There was a consensus around the AFC Pro Bowl squad this week.
The Buffalo Bills are going to be a problem in 2020.
An elite defense, a promising quarterback entering his third year and sound coaching are all reasons Buffalo’s 2019 opponents see big things ahead for the Bills.
“They've got guys all across the board,” Baltimore Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. “The thing about them is they're so well-coached. They're in the right spots when they need to be. They almost never bust coverages.”
One of the few times the Bills actually did bust a coverage was against Baltimore in a 24-17 loss in December. That led to a 61-yard touchdown catch by Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst. Nevertheless, Andrews, who finished with one catch for 14 yards before leaving the game with an injury, came away from that game impressed by the opposition.
“We knew we had to be efficient. It was a tough game -- probably one of the toughest games we played,” he said. “They're a good team with bright things ahead. No doubt, you see the players they've got and the coaches, I think it's a recipe for success, for sure.”
Andrews’ teammates, running back Mark Ingram and safety Earl Thomas, agreed.
“They play really well together,” he said of the Bills’ defense. “The front was strong, the secondary was strong. They're smart and they play well together, swarm to the football, cause turnovers. Those are all traits of a great defense. Every year is different, but they've got the tools.”
“Their defense is really, really good. … They're going to give a lot of teams in the AFC a lot of problems for a long time.”
The biggest determining factor in that becoming true is quarterback Josh Allen’s development. A third alternate for Sunday’s Pro Bowl, Allen made significant strides in his second season, but would be the first to admit he’s far from a finished product.
“When you watch his tape, his athletic ability is kind of deceiving until you actually play him,” Thomas said. “Dude can run. You see in the playoff game where he broke for like 60 (yards) down there (at Houston). When we played them, it was cold. He had some overthrows because of the conditions, but I could tell he was a great quarterback. He got their offense flowing late, and I was like, 'ok, this is what they could be.' We made it difficult for him, but they're a solid team.”
Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward concurred.
"Poised. Good leader. Whatever you need, whether it's running the ball or throwing the ball,” he said of Allen. “He's going to consistently grow. I love the way he came out there and managed the game. Having a solid quarterback like that, a stout defense -- I like their front as a defense -- you can do a lot of things with that.”
Patriots special-teams ace Matthew Slater has more experience playing against the Bills than anyone at the Pro Bowl. Slater has played 22 games against Buffalo, with New England coming out on top in 19 of them. He saw a big change in the team in 2019.
“They're a very disciplined football team that plays with a lot of consistency,” Slater said. “It seems as though they really enjoy playing for and with one another. You can't say that about every team in this league. Whatever he's done culturally there, I don't know what it is, but it certainly seems as though there's been a shift in a positive direction. Those guys are playing with a lot of passion and energy and playing for each other. They're playing sound, disciplined football. The results, you're seeing it on the field, a much-improved, very competitive football team.”
Both games against New England in 2019 were decided by seven points or less. In the first, Slater’s touchdown on a blocked punt was a huge turning point.
“Then in the second game, we had some clutch plays in critical moments, but they could have gone either way, and in turn the division could have gone either way,” he said. “I think they're going to be competitive for a long time. They're going to be a good football team, a playoff-caliber football team for a long time.”
Texans left tackle Laremy Tunsil played a part in ending the Bills’ season in the wild-card playoff round. A former member of the Miami Dolphins, Tunsil also has plenty of experience going up against the Bills.
“I knew what they would bring to the table,” he said of the playoff game. “It's a hard-working group and they're going to finish every play. They schemed us up very well in the playoff game. Hats off to them.”
Falling short against the Texans will be a primary source of motivation for the Bills this offseason.
“They had a great year,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said. “Obviously, it didn't end how they wanted it to, but they had a great year. They've got a great coach, a great group of players.”