ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- A deep playoff run wasn't necessarily the Buffalo Bills' goal entering the 2019 season. Their roster had enough talent to make the playoffs, but with so many young players at key positions there were tempered expectations in the third year of the general manager Brandon Beane-coach Sean McDermott era.
Regardless of how a 6-2 start adjusted some fans' expectations, the Bills stood by their dedication to player development by standing pat at the NFL's trade deadline. They are hoping to get their young core some postseason experience, but if things don't shape up in the next few weeks that goal will have to wait until next season.
Sunday's loss to the Cleveland Browns shifted the dynamic of the AFC's wild-card race; instead of taking a two-game lead over the next-closest team, the Bills (6-3) now lead the Oakland Raiders (5-4), Indianapolis Colts (5-4) and Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4) by one game entering the season's final stretch. Where there was once a comfortable margin for error, there is now an onus on the Buffalo offense, which hasn't always pulled its weight through nine games.
The Bills have scored fewer than 20 points five times, which has contributed to their 25th-ranked season average of 19.3 points per game. Winning with that kind of bottom-quarter production is becoming a challenge and it makes a deep postseason run extremely unlikely. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only 10 teams in NFL history have reached a conference championship game while averaging fewer than 20 points per game -- none since the Buccaneers did so in 1999.
Buffalo ranks 11th in the league in average time of possession per game at 30:13, but is not cashing in on its opportunities. If the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting you have one, the Bills are on the right path.
"We've got to score more points to enable ourselves to win games," McDermott said Monday, "and to be a threat down the stretch, that's what we've got to do."
A simple enough request but there's a growing sense of urgency to get it fulfilled. Buffalo's next two opponents -- Sunday at Miami (1 p.m. ET, CBS) and Nov. 24 vs. Denver -- don't feature high-scoring offenses and provide an opportunity for the Bills to get on track.
Things get dicey from there with back-to-back games against the Cowboys and Ravens, who rank first and second, respectively, in yards per game. Immediately after, Buffalo faces what could be its most important game of the season -- Week 15 in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers are quietly one of the hottest teams in the league with wins in five of their past six games. They've done so in classic Steelers fashion, with an overpowering defense. Pittsburgh has forced 26 turnovers, second only to New England -- which Buffalo faces on the road in Week 16.
That four-game stretch is likely to define Buffalo's season, and Sunday the Bills did not look up to the challenge.
"We lost one game," McDermott said Monday, "that's something we have to keep in perspective."
He said he believes the pieces are in place for the Bills to field a successful offense, but the team needs to do a better job of getting the ball to its playmakers -- namely running back Devin Singletary, who exploded for 140 yards on 24 touches against Washington in Week 9 only to receive eight carries against the Browns.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll noted the rookie was targeted seven times in the passing game by quarterback Josh Allen, who tied a career-high with 41 attempts. While it's often not as simple as it sounds, Singletary's production (6.7 yards per touch on 63 touches) in a limited role suggests the Bills must find ways to get him more involved.
Daboll also pointed to Buffalo converting 5 of 13 third downs Sunday, a mark that's actually slightly better than its 36.6% conversion rate this season. Then, of course, there's Allen's failure to complete a single pass that has traveled 30 or more yards this season -- a head-scratching statistic considering his arm strength was a quality that set him apart during the pre-draft process in 2018.
The second-year quarterback has had as much luck diagnosing his problems on deep throws as the average fan.
"If I could pinpoint it, I'd probably be hitting them," Allen said Sunday. "I don't know if I'm super anxious about underthrowing it and getting an interception. The ball comes out, it feels good and just carries a little longer than I think. It's something that I have to continue to work on."
Until defenses see Buffalo's vertical passing game as a potential threat, they have no reason to respect it. If Allen starts hitting some big passes, it would open the intermediate areas of the field and might get the Bills' offense clicking when the games matter most.
If they make it to the playoffs, anything can happen -- if Tim Tebow could beat the Steelers on an overtime miracle in 2012, Allen and the Bills can steal one in the wild-card round and ride the momentum from there. But the odds are stacked heavily against them if this offense doesn't get going.