ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Josh Allen sat at his locker with a stunned look on his face as his teammates showered, dressed, and filed out of the locker room. Forty-five minutes after the final whistle blew in the Bills’ 27-10 playoff loss to the Bengals, Bills staffers finally approached Allen and practically tore the uniform off of him.
Their season was supposed to end in Arizona, with confetti raining down on Allen after winning his first Super Bowl.
Instead, it ended in a blowout loss at home, with the Buffalo snow falling from the sky, wrecking the Bills’ offense and their season.
“Everything that happened this season is kind of null and void in our minds,” Allen said. “It sucks.”
The Bills’ whole season was geared around erasing the pain of last year’s divisional playoff loss to the Chiefs. They brought in Von Miller as the “missing piece.” They prepared in training camp under a banner that read “Find a way,” Super Bowl favorites from the first day. Reaching the big game was the only acceptable outcome for a team loaded with talent and a superstar quarterback.
The Bills got it done during the regular season, going 13-3 for a third straight AFC East title. Yet it was all for naught, as they wilted in the same round that felled them a year ago.
Sunday was a rematch of the Week 17 game that was canceled just three weeks ago. The Bengals left little doubt who is the better team.
“It’s devastating,” tight end Dawson Knox said. “No one saw our season ending right now.”
The Bills won the opening coin toss on Sunday, and that was about all that went right. The Bills had the home-crowd advantage and the benefit of experience in playing in snow, something most Bengals players had never done before in their careers. Yet it was the Bengals who jumped out to a 14-0 lead, sapping the energy from the crowd and never letting the Bills get back in the game.
“We kind of dipped our toe in the water, and they jumped in the pool,” Bills center Mitch Morse said.
The Bengals dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides, rushing for 172 yards on 5.1 yards per carry, and limiting the Bills to just 10 points and 325 total yards.
Allen, who led the NFL with 19 giveaways this season, finally kept his turnovers under control, throwing just a late interception as the game got away. But the Bengals pressured him on more than 40 percent of his drop-backs despite only blitzing 20 percent of the time.
“We were expecting their best punch, and they came out and they punched us,” Allen said.
The Bills’ 2022 season will go down as one of the most painful in franchise history, for a franchise that has experienced more than its fair share. The pain from Sunday’s loss was really just the tip.
It began in May, when the Bills joined the city in mourning the victims of the mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Market. Then tight end Dawson Knox unexpectedly lost his younger brother.
Two deadly blizzards hit Western New York this winter. Miller tore his ACL — an injury that pales in comparison to the others, but sapped a lot of emotion out of the locker room.
And then there was the Damar Hamlin incident, in which the Bills nearly saw their teammate die on the field from cardiac arrest. Hamlin made a miraculous recovery and watched Sunday’s game live from the stadium, even making an appearance in the locker room at halftime.
But the entire ordeal, from seeing Hamlin receive CPR on the field to the daily updates over his condition, was gut-wrenching and just plain exhausting.
Morse said he was proud of the way his teammates held their emotions together.
“I feel like barriers were broken with this group, in regards to being vulnerable to a certain extent,” Morse said. “It definitely stings more knowing that this particular group went through so much, and this chapter is closed. That’s the nature of the beast.”
It stings not just because the Bills’ season ended suddenly, but because their Super Bowl window may be closing.
They will always be contenders with Allen, who will turn 27 in May and is just entering his athletic prime. But key players safety Jordan Poyer, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, and running back Devin Singletary are free agents. Miller will be 34. The defense nearly lost to Dolphins third-string QB Skylar Thompson last week, then got bullied Sunday.
This was the Bills’ “all-in” year, and they fell flat.
For the second year in a row, the Chiefs and Bengals will play for a trip to the Super Bowl and the Bills will be watching from home. Questions will continue to persist about coach Sean McDermott and whether he can get the Bills over the top.
After Sunday’s loss, they seem further away from a Super Bowl than in the last four years.
“I’m proud of them, even though this hurts, in the way they handled themselves with class this year and the ups and downs and adversity they faced,” McDermott said. “But for right now, this stings. I wish it was a different result.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.