It's understandable if Buffalo Bills fans spent Sunday evening muttering under their breath.
Not only does the Patriots' dominance of the AFC show no signs of stopping, New England got a historic performance from a former member of the Bills in punching another ticket to the Super Bowl.
Receiver Chris Hogan had nine catches (on 12 targets) for 180 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, easily the best game of his career.
"He's been incredible," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told reporters after the game. "He’s made big plays for us all season. He made plays in the biggest game of the year for us.”
Hogan tied for the NFL lead in yards per catch this season, at 17.9. He finished with 38 catches for 680 yards and four touchdowns, but has been on a different level in the postseason. He made four catches for 95 yards in the divisional round against Houston, and is averaging 21.2 yards per catch in two playoff wins.
All of which begs the question: How did the Bills let him get away?
Hogan was a restricted free agent after the 2015 season in Buffalo, during which he had 36 catches for 450 yards and two touchdowns. That followed a 2014 season in which he had 41 catches for 426 yards and four TDs.
There are three different levels of contract offers teams can make to restricted free agents. The lowest level offers the team a right of first refusal should a player sign a contract with a new team. The second-round tender offers the right of first refusal and a second-round draft pick, while the first-round tender offers the same right to match and a first-round pick if the player were to sign elsewhere and his original team declines to match.
The Bills made Hogan a contract offer with the lowest tender, which provided a one-year salary for $1.671 million. Had the team given Hogan a second-round tender, it would have cost $2.553 million, or $882,000 more. More importantly, it likely would have scared teams away from making Hogan a contract offer, since they wouldn't have wanted to pay the second-round compensation.
Knowing that there wasn't any compensation owed to the Bills, the Patriots pounced at the opportunity to poach a player from their divisional rivals by structuring a contract that made it tough for Buffalo to match. Hogan signed a three-year, $12 million contract, but counted $5.5 million against the salary cap in 2016.
At the time he signed with New England, the Bills had about $4.5 million in cap space, meaning they would have had to make other roster moves to keep Hogan. A legitimate case could be made that he wasn't worth a $12 million contract to the Bills given his production and the team's run-first mentality, but after watching the 2016 season play out, a case an be made that Hogan should have been given a second-round tender.
The Bills put their faith in the combination of Greg Salas and Marquise Goodwin to fill their third receiver role. Salas lasted just two games, and has never established himself as a legitimate NFL receiver. Goodwin did stay healthy, finishing with 29 catches, for 431 yards and one touchdown. Combined, they had 33 catches, 520 yards and four touchdowns.
It's entirely possible Hogan would have put up similar numbers on his own. From 2013-15, he played in all 48 games for the Bills, and also was a valuable contributor on special teams.
"He works hard, man," Patriots safety Duron Harmon told reporters after the game. "Ever since he got here, I don’t know if it was he’s so eager for the opportunity, but I haven’t seen too many people put in the type of work he does."
Undoubtedly, playing with the greatest quarterback of all time in Brady would boost any receiver's stature. Hogan isn't a superstar, despite Sunday's superstar performance.
Should the Bills have paid him an extra $882,000 to keep him around? A convincing case can be made, not just because of what happened Sunday, but also when factoring in the lack of receiver depth that was exposed on the Bills in 2016.