By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
At some point during the Buffalo Bills’ playoff run, the thought struck me that the 2020-21 team (which we will call 2020 to make it easy) should rank somewhere high on the list of the best Bills’ teams ever. After all, they had tied a team record for wins in the regular season with 13. They had won eight straight games before the loss to the Chiefs on Sunday, and it would have been 12 straight wins had that last pass in the Cardinals’ game turned out differently. Buffalo ran up 501 points, another team record, during the course of the season. The Bills also had reached the AFC title game for the first time since the 1993 season.
Clearly, this year’s team is one of the best in the franchise’s 61 years of play. So how good are they?
Obviously, the answer is really good. But how do you compare teams from different eras? Head-to-head, it’s easy to guess that the 2020 team would simply run over the Bills’ champions of 1964 and 1965. And that’s not much help.
Therefore, let’s change the question. What was the most dominating team in Bills’ history in relation to its competition? That’s something that we can rank, at least by point differential. I took the points scored for each of the teams, and subtracted the points allowed. Then I divided the difference by the number of games, since some teams played 14 games and others played 16. Playoff games don’t count for our purposes. I left out playoff games to make it a more “apples to apples” comparison between teams of different eras.
By the way, I personally think point differential is a good way of ranking teams. Won-loss records are handy, but schedules vary from year to year – and sometimes teams take a week or two off in December because their playoff situation is set. That makes a difference in a 14- or 16-game schedule.
Let’s count down the top 10 differentials in Bills’ history:
9T. 1988 – 12-4 – 329 points/237 points allowed – +92 (+5.8)
9T. 1989 – 9-7 – 409 points/317 points allowed – +92 (+5.8)
You might remember that the 1988 Bills started the season with an 11-1 record, wrapping up the division before Holiday Shopping Season was a week old. They lost three of their last four games – all on the road – and eventually lost to Cincinnati in the AFC championship game.
The 1989 team started almost as well, going 6-2 at the beginning of the season, but a 3-5 finish gave them a division title by only a game. Jim Kelly missed three games as a starting quarterback, but Frank Reich won all three of his starts as a replacement. It’s odd that Buffalo’s points and points allowed both went up exactly 40 points compared to 1988.
8. 1992 – 11-5 – 381 points/283 points allowed – +98 (+6.1)
This is the first of the four Super Bowl teams, and the year looks a little odd in hindsight. The Bills won 9 of their first 11, but staggered home a bit from there. Buffalo lost to Houston badly in the season’s final game, and that cost the Bills first place in the division (Miami won on a tiebreaker despite a relatively small +59 point differential). Buffalo was banged up entering the playoffs, but they were still good and knew how to win. The Bills pulled off The Comeback against the Oilers, and won two games on the road to go back to the Super Bowl for a third straight time. The Dallas Cowboys, an impressive +166 in point differential, were waiting, and they handed the Bills a 35-point loss.
7. 1965 – 10-3-1 – 313 points/226 points allowed – +87 (+6.2)
It’s easy to wonder if this team would have ranked higher had it had more competition. The Jets finished second in the AFL East that season with a dreary 5-8-1 record. Boston (4-8-2) and Houston (4-10) followed. The Bills started 4-0 and never had more than a one-game losing streak. Then they dominated the San Diego Chargers (a +113 point differential) in a 23-0 romp in the AFL Championship Game. A subjective list probably moves this group up a bit.
6. 2004 – 9-7 – 395 points/284 points allowed – +111 (+6.9)
Really? These guys are sixth?
Indeed. The ’04 Bills opened with four straight losses. They needed to run the table when they were 3-6 with seven games to go, and they almost did so. Buffalo won six in a row, and needed to beat a Pittsburgh team with no incentives to reach the playoffs. You remember the rest – the Steelers won, and the Bills headed home for the winter.
Drew Bledsoe was the quarterback of that team, and Willis McGahee and Eric Moulds were the primary offensive weapons. Bledsoe wasn’t an All-Pro (20 touchdown passes, 16 interceptions), but he did some things right. During the win streak, Buffalo averaged almost 40 points per game. The Bills opted to release Bledsoe in the offseason in favor of J.P. Losman, and we all know how that turned out. It took more than a decade to recover from that in some ways.
5. 1966 – 9-4-1 – 358 points/255 points allowed – +103 (+7.4
This looks like the end of an era from a 2020 perspective. The Bills started the ’66 season 3-3-1, and then figured out how to step on the gas pedal. They won five in a row and six of their last seven to take the division by a half-game over the Patriots, who lost in the season’s final game to the Jets to let a trip to the championship game slip away. Still, they couldn’t stay with Chiefs in the championship game. Kansas City was a +172 over 14 games (+12.3), so that was no upset.
4. 2020 – 13-3 – 501 points/375 points allowed – +126 (+7.9)
We finally reach the current Bills, and they deserve the acclaim they received this season. We’ll have to see what happens from here, but this is the best Buffalo team that never had the chance to play for a league championship according to point differential. That sounds about right.
3. 1991 – 13-3 – 458 points/318 points allowed – +140 (+8.8)
If you thought the 1990 team was an offensive dynamo, and it was the ’91 squad was even better. It scored 30 more points during the course of the season. It started 10-1, and missed the team record for wins because it lost a season-ending “who cares?” game to the Detroit Lions. Even so, it dispatched Kansas City and Denver at the start of the postseason, only to run into a really good (+261!) Washington Redskins team.
2. 1990 – 13-3 – 428 points/263 points allowed – +165 (+10.3)
The no-huddle, or K-Gun, offense was the talk of the league, and it almost blew everyone away. Those Bills had a ton of stars, and were close to impossible to outscore. They also lost their last game to miss going 14-2, but they scored a total of 95 points in the first two rounds of the playoffs. That 51-3 win over the Raiders defined the word “dominating.” Everyone in Buffalo was confident that this would be the year that the Bills would win it all.
Alas, the Giants had other ideas. Their point differential was a very respectable +124 during a 13-3 season. New York figured out a way to edge Buffalo, costing the Bills their best-ever chance to win an NFL championship.
1. 1964 – 12-2 – 400 points/242 points allowed – +158 (+11.3)
You might be too young to know just how good this team was. The Bills started the ’64 season 9-0, thanks in part to a schedule that saw them play seven home games in the first 10 weeks. Boston was close enough in the AFL East to keep the Bills playing hard, and they won three of their last four games – all on the road – to wrap up the division.
San Diego was the league’s defending champion, but the Chargers had fallen to 8-5-1 (+41 point differential). The Bills got an emotional lift on Mike Stratton’s tackle on Keith Lincoln, who had to leave the game, and never looked back in a 20-7 win.
Buffalo was clearly the most dominating team in the league that year, and showed it throughout the season.
1999 – 11-5 – 320/229 – +91 (+5.7)
1993 – 12-4 – 329/242 – +87 (+5.4)
1975 – 8-6 – 420/355 – +65 (+4.6)
1998 – 10-6 – 400/333 – +67 (+4.2)
1980 – 11-5 – 320/260 – +60 (+3.8)
Other noteworthy seasons:
2019 – 10-6 – 314/259 – +55 (+3.4)
1981 – 10-6 – 311/276 – +35 (+2.2)
1974 – 9-5 – 264/244 – +20 (+1.4)
1973 – 9-5 – 259-230 – +29 (+2.1)
1963 – 7-6-1 – 304/291 – +13 (+0.9)
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)