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The Loser Lineup: What must eliminated NFL teams do before the 2024 season?

In Sports
January 22, 2024

For every winner, there must be a loser. Such is the case of some talented NFL teams whose seasons just ended in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Matt Harmon examines the main tasks that the Bills, Buccaneers, Packers and Texans must tackle before next season.

Buffalo Bills — Find the next phase of this offense

I find the talk about “this was their shot” and “the window is closed” around the Bills nearly annually to be somewhere between hilarious and nauseating.

It’s frustrating to continue to bang your head against the wall over Divisional Round losses. It stings that you cannot seem to slay the Patrick Mahomes dragon when the games matter most. Yet, if I’m associated with the Bills in any way and watched how Josh Allen played on Sunday night, I take solace in the sentiment Joe Burrow shared last year:

As long as you have an elite-tier quarterback, your Super Bowl window is open. Period.

There is a reason the Bills are close every single season. It’s the same reason the Chiefs are seemingly always waiting to slash their dreams in the postseason.

There aren’t many franchise-altering right answers at quarterback in the NFL. The Bills have one. Allen is 27 years old. To speak with any degree of finality about his career is something beyond foolish.

While it didn’t feel like the closing of a window as Buffalo endured another disappointing playoff loss, it did feel like the end of a chapter. Which isn’t at all unique to Buffalo. When you have a quarterback you commit to for a decade-plus, the team around them must evolve. The Patriots went through multiple iterations of the operation around Tom Brady. The Saints with Drew Brees won in different ways throughout his time in New Orleans. Even the Chiefs offense on the other side of the field from Buffalo on Sunday is undoubtedly in a different chapter from the groups that threw for 50 touchdowns or had Tyreek Hill screaming down the field.

How Buffalo attempts to write the next chapter on Allen’s side of the ball, especially with serious financial questions around this team’s aging core, will be the essential pursuit over the next few months.

So often during the last few years, there has been inconsistency and chaos in the Bills offense. The ancillary receivers were volatile and the run game was messy. That wasn’t the case on Sunday nor down the stretch in the regular season. The running game continued to be a weapon for the Bills, both from the running backs and Allen himself. Khalil Shakir continues to give Buffalo rock-solid and electric play as the slot man. Tight end Dalton Kincaid led the team in receiving.

The problem now is that the one thing you used to be able to set your watch to amid all chaos, the Allen-to-Stefon Diggs connection, has gone awry. Diggs has been in a statistical slump for months now and that continued in the Divisional Round.

The big-play daggers from Diggs never came — worse yet, it never even felt like they were right around the corner. That’s insane to think about if you’ve watched Bills football since 2020, but that has slowly become the norm for this offense.

I’ll let others do the deeper off-field speculating. The only rational explanation to me is that Diggs has been playing with an injury in the back half of the season. Otherwise, it makes no sense for a proven player like this to go from being on a complete tear to start the season to being phased out in the second half. It would even explain Diggs’ poor execution on the dropped deep missile from Allen on Sunday evening. You only leave your feet like this and time the jump if you’re not entirely confident physically.

If we get word that Diggs has been dealing with an injury for months, don’t be shocked. We see this happen all the time for players seemingly in a slump. That doesn’t mean all is well or that they can just stand pat and run it all back next season. Regardless of Diggs’ status, the Bills need to continue to find answers at the skill positions as their once-All-Pro wideout enters his 30s.

Shakir and Kincaid are good players. They need more at outside receiver.

Diggs can and probably should be a part of that picture if he’s just been playing hurt to end the season — all bets are off if it’s something else — but No. 2 receiver has been a drastic need for years now. That’s even more the case now that we’re seemingly exiting the era of Bills football that was just Allen plus Diggs and everything else revolved around them.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NFL. However, the closest you get to assurance is having an elite franchise quarterback. The Bills have that, so their window is open. It’s just time to turn the page and enter a new chapter.

The air of ambivalence lingered over the NFC South for large chunks of the season. The general consensus was that we’d all be OK if the league bent the rules not to permit the winner of this woebegone division to enter, much less host a game, in the playoffs.

Then the Buccaneers got a little something brewing toward the end of the regular season and their offense was quite fun to watch. They became credible and enjoyable. Tampa Bay was able to flip one last bird to the doubters as it upset the Eagles in Round 1 and made Detroit sweat in the fourth quarter of the Divisional Round.

Now, I’m quite fascinated to see how the Bucs, who thumbed their nose at everyone who insisted they had to tear the team down after Tom Brady retired, handle this offseason.

Tampa Bay took its financial medicine last year and now emerges heading into 2024 with $47.2 million in cap space, the eighth-most in the league. Outside of some expenses to load the roster with “Brady guys” the last few seasons, General Manager Jason Licht has run a hometown-centric plan. And I’d expect him to use a good chunk of that space to retain a critical part of their core slated for free agency.

Franchise legend Mike Evans was an elite wideout in the final year of his deal. He’s in his 30s but showed no signs of decline in 2023 and was more explosive than the previous season. He was excellent against the Lions in the final game for the Bucs. He’d be a devastating loss and contenders across the league would be eager to pry him away if he hit the open market. Look for the Bucs to prevent that from happening.

Two pillars of the defense, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Lavonte David, are slated to be free agents. Winfield was one of the best safeties in the league this season and a total playmaker. David is another franchise icon but may consider retirement this offseason. If he wants to keep playing, he can still ball. Retaining them both will be high on Todd Bowles’ priority list.

