The Buffalo Bills lost to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, a 27-24 final ending their 2023 season at the same place it’s ended each of the last three years: the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. For the second straight year, the Bills lost a playoff game at home — something that had happened only one time before the 2022 season in Highmark Stadium (Jim Kelly’s last game against the Jacksonville Jaguars back in December of 1996).
While many will focus on Tyler Bass missing a 44-yard field goal that would have tied the game, the fact is that the Bills left plenty of plays on the field. For most of the game, Buffalo’s defense also allowed the Chiefs to make whatever plays they wanted on the offensive end. The old saying goes that every team but one will be disappointed at the end of a season, and that saying is something we know all too well as Bills fans.
Our six (or so) players to watch all factored into the outcome of the game, and many of them were players who needed to come up big, but just didn’t. Here’s how our players to watch performed this week.
RB James Cook
It was a tale of two halves for the second-year back, as he spearheaded a brutally efficient Bills rushing attack in the first 30 minutes of game time. Cook rushed ten times for 41 yards in the first half, adding three catches for 14 more yards. Combined with quarterback Josh Allen, who carried eight times for 51 yards and two scores in the first half, Buffalo’s rushing attack was moving the ball, controlling the clock, and embarrassing a stout Chiefs defensive front.
Then, Kansas City made some adjustments in the second half, and Buffalo failed to counter that counterpunch. With the Chiefs loading the box and daring the Bills to beat them outside, Buffalo did not, and the run game’s efficiency disappeared. Cook had eight carries in the second half, but he gained just 20 yards on those rushes. He caught one pass for eight yards in the second half. As the run game efficiency disappeared, Buffalo’s offense ground mostly to a halt, as they mustered just seven points in the second half.
Cook finished with 18 carries for 61 yards on the night, adding four receptions for 21 yards on five targets. His lone target that wasn’t caught came on an angle route inside the red zone. Allen threw a dime, but Cook dropped the pass.
WR Trent Sherfield
Sherfield once again took the Gabe Davis snap share, and he once again failed to do anything with it. Sherfield was targeted three times, and Allen hit him in the hands on all three of the targets. On the first one, a deep shot up the left sideline, he was unable to haul in a pass through hand fighting from cornerback Jaylen Watson. His second target was another deep shot, and this time, he came open and looked like he made a diving catch.
The officials signaled incomplete, and they were correct: Sherfield trapped the ball, and the Bills were forced to punt. This was a real punt, at least, one possession after a fake a punt on a sweep with safety Damar Hamlin from their own 32-yard line on 4th & 5 that they ran rather than keeping the ball in the hands of their All-World quarterback who was averaging six yards per rush.
Sherfield’s third target led to his only catch, and it was a big one, as he hauled in a seven-yard pass in traffic to convert a 3rd & 4 that, temporarily, gave the Bills a great shot at either tying or winning the game.
WR Stefon Diggs
Yikes. Diggs saw more targets (8) than anyone in the game other than wide receiver Khalil Shakir, who led all players with nine targets on the evening. Diggs was able to catch just three of those passes for a total of 21 yards. Two of those targets came on the final drive of the game, and they felt like forced throws where Allen was trying to find his guy rather than find the open guy.
By the same token, it’s mystifying to me how Diggs could be completely erased in yet another big game. It’s not a surprise that other teams are keying on him, but what is a surprise is how — repeatedly, and with three different offensive coordinators over the last four years — the Bills just seem content to allow opposing defenses to scheme their best receiver out of games.
In two contests this season against the Chiefs, Diggs was targeted 19 times. He only caught seven passes for 45 yards. That just isn’t good enough, and whether it’s a lack of threatening weapons around him, poor play-calling, him turning 30, or him being upset that Allen started throwing to Peppa Pig more often, it can’t continue to happen.
DT Ed Oliver
Speaking of disappearing acts, what a disappointing way for Oliver to have ended what was an absolutely brilliant breakout season. Oliver and company generated absolutely zero pressure on Patrick Mahomes all night, and even though the Bills held a tremendous advantage in time of possession throughout the game, it didn’t stop Kansas City’s offensive line and rushing attack from growing stronger and stronger as the night progressed. Oliver played 80% of the defensive snaps, totaling 40 snaps. He had one singular assisted tackle on the night. All-Pro guard Joe Thuney nullified No. 91 all night long.
We knew this was going to be a problem, and with A.J. Klein inexplicably left to cover tight end Travis Kelce on multiple occasions, the Chiefs took full advantage. Kelce had his best game of the 2023 season, catching two touchdowns and five passes for 75 yards on just six targets.
Klein played all but one snap and he looked less like the guy we saw last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers and more like a guy who was on his couch two weeks ago preparing to go to Florida for the winter. He had five tackles on the game.
Tyrel Dodson performed pretty well, and he was easily the best linebacker the Bills had on the field. He led the team with eight tackles, including one tackle for loss.
With Terrel Bernard and Baylon Spector both out for the game, Dorian Williams was really the only linebacker reserve available, as Tyler Matakevich is a special teams player and a linebacker-in-name only. Williams made three noticeable plays on the night, thumping tight end Noah Gray on a second down play for his first tackle.
Then, he threw a shoulder-check into a crossing Rashee Rice on a third down in the fourth quarter, drawing a controversial pass interference call (for the record, while the P.I. call itself may have been wrong given that the ball was still in Mahomes’ hands when the contact came, the shoulder certainly looked like it was at least illegal contact, as there was no way to say that he was performing a legal action within five yards of the line of scrimmage). On the second third-down play of that penultimate Kansas City drive, Williams was able to tackle Patrick Mahomes and force third down.
Frankly, I think head coach Sean McDermott should have played Williams over Klein at some point in the evening, as it was very clear that something needed to change, and Klein was a hindrance, not a positive.
CB Dane Jackson
Jackson had a tackle and a pass breakup on the evening, but he also didn’t play nearly as well as he did just a week ago. In run support, Jackson was one of many Bills who missed early chances at tackles, giving the Chiefs explosive plays where they could have been held to short gains.
On one of Mahomes’ passing touchdowns to Kelce, there was a blown coverage where either Jackson, Taron Johnson, or safety Jordan Poyer was supposed to go with Kelce. Without knowing the call for sure, it looked like Buffalo was trying to disguise their coverage as being a cover-one look and rotate into a cover-three look. That tells me it was likely Jackson who was supposed to rotate to the deep-third, as Johnson buzzed the flat and Poyer settled into a short “robber” zone look that would make sense given his role as a dime linebacker.
Tyrel Dodson was wildly gesticulating before the play, probably trying to tell the coverage unit to abandon the disguise because they were outflanked. It was yet another example of the master (Andy Reid) schooling his pupil (Sean McDermott) in a big situation.