Sabato: Conference championship games make clear where the Bills need to invest | Sports

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BY Nick Sabato

Another championship Sunday without the Bills. What did we learn?

That Buffalo isn’t nearly good enough on the offensive and defensive lines to win a Super Bowl yet.

A lot of the pre-draft talk will center around whether or not the Bills should take a wide receiver in the first round, and while they need another weapon alongside Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis, it won’t matter if Josh Allen is picking turf out of his facemask often.

Both conference championship games had two defining traits: quarterback play matters and protecting and harassing that quarterback is imperative.

The Bengals have the best offensive weapons in football, but the high-octane offense that carved up the Bills a week earlier seemed mortal because the Chiefs were able to create pressure on Joe Burrow, who fell to 4-9 when sacked four or more times in his career.

On the flip side, Patrick Mahomes played with a bum ankle and saw JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman leave with injuries, but he was still able to do just enough because his offensive line kept him upright.

In the NFC, Jalen Hurts needed to throw for just 121 yards in a 31-7 win because his offensive line paved the way for the Eagles to run for 148 yards. On the other side of the ball Philadelphia used a historically good pass rush to knock out both of San Francisco’s quarterbacks, making the 49ers woefully predictable and limited.

So what do the Chiefs and Eagles have in common? They were the top-two teams in the NFL in sacks this season. Philadelphia recorded 70 sacks, two off the 1984 Bears’ all-time record of 72.

Not only did the Eagles have a standout in Haason Reddick (16 sacks), but he was one of four players with double-digit sacks, while Fletcher Cox added another seven. The Chiefs had one player with double figure sacks (Chris Jones’ 15.5), but 17 players had a sack this season.

And while both teams are more known for offense, each had three players with at least 50 receptions. Both had two serious threats at receiver and a top-notch tight end, sprinkled in with speedy players around them.

There’s no reason the Bills can’t get by with the same formula, using Diggs, Davis and Dawson Knox, as long as they find better depth around those players. But what the Bills don’t have is the ability to protect and rush the quarterback like those other teams.

Every starter on the Philadelphia offensive line is a homegrown draft pick. Kansas City only has two draft picks on the starting offensive line, but they acquired a quality tackle in Orlando Brown Jr. and a good guard in Joe Thuney.

The Bills drafted Dion Dawkins in the second round, spent money to sign Mitch Morse and drafted Spencer Brown in the third round to be a project, but the other two spots have been recycled by journeymen.

Since drafting Mahomes in the first round in 2017, the Chiefs have spent two of their 11 first or second-round picks on skilled players, while taking three defensive ends. The Eagles have taken three wide receivers during that time, but only Devonta Smith has made a significant impact. The biggest move they made, like the Bills, was trading for star receiver A.J. Brown.

With the NFL announcing the salary cap would go up from $208.2 to $224.8 million, Buffalo is still between $18-20 million over the cap already. So acquiring a player like Brown or Thuney isn’t feasible. That means using draft picks to bolster a pass rush that couldn’t exploit a line missing three starters against the Bengals and an offensive line that gave up seven sacks to the Dolphins.

Teams in the AFC East have draft or acquired players to harass Allen, and as we saw on Sunday, it’s not always possible to win games in a shootout. Tom Brady had good weapons during his time in New England, but didn’t have great ones often, while Aaron Rodgers had a tremendous stable of receivers for most of his career, but the Packers were missing other pieces as a result and only managed one Super Bowl appearance.

If the Bills can keep Allen off the ground, even the group of receivers they trotted out at the end of last season can make plays. And if the defense can consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Allen won’t have to play Superman all that much.

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