ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WROC) — This Bills season was something totally different for the Sean McDermott/Brandon Beane era. It was a failure. It’s weird to say about a 14-win season, but it’s accurate about this particular season of football in Buffalo.

Year one was ending the Drought. Year two was discovering a QB. Years three and four were moving deeper and deeper through the playoffs. Year five was the ascension of Josh Allen to top-tier QB status.

Year six was supposed to be a Super Bowl season. Instead, the Bills fell short. Way short. At least the Bengals left no doubt. This defeat was a clear as day butt-kicking. Buffalo wasn’t competitive. They didn’t seem like they even belonged on the same field with Cincinnati, even though the field where the game was played literally belonged to Buffalo.

After the game, Sean McDermott talked about improving and getting better.

“We all have to grow from this,” he said. “These are the games you have to learn from.”

There’s not much else a coach could say. However, Bills fans were quite irate at the idea. They have a valid point. This was not supposed to be a learning season. This was supposed to be a winning season.

There’s plenty of blame from this loss to go around, but it should start at the line of scrimmage. The Bills–with a healthy offensive line–produced 37 yards from the running backs. Their quarterback was under siege most of the game and saved the sack numbers with his escapability. The Bengals offensive line–missing 3 starters–rushed for 172 yards. Their second-best total of the year. They only allowed one Joe Burrow sack.

The game turned into a 60-minute education on the value of DaQuan Jones, who missed the Cincy game with a calf injury. He’s been easily the best run-defender on the Buffalo D-line all season and is also an underrated pass rusher. Without him, the 29th-best run game in the regular season was dominating.

Some of that Cincinnati success appeared game plan oriented. With their offensive line hurting, Zack Taylor smartly decided the ball should leave Burrow’s hands as fast as possible. That’s what they did most of the game. Short patterns. Quick throws. The Bills were unable to respond. This is the 3rd straight postseason defeat where Buffalo brought in what was believed to be a talented defense only to see that defense lay down in the game that mattered most.

The coaching issues didn’t stop on that side of the ball. Almost all of how the Bills moved the ball on Sunday was off-script and out of structure. Their best play was Josh Allen scrambling and hoping. It should not be a surprise. It’s been their best play most of the season.

Ken Dorsey was hired to keep the offensive success flowing without bringing in something brand new. Something Allen would have to learn from scratch. Something that would make Buffalo’s $258 million dollar investment uncomfortable. Dorsey was hired without play calling experience in a league where first-time play callers haven’t won a championship in three decades.

Allen ended up uncomfortable anyway. Just in January instead of July.

The Bills star QB wasn’t great in this game, but he was one of the few guys that made positive plays. He even kept the turnovers in check, save for one absolutely garbage-time interception. He’s been counted on to save his team more than once this season. His failure to do so against the Bengals is less indictment and more a reminder that he can’t win all by himself in the playoffs.

The receiving core that this space and almost every other have warned about all season came up small on Sunday afternoon. When the game was still somewhat within reach late in the third quarter, Gabe Davis had a deep ball slide right through his hands on 3rd and 2. The Bills punted and never had a realistic chance again.

McDermott put a lot of faith in younger players, expecting them to take on larger roles this season. Davis is one. Isaiah McKenzie is another. Neither were able to adequately replace the veteran receivers the Bills hoped they would. Their struggles were so pronounced, those veteran receivers had to be recalled in desperation late this season.

On defense, Dane Jackson and a pair of draft picks this year were counted on to man the corner position until Tre White got healthy. And then take on the second spot once White was back in the lineup. Kaiir Elam may yet develop into an excellent player, but he was a square peg in a round hole most of the season. It was too much to expect him to be a competent starter on a championship-level defense, despite his first-round pedigree.

The Bills’ salary cap situation required the reliance on developing from within. Allen’s blossoming nine-figure contract will demand more of the same going forward. Beane has not drafted a Pro Bowl player since the Allen/Tremaine Edmunds draft in 2018. The championship dreams in Buffalo will start being preceded by the word “pipe” if that does not improve.

Beane’s team ended this season with an offensive line that can’t be trusted. Secondary receivers that don’t produce. And a cadre of first and second-round pass rushers that worry zero quarterbacks. He’d be the first to say so, but Beane’s hands are also dirty with the stain of this defeat.

After years of trying to run the down the Chiefs, instead the Bills have fallen further behind. Joe Burrow and the Bengals are now headed to their second conference championship. They might make two Super Bowls before this Bills group reaches their first. That makes Buffalo the third banana in the AFC. At best.

The fans want everyone fired after this loss. I don’t think there will be any blood-letting, but it would not be a stunner. The NFL is a cut-throat world, especially with a team that has legit title aspirations. McDermott scoffed at the idea their Super Bowl window is closing. There’s always a window with Allen, but the Stefon Diggs/Von Miller era may not have many more swings. Both players will be on the wrong side of 30 years old by the end of next year. Hard decisions will be needed about whether Dorsey can grow and whether Leslie Frazier can avoid the playoff meltdowns.

After this season of near-constant adversity, there should be no talk of a change at head coach. McDermott proved this year there’s no better choice as a leader of men. His football skills are nearly as impeccable. Move on from McDermott and there’s a 90-plus percent chance the Bills end up with someone worse.

Yet, I can’t help but think about the Chicago Bulls.

Michael Jordan was drafted in 1984 and made the playoffs his first five seasons. Three first-round exits were followed by a second-round defeat and then a conference final loss. That’s excellent progress.

The Bulls still fired head coach Doug Collins after that fifth season. They hired Phil Jackson. Two years later, a dynasty was born.

Coaching football vs. basketball is like apples to lugnuts in many ways, but it may be possible that McDermott is not the right man to finish this championship build. The coaching in each of Buffalo’s last three playoff losses has aspects that are dreadful.

McDermott will absolutely get next year to prove he is Phil Jackson and not Doug Collins. Beyond that? There are no long-term guarantees in the NFL.

The Bills are going to have plenty more chances as long as Allen is upright and under center. Even with difficult decisions looming on free agents like Jordan Poyer, Edmunds, Singletary, Ed Oliver and others, there is a core in place that will make Buffalo another big division favorite in 2023 as a starter (barring a QB miracle arriving in New York, Foxboro or Miami).

It’s a tough end to a tough year for this team. McDermott was asked if the game changes, the weather peril and Damar Hamlin’s scare all took too much out of his team to be ready for a long playoff run. He flatly denied it, saying this postseason opportunity was the thing his players worked all year to have.

That exchange might still be the perfect summation to 2022 in Buffalo. This franchise spent years constructing this season as “their” year and it turned out to be anything but.

Here’s a question that will bake your noodle. In the happy world where Damar Hamlin never has to be in a Cincinnati hospital, what if that Monday night game against the Bengals plays out just like this one did? Does it alter the Bills’ playoff game plan? (It couldn’t get worse) Does it serve as a wake up call?

Could this loss still be that wake up and does this organization need one? The Bills won 14 games this year. They won a playoff game for the third year in a row.

And there isn’t anyone at One Bills Drive or in Western New York who thinks that is good enough.