(First in a series previewing the Patriots’ AFC East opponents.)
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A large banner hangs over the bleachers at Bills training camp, greeting players, coaches, and every other member of the organization as they walk out to the practice field:
“Find a way.”
The Bills have been close to ending their Super Bowl drought the last two years.
Painfully, agonizingly close.
They lost to the Chiefs in the AFC Championship game two years ago. Then they lost a 42-36 overtime thriller to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round this past January. They were 13 seconds from victory, but a coaching blunder and a tired defense let it slip through their grasp.
The message in 2022 is simple: “Find a way.”
“A lot of these teams are evenly matched,” said budding-star defensive tackle Ed Oliver. “There were like four teams that lost by a touchdown in the second round of the playoffs last year. Literally a play or two are separating these games. So you’ve just got to find a way.”
I spent Monday and Tuesday watching Bills practices at St. John Fisher University, and you see this mentality taking form.
The Bills are going a lot harder at training camp than do most teams that are loaded with veterans and hope to play in the Super Bowl.
The full-contact practices are brisk and physical. There are no days or even periods off for veterans such as 33-year-old Von Miller. All-Pro safety Jordan Poyer suffered an elbow injury going full-bore in team drills. The Bills had three fights at practice in recent days, one that involved star quarterback Josh Allen.
Coach Sean McDermott, entering his sixth season, likes the intensity.
“I’d rather have to tone it down than kick them in the tail,” McDermott said.
The Bills are coming off two straight AFC East titles — their first ones since 1995 — and again appear to be the class of the division. Here are some observations from two days at training camp:
▪ The overarching question will be how they handle the devastation of January’s playoff loss.
“It’s hard to get over, no question,” said Bills legend Steve Tasker, now a team radio analyst. “It kind of festers in the offseason and motivates you during your workouts in the offseason. But I think they’ve moved on from it now, because you’ve got training camp and the regular season to worry about.”
McDermott, whose decision to not squib kick with 13 seconds left in regulation proved costly, is trying to accentuate the positives.
“It was a great year,” McDermott said. “We don’t let outside people say it wasn’t just because the last 13 seconds didn’t go the way we wanted it to. I think we learn from that, but by all accounts, that was a successful season.
“We didn’t get to where we wanted to get to, and our ultimate goal was win the Super Bowl. But the momentum is there and it should be there, because we did a lot of good things last season.”
▪ In a loaded AFC, the Bills are currently the betting favorite to win the conference and the Super Bowl. Allen is the betting favorite to win MVP. The Bills also will be featured in the NFL’s kickoff game Sept. 8 at the Rams, and will have at least seven national TV games.
With Allen only 26, the Bills should be championship contenders for many years.
“Expectations are through the roof, and they should be,” Tasker said. “But I don’t think any of these guys are thinking our window is closing if we don’t go this year. It’s going to be open for many years.”
▪ Miller was an important signing for two reasons. One is that he should significantly upgrade the pass rush. Though he battled injuries last year, he still finished with 9.5 sacks in 15 regular- season games, and was a dominant force in the Rams’ Super Bowl run, adding four more sacks.
The Bills figure Miller will see plenty of double-teams, so they want to line him up next to Oliver to give Oliver one-on-one situations on the interior, much like the Rams did with Miller and Aaron Donald.
The Miller signing also provides validation. Big-name free agents usually don’t spurn Los Angeles to go to Buffalo.
“That really was a signal that great players around the league see what’s going on here,” Tasker said. “Who knows if they’re going to win the Super Bowl? But they’re doing things in a really good way here.”
▪ Most of the key names on offense are back: Allen, receiver Stefon Diggs, tight end Dawson Knox, running back Devin Singletary, and receiver Gabriel Davis, who caught four touchdowns in that loss to the Chiefs. But there’s a wild card at offensive coordinator, where Ken Dorsey gets the call-up from QB coach after Brian Daboll left to become Giants head coach.
Dorsey joined the Bills in 2019, Allen’s second season, and provides continuity for the offense. But he has never been a coordinator or called plays. He is being helped by new QB coach Joe Brady, the Panthers’ offensive coordinator last year.
“We’re just trying to continue to build off the system that’s been in place,” said Dorsey. “Obviously the past three years we’ve built up a really good relationship. I trust [Allen] a ton, he’s got a good feel for me and my personality. But at the same time, there’s that feeling-out process.”
▪ The Bills offense, No. 3 in points scored last year, is still diverse and deadly. They have speed in Diggs, size in Knox and Davis, and productive slot receivers in McKenzie and newcomer Jamison Crowder. Former Buccaneer O.J. Howard is an intriguing No. 2 tight end, and second-round pick James Cook (younger brother of Dalvin Cook) is a dynamic receiving threat out of the backfield.
“One of the luxuries that our secondary gets [in practice] is that we’re going against some of the top-tier receivers in the NFL,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said.
▪ The Bills swapped out some defensive linemen, saying goodbye to Jerry Hughes, Star Lotulelei and Addison, and adding Miller, DaQuan Jones, and Jordan Phillips. They were No. 1 in scoring defense, total defense, and passing defense last year, but feasted on a bevy of bad quarterbacks and the NFL’s fourth-easiest schedule.
▪ The secondary might be the best in the league when everyone is healthy. But No. 1 cornerback Tre’Davious White hasn’t been cleared to practice yet after tearing an ACL last November, and even if he plays in Week 1, he won’t be his old self for a while. All-Pro safeties Micah Hyde (hip) and Poyer (elbow) are banged up.
Right now, the Bills are leaning heavily on rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam, their first-round pick; Frazier called him “wise beyond his years.”
Last year: 11-6, first in AFC East.
Playoffs: Lost to Chiefs in Divisional Round (42-36, OT).
Head Coach: Sean McDermott (sixth season).
Key offensive skill players: QB Josh Allen, WR Stefon Diggs, WR Gabriel Davis, WR Isaiah McKenzie, TE Dawson Knox, RB Devin Singletary.
Key losses: WR Cole Beasley, WR Emmanuel Sanders, DE Jerry Hughes, DE Mario Addison, DT Star Lotulelei.
Key newcomers: OLB Von Miller, WR Jamison Crowder, TE O.J. Howard, RB James Cook (rookie), G Rodger Saffold, DT DaQuan Jones, CB Kaiir Elam (rookie), offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, QB coach Joe Brady.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.