Well before the Buffalo Bills week 7 tilt against the Jacksonville Jaguars kicked off in London people were calling it a ‘make or break’ game. A ‘must win’ for a .500 team looking to keep afloat despite a rash of injuries that’s decimated its lineup early in the year.
The 34-31 loss to Jacksonville was heartbreaking in every way imaginable, and only magnified the fact that Buffalo needs its playmakers back on the field and in a hurry. Despite the disappointment and a long bye week before the team gets back onto the field, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel if you look close enough.
Here are 4 reasons the Bills playoff hopes are still alive and honestly far from over:
AFC is Wide Open: Playoff spots in the weak AFC are still up for grabs as one of the two wildcard spots is what Buffalo will likely be trying to land. As it stands, the Cincinnati Bengals (6-0), Denver Broncos (6-0), and New England Patriots (6-0) all have a firm grasp on their respective divisions. The Indianapolis Colts (3-4) are leading and will probably win in a vulnerable AFC South where the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans, and Jacksonville Jaguars don’t really pose much of a long-haul playoff threat.
The real competition for Rex Ryan’s squad will come from within the division, as the New York Jets (4-2) and the rejuvenated Miami Dolphins (3-3) are both looking tough. The Bills have three combined games left against these two opponents and for what it’s worth, Ryan is 5-2 against Fitzpatrick when he was in Buffalo with former HC Chan Gailey and Miami is visiting the Ralph next, where they’ve lost the last three times they visited.
Remaining teams you should be consistently rooting against as Bills fans’ are the Pittsburgh Steelers (4-3), who return Ben Roethlisberger to the lineup and the Oakland Raiders (3-3), a young and exciting team with plenty of potential. Typical fixtures in the AFC playoff picture, the Kansas City Chiefs (2-5), San Diego Chargers (2-5) and Baltimore Ravens (1-6) are also struggling, which only benefits the boys in blue. I would expect the Philip Rivers-led ‘Bolts to make a late push but without Jamal Charles I don’t think the Chiefs can hang.
Moral of the story is that if Buffalo can right its ship, it’s very much still alive in the playoff picture as nobody besides the divisional leaders have pulled away from the pack.
Get healthy, Get wins: This is a pretty simple concept. If your star players are on the field then you have a much better chance to win the game. In that respect, the Bills bye-week couldn’t have come at a better time as the team is nursing injuries to its starting quarterback, top-two receivers, starting right tackle, starting defensive tackle and starting safety and cornerback. That along with LeSean McCoy missing two weeks and promising-rookie running back Karlos Williams still out with a concussion suffered during week four make it a great time to get healthy.
When Tyrod Taylor, Sammy Watkins, Percy Harvin and Williams are on the field along with McCoy and Charles Clay, this Buffalo offense looks way different than what the world saw in London. Say what you will about the recent ESPN story covering the most injured teams through week six that had the Bills ranked at 26th, as it doesn’t really account for players worth, i.e., a starting quarterback is not considered more valuable than a lineman, according to the list. Buffalo might not have the highest number injured players on the roster but it’s sure hurting where it counts.
One the other side of the ball the defense has been getting torched by opposing team’s second and third receivers through the air. Ronald Darby and Stephon Gilmore have mostly done a good job of locking up their guys but the nickel and dime backs are having a tough time in coverage. If Leodis McKelvin, who just starting practicing again, can return to full game-speed he could be a serious asset in those passing packages. The veteran cornerback has played at a very high level over the last couple seasons despite battling a rash of injuries.
Additionally, getting All-Pro defensive tackle Kyle Williams back after the bye (hopefully) bolsters the cold front and although it seems like a pipe dream, a week 14 return of Aaron Williams could be huge. Buffalo is missing way too many tackles and the safety’s presence changes that. Bottom line if this team can ever get and stay healthy, it can play with anyone in the NFL.
Team won’t be Easily Rattled: Looking up and down the Bills roster you’ll see plenty of veterans and players with experience. There’s a nice mix of young talent and guys who’ve logged hours battling on the gridiron. From Rex and Greg Roman’s playoff experience down to Corey Graham’s Super Bowl XLVII ring, this group won’t be rattled by a couple tough losses.
Just look at the team’s starter Tyrod Taylor, a man who sat patiently behind Joe Flacco for four years only to burst on the scene with production and accuracy in his first substantial NFL action. This is the guy who everyone told to switch positions when coming out of Virginia Tech. There’s a lot yet to accomplish but if #5 had caved to all the doubters he wouldn’t be in the current position he’s in to lead a franchise. As we saw most recently against Tennessee, a little bit of struggle won’t hold him down forever.
Beyond the leader of the offense you’ve got players like Mario and Kyle Williams, who have both been in the league since 2006 and are still playing at a high level. That motor won’t stop. LeSean McCoy has competed in the playoffs before and even the team’s youngsters from Florida State like Darby and Karlos played in two NCAA National Championship games over the past two seasons. This isn’t your same old rag-tag group of Bills that typically fades down the stretch.
Defense is Coming Together: Rex Ryan’s defense has shouldered a lot of the blame so far this season and some of it has definitely been warranted. And despite giving up the winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville, this squad tightened up and limited Blake Bortles to 13 of 29 passing for 182 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
The Jags didn’t score for over thirty minutes of game play and while the run defense in week seven wasn’t elite, this group has been tough on the ground all year and with Kyle Williams hopefully set to return it shouldn’t be a major concern. Overall, they allowed 20 points to the offense and you could argue only 13 when considering the short field E.J. Manuel’s second interception left them to defend.
Along the Cold Front just about everyone has voiced their concerns about rushing the quarterback more and it looks like Dennis Thurman and Rex have adjusted. Not to say the defense won’t still scheme with exotic packages but you pay the defensive line to hit the quarterback, not to constantly just take up gaps and defenders. Bortles is a mobile quarterback who doesn’t mind being blitzed but they were able to record two sacks, multiple hits and also drew a few holding flags (it should have been more). It looked somewhat familiar to the Bills defensive line we all know and love.
There also been some pre-snap communication problems that this squad will have some extra time to work through with the bye. I fully expect this defense to have a better second half of the season.
Outlook: There’s no doubt the Buffalo Bills will need to win some big games down the stretch. They have a knack for surprising top tier opponents but need to stay consistent week to week for each matchup. At this moment it doesn’t look like they’re in bad shape in regards to tie-breakers either so if the players can get healthy and get on a roll anything is possible. With the AFC realtively weak this season it wouldn’t take much for Rex’s team to steal one of those two wildcard spots and break this hideous drought.