Just like a season ago, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the most complete rosters in the AFC. But now, instead of the primary objective for Sean McDermott's team being centered around proving itself as a playoff-caliber team, the 2021 campaign is about maintaining the tremendous productivity it demonstrated a year ago.
Oh, and getting to the Super Bowl is the next step in the "process" McDermott and GM Brandon Beane have urged everyone to trust over the past four seasons in Buffalo.
Below, I have three Bills predictions for this year that can probably be considered as bold, but they're not exactly inconceivable, either.
Bills field a top 8 defense, finish top 8 in sacks
I'm starting with a two-in-one prediction. Individually, they're defensive-centric and tied together.
After his debut season as the Panthers defensive coordinator in 2011 -- when the personnel was disastrous -- and Carolina finished with the worst defense in football, McDermott has never fielded a defense that finished back-to-back seasons outside of Football Outsiders' top 10 in DVOA. Say that five times fast.
And last year, after three-straight seasons inside the top 10, Buffalo finished 12th in defensive DVOA. That does not fly for McDermott. In every other occasion in which one of his defenses was not ranked in the single digits by that all-encompassing, schedule-adjusted efficiency metric, McDermott's defense landed, at worst, inside the top 8 the following season.
But this prediction isn't solely based on pattern identification and anticipating history to repeat itself, although the sample size is decently large.
The Bills defensive roster is deeper than in 2020, particularly up front, which is the lifeblood of McDermott's schematic philosophy. Last year, Buffalo registered the fourth-most quarterback pressures in football but only the 16th-most sacks. Logically, Beane selected two defensive ends with his first two picks, youngsters with high-end traits and, you guessed it, impressive sack productivity in college. Gregory Rousseau famously recorded 15.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman at Miami in 2019 before opting out, and Carlos Basham had 19.5 sacks in his final three season at Wake Forest.
Pressures are more predictive of future sacks than sacks themselves -- if you can believe that -- and I have a hunch the Bills progressive front office realized a sack dip was imminent after finishing 19th in pressures in 2018 and 22nd in 2019. Fortunately for Buffalo, the huge uptick in pressures a season ago alone is a good indicator the sack figure will increase. Second-round pick in 2020 A.J. Epenesa enters Year 2 with a sleeker body, 2019 first-round choice Ed Oliver will be back to his natural three-technique position that'll allow him more upfield rushing opportunities, and Efe Obada was quietly signed in free agency after a 29-pressure 2020.
Jerry Hughes remains the finest pure pass-rusher on the team, but now Buffalo genuinely possesses the depth McDermott adores.
The Bills pass-rush unit takes a clear step forward this season, which has a giant ripple effect on the secondary's play-making opportunities, and defense at large. It all leads to a "rebound" from a defense that was mostly good but at times susceptible a season ago.
Bills earn No. 1 seed in the AFC
I'm just going to come out with it. I've never been a believer in NFL "strength of schedule" before any given season. Sure, there've been some analytical advancements like over at Sharp Football. But the NFL is such a year-to-year league for the vast majority of teams. Even consensus expert thoughts on how many clubs will fare ultimately look ridiculous at the end of every season.
I form rough "strength of schedule" opinions based on one aspect -- quarterbacks. You know, the most vital position on the field. Which passers does your defense have to try to stop? I've found accessing schedule difficulty this way to be much more stable.
A season ago, the Bills faced the following quarterbacks -- Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Ryan Tannehill, Justin Herbert, Jared Goff, Kyler Murray, Ben Roethlisberger, and Derek Carr with just two outings against rookie passers. They went 13-3.
During the 2021 regular season, it's safe to assume these are the best passers they'll face -- Tom Brady, Mahomes, Tannehill, Matt Ryan and Roethlisberger -- with potentially (see: likely) five contests against first-year quarterbacks -- Jets and Patriots 2x each and Jaguars.
As for the Browns, to me, the stiffest competition for Buffalo and Kansas City in the AFC, they get Mahomes, Kirk Cousins, Herbert, Jackson/Roethlisberger 2x, Murray, Carr, and Rodgers. Cleveland might see two rookie quarterbacks if Justin Fields starts for the Bears in Week 3.
I know, I get it. This is not an exact science. But it's one of my favorite, time-tested ideologies, and this year, it's leaning in the Bills favor as the AFC's quartet of elite teams battle for the super-coveted, bye-creating No. 1 seed.
Bills win the Super Bowl
Look, the Bills are consensus Super Bowl contenders this season. Therefore, predicting them to advance to Los Angeles for rights to the Vince Lombardi Trophy would hardly be "bold." And last year when I wrote this very same article, I wasn't bold enough, predicting Buffalo to win a playoff game, when, basically, everyone said they wouldn't be shocked if it happened. The Bills, of course, won a pair of postseason outings.
Therefore, I'm adhering to the "bold prediction" requirements. And I still don't think anyone in the football-watching world would be stunned if the Bills won their first NFL title this season.
The Buccaneers deserved the headlines for essentially retaining their entire Super Bowl winning team from last year. Amazing in the modern-day NFL, no doubt. The Bills retention was phenomenal too. Here are the players of note gone from their AFC title game appearance club of 2020 -- John Brown, Andre Roberts, and Josh Norman. The offensive line is intact. So is the secondary and the wonderfully complementary linebacker duo of Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds. Emmanuel Sanders was signed to replace the dinged Brown, and Brandon Powell was added to provide competition for Isaiah McKenzie as the primary returner, a role Roberts excelled in during his stay in Buffalo.
Oh and the entire coaching staff somehow went untouched during the hiring period in late January/early February. Astounding, right?Allen's had the same offensive coordinator -- Brian Daboll -- for the first four seasons of his NFL career. That's unheard of today.
The AFC is competitive. There's serious talent at the top. The Bills are one of the elites fully capable of winning a Super Bowl. This is the season it happens.