Do the Buffalo Bills have a problem winning close games?

Sean McDermott Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott gestures from the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

There’s a narrative spreading that the Buffalo Bills can’t win close games. 

The narrative started within the Bills fanbase and beat writers long before the team fell to Miami 21-19 on Sunday, which makes them 0-7 in the last, well, seven one-score games. But then on Monday night, Steve Young and the Monday Night Countdown crew brought it up and questioned whether the Bills were making poor coaching decisions that were ultimately leading to their inability to win close games. 

Since the Bills are still considered a Super Bowl favorite, an inability to win close games would throw a major wrench in those plans. But instead of just assuming they can’t win close games, I decided that we need to examine what the facts are and if the assertion is even true.

Are the Bills Losing Close Games?

Yes and no. 

In 2021, the Bills went 0-6 in one-score games, including the playoff loss to the Chiefs. Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins then means that they’ve lost even straight one-score games. That’s obviously not ideal. But it is also a small sample size. 

In 2020, the Bills went 5-1 in one-score games, and their only loss came on the now infamous Kyler Murray hail mary to DeAndre Hopkins

In 2019, they went 4-6 in one-score games; although, one of those games was a Week 17 loss to the Jets, 13-6, in which the Bills sat pretty much all of their starters, so you can count it as 4-5 if you’d like. For our purposes, I’ll still say they went 4-6.

That means that, all told, in the last three seasons, the Bills are 9-14 in one-score games. Certainly not a record to be proud of but considering the average winning percentage in one-score games is around .500, you’re really talking about the Bills being two or three games below where they should be.


Do the Bills Play a lot of Close Games?

We’ve covered that the Bills lose slightly more close games than they should and are struggling in close games in recent years. The next question becomes are they losing lots of close games because they’re bad in close games or are they losing lots of close games because those are the only ones they actually lose? 

The difference here would be simple but important. If the Bills are either blowing teams out or playing close games, then it would make sense if they are losing more close games than the average. Since teams are highly unlikely to go undefeated, each team will lose a few games a year. If the Bills are competitive in every single game, then it tracks that the only games they lose will be close. 

In 2022, the Bills lead the NFL with a +17.7 scoring margin. Jacksonville is, surprisingly, next with a +15.3 margin. The Jaguars’ only loss this year is in a one-score game. They beat the Colts by 24 and the Chargers by 18.

In 2021, the Bills led the NFL with a +11.5 scoring margin.  Dallas was next at +9.5. Dallas was 4-4 in one-score games in 2021, which is pretty much exactly what should be expected. They also only lost five games on the season so every Dallas loss but one was a one-score game. 

In 2020, the Bills were 5th in the NFL with a +6.8 scoring margin. The Packers led the NFL in scoring margin and went 4-3 in one-score games. Again, pretty much around the .500 record that we would expect. The Packers were also 13-3 that season so all of their losses were close games. 

The Bills lost six games in 2021 and five of them were in one-score games. That tracks pretty well with the 2021 Cowboys and 2020 Packers. This should tell us is that it’s fairly normal for the majority of the Bills’ losses to be close games. 

However, as we mentioned above, roughly three of those close games should have been wins by the law of averages, so while we shouldn’t care that the Bills are only losing close games, we should maybe care that they are losing slightly more of them than you’d like to see. 


Is Poor Coaching Costing the Bills or is it Bad Luck?

So if the Bills are about three wins worse than they should be in one-score games, are they dropping the ball because of coaching or bad luck?

Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins can’t really be blamed on coaching. In addition to the Bills being extremely short-handed, they simply didn’t capitalize on opportunities. Josh Allen bounced a would-be touchdown pass to Isaiah McKenzie. Tyler Bass missed a field goal. Gabe Davis dropped a touchdown catch. Matt Milano dropped a would-be pick-six. Greg Van Roten and Josh Allen mishandled a snap to set up a field goal attempt. If anything, coaching had the Bills in a game they should have lost by much more given their play and their depth chart. 

So how about 2021?

They lost the first game of the season 23-16 to the Steelers despite outgaining them 371 to 252. They had a punt blocked for a touchdown, which is hard to pin on coaching or coaching decisions, but they did get penalized eight times for 81 yards which, as you’ll see, has been a problem for Sean McDermott’s teams. 

