality does matter

NFL: OCT 16 Bills at Chiefs Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Setting aside the whole “not even in the Super Bowl let alone winning it” narrative, there’s been a lot of consternation about the Buffalo Bills. That’s weird for a team that went 13-3 in the regular season, losing those three games by a combined eight points. The Bills’ offense was second-best in the league in points per game (28.4). And the defense? Also second-best, with 17.9 points allowed per game. That sounds pretty elite.

I could talk about a popular narrative of the team coming up short in big moments, but I’ve already gone on record with my belief that the team ran out of gas in the playoffs thanks to mountains of trauma. So today I’m going to look at the lite version of garsimeon’s passion project: Opponent strength. Maybe the team was disappointing because they dominated “crap” teams? Let’s take a look.

Before we begin for real

If for some reason you haven’t seen garsimeon’s work on this, you seriously need to check it out. I consider myself a stat nerd (proudly) but can’t touch the work of some other fans, and garsimeon is on that list of mathemagicians I know I lag behind. Here’s a link to the latest FanPost on opponent strength, with earlier work linked in for more reading.

Buffalo Bills offense

I’m starting with the hopefully eye-catching graphic to get your attention while I muddle through a bit of methodology. This is 100% the lite version of opponent strength. On the column right next to the team name is the number of points their defense allowed per game. That’s followed by how many Buffalo dropped on them, and finally, the difference between the two. For the color coding on this and the next chart, blue is “good” and reddish is the opposite of good.

The general idea is that an average offense would expect to have close to zero difference (the right-hand column). Or said differently, the average offense would score right around what the opponent allows on average. The most obvious takeaway from this, then, is that 5.8 at the bottom right. On average, Buffalo scored 5.8 points more than you’d expect an average team would. That’s pretty huge.

This raises a big question: Did Buffalo beat up weak competition? Not really. They overall beat up average competition. Buffalo’s opponents averaged 21.9 points per game, which was coincidentally the league average.

Buffalo’s largest margins came against average teams. Buffalo faced two teams with really good numbers (Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets), and came away with mixed results. Against teams with iffy defenses (Minnesota Vikings,Detroit Lions, and Chicago Bears), they had solid but unspectacular results.

Unsurprisingly, of the Bills’ four losses, three were games in which Buffalo failed to score higher than the opponents usually allowed. The largest margin, of course, was in the biggest moment.

Buffalo Bills defense

Same thing here. Blue is good. Overall, the Bills did well here too, allowing 2.6 points per game less than you’d expect based on their opponents’ respective offenses. Of note here is that their opponents were ever so slightly weaker than league average, which might lead some credence to the idea of “beating up weaker teams.”

If you could sort the table like I can from worst to best offenses faced, you’d see that there are more reddish blocks on the side with the better offenses. That said, Buffalo still put together some good-to-great games against solid to spectacular offenses. Limiting the Kansas City Chiefs to 9.2 points below their average was pretty special, for instance. Overall, there’s some validity to the idea that the defense did better against weaker teams, though. I think my next sentence deserves its own paragraph.

The idea that a defense tended to perform worse against the league’s best offenses is much closer to “no ****” than “revelation,” in my opinion.

All that said, I’d like to see more blue squares, but it’s 11 games above expected compared to seven worse than, and that’s not a bad start. Only the Vikings and Miami Dolphins (twice) were more than a field goal better than their usual, too. I can anticipate the comments, so again... I think this shows that there’s room for improvement.

In summary

For the team overall, there’s a lot more blue than red blocks. The aggregate stats aren’t dispelled here. Buffalo had a fantastic team in 2022. It was rare to see both sides of the ball underperform at the same time, and frankly, it just really sucks they both picked the Divisional Round to be one of those days.

I’ll speak to defense first, and reiterate that I’d like to see improvement. But since it’s the summary, I’ll get more specific. I’d like to decrease the volatility and, of course, find some more answers for the elite offenses — though good luck will help with that to some degree. Contrary to some opinions, I don’t think the data from any source bears out that the defense was giving away points like Halloween candy. For context, three teams put up 30-plus on the Bills all year. That happened twice to the San Francisco 49ers (best defense in the league by most measures). The Ravens had one such game, and the New England Patriots had five. Even the best defenses tend to have some bad days.

On offense, I’ve always been a weakest-link kind of guy. Is offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey the weakest link? Or maybe the offensive line? Take your pick; with whatever you consider to be the weakest link on the team, Buffalo put up points better than just about anyone. In 18 games, Buffalo failed to reach league average only four times — once in the intense heat of South Florida, twice against the scrappy Jets, and heaven help us all, they chose to have their absolute worst performance of the year against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Don’t let recency bias take over. Yes, they kind of stunk it up the last time we saw them, but that wasn’t remotely representative of who the Bills were on offense in 2022.