JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The belief from the beginning was that the Buffalo Bills were looking toward 2018 and beyond.
All the trades, the unloaded salaries and the accumulation of draft choices signaled an organization building for the future.
That the Bills reached the postseason was a bonus, a beautiful fluke that flowed from Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton's right hand and through Tyler Boyd's feet to convert an improbable fourth-and-12 and score a last-minute, 49-yard touchdown.
Dalton was nowhere to be found Sunday. The Bills' offense was on its own, and that wouldn't be nearly enough even though their defense should have been satisfactory.
The Jacksonville Jaguars scored 10 points and beat the Bills by a touchdown at EverBank Field.
Since 1941, teams allowing between nine and 12 points in a postseason game had gone 81-8.
The Bills became the ninth team to be so stingy yet get eliminated anyway.
"It was enough," Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said, "but it wasn't enough because we lost."
Sad as that is, the Bills have made incredible strides with a team many would consider among their least talented in the 18 years since they last reached the tournament.
Now coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane can focus fully on 2018 and go about constructing the team they've visualized while not needing to tinker so much with what they inherited.
"This was a step," McDermott said after the loss. "We learned a lot of valuable lessons today, ones that we'll carry forward as we move forward as an organization."
Doug Marrone and Mike Mularkey also guided the Bills to 9-7 records, but neither made the playoffs and quit. Defensive coordinators Mike Pettine and Jim Schwartz oversaw units that broke club records and sent a bunch of players to the Pro Bowl while failing to get close enough even to need outside help to break into the playoffs.
McDermott and Beane, each in his first year on the job, envisioned their plan and encouraged their players to execute it unlike any combination since Wade Phillips and John Butler at the end of last century.
Most coaches wouldn't be ready to discuss next year while still twisting in the moment of a defeat 20 minutes earlier, but McDermott is known as a master planner. Win or lose Sunday, he had an offseason calendar ready to go.
So I asked him where The Process goes from here.
"The biggest thing we want to do," McDermott said, "is get with Brandon on some things and make sure that we've got a good, solid evaluation of who we are, and what we've got to do to improve moving forward."
The Bills on opening day fielded the NFL's third-oldest roster behind only the Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers.
But the Bills own four draft choices in the first two rounds. They hold an extra fifth-rounder.
Buffalo, of course, must overhaul its offense. Perhaps that will include replacing offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
McDermott seemed perturbed about the decision to pass on first-and-goal from Jacksonville's 1-yard line.
Taylor challenged star cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
"Concerning that No. 20 [Ramsey] was out there," said Bills running back LeSean McCoy, "I thought we were going to run it. He is a hell of a player, but we didn't run it."
Kelvin Benjamin was flagged for offensive pass interference, pushing the ball back to the 11 and eventually leading to a Stephen Hauschka field goal instead of a touchdown.
"There's some calls we want back," McDermott said. "That's probably one of them."
Taylor may have played his last game for Buffalo. Wobbled when his head bounced off the ground, he was escorted to the locker room with 1:17 left in the game.
Buffalo also must upgrade at receiver and will scrutinize the right side of the offensive line.
But McDermott's defense, piloted by coordinator Leslie Frazier, is a run stuffer and perhaps a linebacker away from being special.
The Bills strategized sufficiently enough Sunday to overcome their chief shortcoming, the NFL's fourth-worst run defense.
Rookie running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns despite missing three games. Buffalo held him to 57 yards on 21 attempts.
Who could have predicted Blake Bortles would rush for a career-high 88 yards, while throwing for 87 yards?
"We just need to have better lane discipline more than anything," McDermott said of Bortles' scrambles, "but that’s not what won the game."
Buffalo's entire secondary was new this season but played like they've been together for years. Strong safety Micah Hyde was voted to the Pro Bowl. Free safety Jordan Poyer, named the AFC's top defensive player for December, should have made the Pro Bowl roster. Left cornerback Tre'Davious White is a top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
White nearly intercepted Bortles late in the first half, but Jaguars receiver Dede Westbrook made a terrific play to break it up. Backup safety Colt Anderson, in for a concussed Hyde, had another potential interception go through his hands with 9:51 to play.
A single takeaway might have changed that game. Perhaps that would've been enough to compensate for Buffalo's anemic offense.
"The difference between our defense and their defense was turnovers," Alexander said. "They had two big ones. We had two opportunities and wasn't able to convert.
"Also, in the red zone, they stood up, and we gave up a touchdown. Those three plays, if we rise up, the outcome of this game is very different."
Buffalo nearly stopped Jacksonville on the goal line.
Marrone, criticized for how conservatively he coached with Buffalo, went for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1 late in the third quarter. Bortles faked a handoff to Fournette and connected with blocking tight end Ben Koyack in the end zone.
The only stranger way for Marrone to beat the Bills would've been on a fake punt.
Anyway, the season is over.
The future awaits.
The Bills go into 2018 with the uncommon sensation of knowing who their coach and GM are – although we haven't fully learned what they're all about – and being heartened by what we've experienced the previous four months.
"It's been such a tremendous ride, and it's been so fun to battle with these guys," Bills left guard Richie Incognito said. "I felt like through the adversity we faced all year, it drew this group tighter, and guys took it upon themselves and took it personal.
"That's how we are, walking out the door. People were saying we weren't going to win anything. I am proud of the leaders on this team and proud of the guys. We fought our butts off to get here, and it's not satisfactory just to get here and lose."
Story topics: Andy Dalton/ Ben Koyack/ Blake Bortles/ Brandon Beane/ Colt Anderson/ Dede Westbrook/ doug marrone/ Jalen Ramsey/ Jim Schwartz/ John Butler/ Jordan Poyer/ Kelvin Benjamin/ Kyle Williams/ Leonard Fornette/ LeSean McCoy/ Leslie Frazier/ Lorenzo Alexander/ Micah Hyde/ Mike Mularkey/ Mike Pettine/ Richie Incognito/ Rick Dennison/ Sean McDermott/ Stephen Hauschka/ Tre'davious White/ Tyler Boyd/ Tyrod Taylor/ Wade Phillips