They then lost a 34-31 game against the Titans, which some have tried to blame on coaching. The Bills were down by three with the ball on the Tennessee three-yard line. It was 4th-and-1 but instead of punting, McDermott opted to go for it, calling a designed run with Josh Allen. However, the quarterback’s foot slipped as he planted, causing him to lose any ability to drive into the defensive line, and he was stuffed. 

Yet, analytically speaking, McDermott made the right call. There was a 75% conversation probability and the Bills’ chances of winning were 63% if they went for it and just 42% if they kicked a field goal. The call was the right one; they just failed on the execution because of a slip. Hard to blame that on coaching. 

The Bills then lost a 9-6 game to the Jaguars, which you can absolutely blame on coaching. Not because of any one particular moment but because Buffalo was sloppy and had no business losing that game, especially since they outgained the Jaguars 301 to 218. They were penalized 12 times for 118 yards, and Josh Allen turned the ball over three times. It was just a terrible performance all around. 

The next one-score game loss was a 14-10 loss to the Patriots in the blizzard game. You can blame coaching, if you want, for the Bills being unable to stop the Patriots despite New England only throwing three passes, but I have a hard time using this game to talk about success or failure in one-score games; it was quite literally a weather anomaly. However, it was another game in which the Bills lost but outgained their opponents by 100 yards, which is not ideal. 

Buffalo also lost the next game by one score, dropping an overtime game to the Bucs 33-27. However, the Bills trailed this game 24-3 and 24-10 heading into the fourth quarter. The fact that they even forced overtime and made this a one-score game was because of a tremendous comeback. 

If you want to be picky, the Bills did have 1st-and-10 from the Tampa Bay 14-yard-line down 27-24 but were unable to punch it in and had to settle for the game-tying field goal. They would get the ball first in overtime but were unable to move the ball, and then the Bucs scored on a 58-yard pass to Breshad Perriman to win the game

The season ended with the playoff loss to the Chiefs, which has been covered in depth and I don’t have the emotional capacity to re-visit. The Bills could have made different coaching decisions on the kickoff or the way they defended the Chiefs in the last 13 seconds of regulation. That game is partially on coaching and partially on simply playing a very good team that executed when they needed to. 

In going through all of those games, it’s fair to say that the Bills missed a few opportunities. Sometimes they were unprepared. Sometimes the players failed to execute. Sometimes they were just unlucky. However, really only half of the one-score losses from 2021 can be blamed on coaching. This means it’s just as easy to envision a scenario where the Bills were 3-3 in the regular season in one-score games, and we’re not even having this conversation. 


One Area of Concern and One Area To Stop Complaining About

I do think too much is being made of Sean McDermott’s playcalling on 3rd and 4th downs. In 2021, the Bills converted 46.4% of 3rd downs, which was 3rd best in the NFL. They were also 50% on 4th downs, which was 20th in the league, but they only opted to go for it on 4th down 22 times, which was exactly middle of the pack in the NFL. 

Could the Bills be better on 4th down? Sure, but if two attempts that failed had been successful, they would have been the 4th-best team in the league, so we’re talking about maybe three or four play calls in total that could drastically change the way we view their fourth down success or 13% of all fourth down play calls on the entire season. 

Many people also bring up Buffalo’s lack of red zone conversation percentage. This season, the Bills are scoring a touchdown on 63.6% of their red zone trips, which is tied for 11th in the NFL. However, they led the NFL in red zone touchdown conversion percentage in 2021, so it’s hard to blame the Bills for not doing enough in the red zone. Yes, they have missed some opportunities, but it’s also because they get into the red zone so often. By percentage, they are elite at converting. 

One are where you can say that Sean McDermott is bad with his challenges since he’s only won six of his 24 as a head coach, exactly 25%. However, it’s unclear if that has had any real impact on the Bills’ recent struggles in one-score games.  


Is This an Actual Problem?

At the end of the day, I don’t think this is an actual problem for the Buffalo Bills.

They’ve lost about three close games more than they should. Penalties and poor preparation can account for some of it, and bad luck or tough breaks can account for the others. Since the Bills have clearly been prepared and well-coached enough to build one of the best teams in the league that, more often than not, is beating teams by a well above-average margin, it’s hard to say they lose games because of bad coaching.

Coaches and players will have bad games at times. Sometimes those will lead to losses, but those same coaches and players have also clearly shown that they are strong enough to lead this Bills team to victory the vast majority of the time. We’re just holding the few losses up under a microscope.

My advice is to let it go. There’s nothing to see here. 

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Buffalo Bills Josh Allen
Miami Dolphins defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (91) grabs Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)