Remember the 2004 Buffalo Bills?
That was the team that took a seven-game winning streak into the season finale against the 14-1 Pittsburgh Steelers, who were resting several starters. Win that game – and get some help, which came – and the Bills would have made the playoffs. Alas, the Steelers' third-stringers left Ralph Wilson Stadium with a 29-24 victory and the Bills' playoff drought slogs on to this day. (Read the News' recap of that game here.)
That 2004 team, which finished with a 9-7 record, has a unique distinction. The website Football Outsiders, which analyzes the NFL through use of advanced metrics, calls the 2004 Bills the best team of this century to miss the playoffs. The Bills had Football Outsiders' No. 1 defense and special teams that year, according to the website's DVOA statistic (defense-adjusted value over average), which measures the success of each play based down and distance, then makes a comparison to the NFL average baseline adjusted for situation and opponent.
In a series for ESPN, Football Outsiders founder Aaron Schatz is ranking the 30 best teams of the past 30 seasons based on DVOA scores for offense, defense, special teams and overall.
The 2004 Bills' defense finished fourth. Of course, that's kind of easy to forget given the dud of a game the Bills played in the season finale.
"The 2004 Bills were the best team of this century to miss the playoffs, ranking No. 1 in DVOA for both defense and special teams. They had one of the greatest defenses that almost nobody remembers," Schatz writes. "The Bills led the league with 39 takeaways and allowed a league-low 4.32 yards per play. They tied for third with 45 sacks even though Aaron Schobel (8.0) was the only player with more than five. In one absurd December game, they allowed Cleveland a grand total of 26 yards in a 37-7 victory.
"The Bills did this with a lineup that probably included no Hall of Famers, unless London Fletcher or Pat Williams sneaks in some day. The Bills would have entered the playoffs red-hot as long as they beat Pittsburgh in Week 17. The game was in Buffalo and the 14-1 Steelers were resting starters. The defense held Tommy Maddox to 120 passing yards but somehow let the Steelers hold onto the ball for nearly nine minutes with a 26-17 lead in the fourth quarter. The Steelers won 29-24, and the Bills missed their best chance at the postseason since the Music City Miracle."
In the offensive rankings, the '90 Bills finished 22nd.
"The Bills led the NFL in offensive DVOA for 1990, but they wouldn't make this list if their postseason performance weren't incorporated. They scored 44 points on the Miami Dolphins (eighth in defensive DVOA that year) and then demolished the Los Angeles Raiders (13th in defensive DVOA) 51-3. In the Super Bowl, of course, they scored only 19 points instead of 22," Schatz writes, picking off an old scar just to watch it bleed.
The Bills had two teams rank in the top 30 in special teams: the '04 Bills ranked 12th and the '05 Bills were 11th.
"The Bills finished No. 1 in special-teams DVOA two straight seasons, powered primarily by kick returns from cornerback Terrence McGee. In 2004, he averaged 26.3 yards per return and scored three touchdowns. In 2005, he was even better: only one touchdown but 30.2 yards per return. That's the second-best kick return season in our database. Punter Brian Moorman was the other star of Buffalo's special teams and was selected first-team All-Pro after averaging 45.7 gross yards per punt in 2005," Schatz explained.