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As Josh Allen’s Bills fall to Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs for third time in 4 playoffs, what’s next for Sean McDermott and Buffalo?

The head coach took responsibility for the loss but also emphasized how close his team was to finally defeating Kansas City in the postseason

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Thirty-six minutes after the clock had expired, Josh Allen was still in uniform.

Allen’s season was over, the Kansas City Chiefs (yes, them again) having outlasted his Buffalo Bills 27-24 on Sunday in an AFC divisional-round playoff game at the Bills’ Highmark Stadium.

The quarterback sat on the wooden stool by his locker. He alternated between staring down and staring out into space, between crossing his hands and looking at his phone. His backup quarterbacks, for much of the stretch, flanked him at their respective lockers. Center Mitch Morse offered a handshake and quiet words on his way out before tight end Dawson Knox pulled Allen into an embrace.

But after each interruption, be it a farewell handshake or an embrace standing or seated, Allen returned to his post. He returned to the distant place where he seemed to lose himself long after his teammates had showered, changed and mostly gone home.

Allen was in no rush. Thirty-six minutes after his season expired, why hurry?

He needed six seconds to gather himself before answering the first question he received at the podium.

“Sucks,” Allen said. “Losing sucks. Losing to them, losing to anybody at home sucks.”

He shrugged. As he offered some semblance of answers, the ones he wanted most eluded him.

For the third time in four years, a promising Bills season has ended at the hand of Patrick Mahomes. Some might derive optimism from the Bills’ advancing to six postseasons in the past seven years after 17 straight seasons in Buffalo ended before the playoffs. Others could pin their hope on the Bills’ six straight wins entering this game. Buffalo rallied from a 6-6 season start to clinch a playoff berth, a division title, home-field advantage through two games and a wild-card win.

But the macro and micro positive trajectories would've felt tone-deaf in a locker room abnormally silent even by NFL-losing-team standards.

“Every season, if you don’t win, it’s a failed season,” Allen said. “That’s the nature of the business. There’s one happy team at the end of the season, really. And when it’s not you, and you’re so close, it sucks.

“We’ve got to find a way.”

But how?

Sean McDermott offered his take as players searched for answers

Head coach Sean McDermott’s postgame tone was markedly different from that of his players.

While the players appeared distraught and lost and “all the sad emotions you can think of,” as receiver Khalil Shakir said, McDermott’s frustration was laced with defiance. It seemed like he knew that uncertainty about his future hung in the air. Are those questions coming only externally or also from team ownership at Orchard Park, who could choose to act?

So while McDermott took responsibility for the loss and summarized the game with detail and accuracy, he wove his explanations into his remarks.

“You want to get to a game like this as healthy as you possibly can,” he said. “That’s not the reason why we lost, however. We just didn’t do enough defensively or special-teams-wise to impact the game.”

A Bills team that held the Chiefs to 53 rushing yards and three field goals with one touchdown in the first half allowed 93 yards on the ground and two touchdowns in the second half. A special-teams unit that made the first-possession field goal from 27 yards missed wide right from 44 on what proved to be the game-sealing play.

Allen ultimately missed on his final two shots as well. Chiefs All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones collapsed Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins into Allen on the first, and pressure flushed Allen to throw away a ball on the second. On that final drive, Allen found Shakir for a 10-yard play on fourth-and-3 and found Trent Sherfield up the middle on third-and-4.

With 258 yards from scrimmage and three total touchdowns, Allen carried his team in this one while his defense was beat up. But pressure left the Bills settling for a game-tying field-goal attempt with 1:43 to play. Kicker Tyler Bass, who entered the game 8-of-12 from 40-plus during the 2023 regular season and 1-of-2 in the wild-card game, didn’t hook left enough to compensate for a wind that McDermott said blows from left to right near the western uprights toward which he aimed.

Bass blamed himself. But Allen dispelled the notion that one play lost the game — or even that Bass should’ve been responsible for a situation the Bills could’ve avoided if their offense had stayed alive.

McDermott wanted to remind fans — and maybe ownership? — of how close the outcome was.

“We were within a whisker of tying that game and maybe even taking the lead there against the defending world champs,” McDermott said. “So again, we just didn’t do enough — starting with me — to win this game.”

Bills ownership must assess the goal while considering McDermott’s future

The seven lead changes in Sunday’s game support McDermott’s assertion.

This game was close, and if the NFL played best-of-seven postseason series like the NBA or NHL, the Bills might’ve had a very good chance of unseating the Chiefs.

McDermott is correct, too, that his defense was injured. All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White and starting defensive tackle Jordan Phillips spent the evening on injured reserve, rather than stopping Mahomes, two-touchdown tight end Travis Kelce and running back Isiah Pacheco.

Credit McDermott for snapping the Bills’ playoff drought in 2017 and overseeing the six playoff campaigns that have unfolded since then.

But team owners Terry and Kim Pegula might need to ask themselves: Are they trying to be perennially very good, or are they trying to be great? Are they content with a franchise that finishes in the top eight or so, or are they committed to winning a Super Bowl during the prime of Allen’s superb career? Then comes the Pegulas’ final and most critical question: Can McDermott — whose Bills have lasted until the AFC championship game once, the divisional round three times and the wild-card twice in their six playoff runs — get this team over the hump?

The NFL playoffs will continue to be lose-and-go-home. NFL coaches and players often say the league injury rate is 100 percent. McDermott said Sunday night that he accepts “100 percent” of the responsibility for the outcome.

“It starts with me,” he said. “I take full responsibility. We didn’t do enough to win the game.”

Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) walks off the field after playing against the Kansas City Chiefs in an NFL AFC division playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) walks away from a playoff game in defeat against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs for the third time. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

But can McDermott’s and Allen’s Bills ever do enough to beat Andy Reid’s and Mahomes’ Chiefs?

Allen said postgame that he doesn’t believe the Bills need “a big change” to advance. He praised his team’s resilience down the stretch and the fight that rallying from .500 to postseason victory demanded.

McDermott, too, expressed confidence “in this team” and “in Josh.” He said the Bills will “turn over every leaf this offseason, and I’m fully confident in this football team, fully confident in our staff.”

The Pegulas must decide, as they turn over every leaf, whether they co-endorse that confidence. Expect McDermott to remind them of how elusive the ultimate successful season is.

“It’s extremely disappointing and frustrating,” he said. “It’s a type of situation in our business where you’ve got to spend the whole offseason thinking about it. But it drives you harder — if that’s even possible to drive someone harder — to come back next season and continue to work at it.

“Listen: There's only one team at the end of all this that comes back happy.”