CLEVELAND – The NFL can be unforgiving for teams that struggle to score.
The Buffalo Bills are a classic example.
Sure, they have a 6-3 record, which qualifies as a successful season so far. But look harder and you see a major flaw that showed itself, once again, in their 19-16 loss against the Cleveland Browns.
"Everybody knows that you have to score more than 16 to win in this league," Josh Allen told reporters.
Here's a stat that drives the point home: When the Bills have failed to produce 20 points this season, their record is 2-3. The offense actually scored only 14 points, because two came via a safety when linebacker Tremaine Edmunds tackled Baker Mayfield in the end zone.
The fact they haven't hit the 20-point threshold in more than half their games is beyond disturbing.
Sean McDermott, whose team has scored fewer than 20 points 23 times since he became the Bills' coach in 2017 and is 6-17 in those games, wasted no time addressing the offensive anemia after the game.
"We didn't score enough points today," McDermott told reporters at the start of his news conference. "There were some good things, but overall (there were) too many opportunities that we didn't capitalize on. We had some third-and-manageables in there throughout the game, and we didn't come away with either the first down or points. We had some penalties in there that also hurt us, I thought.
"We have to be a threat to score more points."
That the Bills are anything but a scoring threat is a poor reflection of their offensive talent and coaching. Mainly, it's an indictment of the play of Allen, who only seems to ratchet up questions about whether he is, in fact, the long-term franchise quarterback answer the Bills were convinced he could become when they made him the seventh overall pick of the 2018 NFL draft.
After coming up short in a first head-to-head duel with that draft's top pick, Mayfield – who rebounded from a terrible showing through most of the Browns' 3-6 start to lead a game-winning, 82-yard drive and deliver a decisive touchdown pass with 1:44 left – Allen was candid in addressing his own shortcomings.
"There were opportunities in that game where I have to be better," Allen said. "I have to put our offense in better situations, and I just didn't do that today."
He completed 22 of 41 passes for a career-high 266 yards. He had no touchdown throws, but ran for two scores. He had a passer rating of 73.8, his lowest since the loss to New England in Week 4.
However, the numbers don't tell the whole story of futility when it comes to his passing arm.
Allen remains locked in a troubling pattern of issues. Unless he escapes – which doesn't appear imminent, if it happens at all – the Bills' promising start could unravel. And fast.
The balance of the schedule offers ample chances for the Bills to get enough traction to make a run at the postseason and the Bills lead the AFC wild-card standings by a game. Yet, as poorly as Allen and the rest of the offense is playing, they could easily lose against the seemingly soft or semi-soft touches left, such as the Miami Dolphins, Denver Broncos and New York Jets.
Allen still misfires badly on longer throws. He still doesn't show consistently good decision-making on where and when to deliver passes. He still has problems with ball security.
Allen overthrows his speedy targets on deep routes so often, it no longer looks like something that can be corrected with some extra practice work. It looks like a fundamental drawback that has become painful to watch.
"If I could pinpoint it, I'd probably be hitting them," Allen admitted. "I don't know if I'm super anxious about under-throwing it and getting an interception, or I don't know. The ball comes out and it feels good, and the ball just kind of sails and carries a little longer than I think, so it's something that I've got to continue to work on."
Ditto for ball security.
Allen had the ball stripped while running on third-and-10 from the Browns' 11 with six minutes left. Fortunately for him, guard Jon Feliciano pounced on the ball at the 1, giving the Bills a first down. Two plays later, Allen ran for a touchdown to give the Bills a 16-12 lead.
The fumble was Allen's 11th of the season.
"I have to do a better job, plain and simple," he said. "On that third-down play, thankfully Jon was in good enough position to go and get that with the hustle that he showed. That was a very selfless play from him. I have to be careful of everyone's arms trying to hit the ball out."
To that end, quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey has used a stick to swat at the ball as Allen runs with it in practice. But Allen said replicating what defenders do in games is difficult because "they're swinging a lot harder in games, and they're bigger and tougher."
McDermott didn't do any dissecting of Allen's games with the media. He stuck to the central theme of the largest problem the Bills have faced since the season began.
"Really, when you look at it, we have to score more points," McDermott said. "However we do that – running it, throwing it – we have to be more of a threat to score points."
No matter how you look at it, the discussion is always going to begin with the quarterback. Allen makes no attempt to avoid it. Fingers are being pointed in his direction.
"We've got to find ways to complete the ball more," Allen said. "That's on me. Taking advantage of the opportunities that we have downfield, on me. That's basically what it comes down to. Your quarterback gives your team a chance to win in today's league, and I didn't make enough plays for our team."
He hasn't been making them for the better part of nine games. The Bills aren't likely to get away with that being the case for most, if not all, of their remaining games.