Then there is Baker Mayfield. While an imperfect player, Mayfield was more than good enough this year to earn another run as the Bucs’ starter. How the Bucs settle his contract situation will be fascinating. Can they put something together in the Geno Smith range (18th-highest-average-per-year salary) and satisfy both parties? It’s hard to imagine Mayfield wants to play anywhere else after bouncing around so much in 2022.

The Bucs can build off this 2023 season and put a bigger gap between themselves and the rest of the NFC South. There’s a chance they come into 2024 looking like an even more legitimate contender than they do right now. Juggling creative contracts and the franchise tag in an effort to retain this core should be step No. 1 in that pursuit.

The Packers will leave the Divisional Round with a bitter taste in their mouths. This game was there for the taking. They had San Francisco on the ropes for much of the contest and held a 21-14 lead going into the fourth quarter. Their plan to beat them with their base defense was working and they were executing exceptionally well out of 12 personnel offensively for the second straight week.

The Packers didn’t win, though. Brock Purdy struggled for most of the game but put together a crisp game-winning drive and Jordan Love threw a downright Favre-like interception on his responding possession. It looked like Saturday was set up as this ultra-young team’s moment, but it wasn’t meant to be.

So while I feel for Packers fans and everyone involved with the 2023 version of this team, there is still so much to look forward to with this team’s future. Green Bay merely needs to stay the course and continue developing on the offensive side of the ball to keep this train moving.

Much of the promise of this team’s offense was on display in this loss.

The two-tight-end set of Luke Musgrave and Tucker Kraft has been a revelation now that both guys are healthy and integrated into the offense. Both blew open huge holes on the edge in the run game and are mismatches as pass-catchers. Romeo Doubs might be the team’s fourth-best receiver if everyone else reaches their potential but he’s been the most productive option in the postseason. Former practice squad wideout Bo Melton can’t stop scoring touchdowns. Jayden Reed is a chore for defenses to deal with as pre-snap eye candy even when he doesn’t get the ball. Dontayvion Wicks looked like a star route runner at times late in the season, but he was a master of the dirty work against the 49ers, sealing off critical blocks to spring his teammates.

The Packers have a nauseating amount of depth and options to throw at a defense. Trying to crack this puzzle for fantasy football next season is going to be a nightmare. And yet, it will be a worthwhile pursuit because, despite how this game ended, Love looks like one of the clear right answers at quarterback in this league. Matt LaFleur already hit a home run as a talent developer this past year. They just have to keep the train on the tracks going forward.

My one note for this offense heading into the offseason is at running back.

Aaron Jones has gone over 100 yards in each of his last four games. He’s been every bit of his best self, providing dynamic big plays and sustained rushing explosions. The organization asked Jones to take a pay cut last offseason because of where he’s at in the running back life-cycle and he wasn’t close to healthy for the vast majority of the season. But there’s no denying when he’s at his best, this offense is just different.

The Packers may not be able to count on this version of Jones for 17-plus games next year, but they need to find a way to insulate themselves in the event of his absence. The run game can’t go from excellent when he’s 100% to disaster when he’s out of the mix. The front office dominated in its pursuit to refurbish the pass-catcher corps last year. Now it’s time to spruce up the backfield behind Jones with an eye on both the present and the future.

Houston Texans — Obtain some verifiable counterpunches

The Texans were able to hang with Baltimore at first, carrying a 10-10 tie into halftime. When the Ravens finally put their foot on the pedal in the second half, Houston just didn’t have the gas to hold serve.

Taking on the Ravens’ lights-out defense in their home stadium was always going to be a tough task for C.J. Stroud and Co. The Texans’ quarterback acquitted himself well, for the most part, taking zero sacks and never truly putting the ball in harm’s way. The offense just ran out of answers.

As time wore on and injuries mounted, the Texans offense largely became the Stroud-to-Nico Collins scorched-earth show. You can win many games that way because Stroud looks every bit the part of a top-five quarterback and Collins has played like a Tier 1 or 2 No. 1 NFL wide receiver this season.

That is not hyperbole. Those guys have been that good.

The problem is that Houston didn’t offer much to scare defenses without Tank Dell in the mix since Week 13 and some other ancillary pieces going down. The Ravens were particularly adept at changing the coverage picture to a degree needed to take away Collins on one side and force Stroud to other solutions. Those answers never really came.

The play of Collins and Dell when both guys were healthy — Dell’s rehab this summer will be an essential factor in this discussion — was enough that the Texans don’t need to go big-game hunting at the wide receiver position. However, it would be wise for Houston to continue to take stabs in the draft at this position and in the tight end room to refurbish the depth.

The running game is in much more dire straits and in need of more considerable investments. Devin Singletary amassed 22 yards against the Ravens with a long run of 16 yards. That should tell you how the rest of his day went. The Texans ranked 27th in rushing success rate in the regular season. Houston wants to establish a quality ground game, as you could tell by their play-calling throughout most of the 2023 campaign, but simply do not have starting quality backs who fit their system. That has to change in the coming months.

Bobby Slowik may end up with a head coaching job in this cycle. If he doesn’t, it’ll be fascinating to see how he negotiates his second act as the play-caller in Houston. He has the quarterback locked and loaded; problem-solving in other areas will be even more critical to assessing his stock than anything that happened in 2023.

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