Buffalo Bills positioned to rise in AFC
In Week 4, Bills quarterback Josh Allen scores a touchdown against the Patriots. Allen, who rushed for nine TDs in 2019, faces the Texans in a wild-card playoff game on Saturday. Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of playoff outcome, Bills positioned to rise in AFC

Much of this season’s playoff field enters January with urgency derived from their respective contention windows. At the other end of the spectrum from the Saints, Vikings or Patriots are the Bills, who were not expected to sniff the postseason.

Before the season, Buffalo (10-6) was pegged at 10,000-to-1 to win Super Bowl LIV. Buffalo's championship chances remain slim given the inferiority of their roster compared to the AFC powers'. But the Bills are simultaneously a live underdog against Houston in the wild-card round and playing with house money. In an era of short contracts and limited windows to maximize roster blueprints, this is a  “can't wait till next year” team.

Unlike most of this year's postseason teams, Buffalo has a chance to be significantly better in 2020. The Bills have no core player set for free agency and are projected to hold more than $88 million in cap space -– the league’s fourth-highest figure. 

Each of this year's other AFC playoff entrants feature much more complex issues than Buffalo faces. With Tom Brady's status unknown, the Patriots may be at the end of their unprecedented modern run. The Ravens and Chiefs boast the conference’s best rosters but face major financial decisions. The Texans do not have a GM and traded much of their 2020 draft capital; the Titans’ equation will change once they pay soon-to-be free agents Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry.

The Bills possess by far the most cap space among playoff teams, $30 million more than any other team in the AFC bracket. With defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillip as their most notable free agents, the Bills have many avenues to improve the roster.

In 2018, Buffalo's offense was astonishingly inept. Commanded by improved second-year QB Josh Allen, it was close to average this season. The Bills can further equip their quarterback with support and add an impact pass rusher -- its main need -- to a defense that does not possess many deficiencies.

Head coach Sean McDermott’s three Buffalo drafts produced 11 starters or key contributors, helping lead a wayward franchise out of a near-20-year stretch of irrelevance. The Bills' most important players are 24 (Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White), 23 (Allen), 22 (defensive tackle Ed Oliver) and 21 (linebacker Tremaine Edmunds). Even Wade Phillips’ late-1990s teams that made consecutive playoff berths were not in as good of shape as the roster the McDermott-Brandon Beane power structure built. This is the best point on the Bills' timeline since at least the mid-'90s, when their Super Bowl nucleus began to decline.

The Bills booked this playoff spot mostly on the strength of their defense. That unit rose from 18th in points allowed to second. But their rise also was fueled by a great free-agent class. Mid-level free agents John Brown and Cole Beasley combined for 1,838 yards receiving -- more than Buffalo’s top four  wideouts in 2018 -- and bargain-buy guards Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano joined expensive center addition Mitch Morse in elevating the offensive line’s adjusted line yards ranking from 30th in 2018 to 16th. That is a lot of value, increasing confidence Beane and McDermott can identify more talent come March.

While White just became extension-eligible and the high-end safety duo Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer may voice concerns about being the 20th- and 33rd-highest-paid players at their position, the Bills have the funds to fill their most noticeable need. No Bills defensive end under contract for 2020 registered more than nine quarterback hits this season. Defensive end Trent Murphy has not lived up to his 2018 free-agency deal, and Lawson was long a trade candidate before his productive contract year. But 2020 looks to be a good time to need an edge rusher.

Top edge players are frequently franchise-tagged, but various circumstances will keep a few from being retained by their teams. The 49ers may not have the money to tag sack leader Arik Armstead. The Rams’ cap sheet is terrifying; they will not expend $18M to keep Dante Fowler off the market. The Steelers will pay T.J. Watt soon; keeping Bud Dupree on their expensive roster may be a non-starter. Seattle's Jadeveon Clowney cannot be tagged, and the Buccaneers will prioritize Shaq Barrett over Jason Pierre-Paul. Although the Ravens’ Marcus Peters extension could mean a Matt Judon tag, Baltimore often lets pass rushers walk and reaps the ensuing compensatory pick.

This unusual depth aligns with Buffalo’s needs, just as the 2020 draft’s long-lauded wide receiver cadre does for a team that will have two 30-something starting wideouts next season. Nabbing a player from each impact group would make the Bills much better.

Of course, Allen must continue to improve for the Bills to be a true Super Bowl threat. He will never be one of the game’s most accurate quarterbacks. Buffalo must hope his undeniable tools -- which he's refined in his sophomore NFL season -- and more enhancements to the offense lift the franchise centerpiece into a mid-pack passer. But the Bills assembled a contender around their 2018 top-10 quarterback quicker than the Browns or Jets did around theirs -– against steeper odds -– and will have Allen’s rookie contract to build around until 2021 or ’22.

The work of Baltimore's Lamar Jackson and Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes will overshadow whatever the Bills do. But Buffalo’s roster (and the happenings in New England) creates a path for the Bills to be the No. 1 roadblock for the Chiefs and Baltimore in the AFC. Even if the Bills do not scream “next in line” the way the 2012 Seahawks did, they are on the cusp of something special.

Considering how long it’s been since the Bills possessed the potential to be one of the NFL’s best teams, their rise adds a wrinkle to these playoffs and presents a captivating offseason storyline.

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