In the preseason, dogged by injuries to key players and facing another uncertain year, the Buffalo Bills looked an unlikely candidate for playoff contention. After a shaky start, with consecutive losses to the Ravens and the Jets, they now enter week 7 with an impressive 4-2 record and a chance of clinching their first playoff spot in 16 years. When questioned in the post game press conference following their week 6 beat down of the San Fransisco 49ers, Bills’ head coach Rex Ryan was uncharacteristically restrained in his response: “Long, long way,’’ he said. “We have to focus on the job at hand and the opponent in front of us. It’s all about Miami and that’s it. The other stuff, there’s no sense in even thinking about that. We’re not even close to that.’’ However, when you consider the way the Bills are playing and opportunities to extend their winning record, could 2016 herald the return of the Bills to the NFL post season?
The analytics sites certainly see this as a likely outcome. Fivethirtyeight.com gives Buffalo a 72% chance of making the playoffs, given their current record, score differential and the nature of their wins so far. They predict a 10-6 record to be enough to grab the AFC Wildcard spot. Footballoutsiders.com gives Buffalo an even high chance; 75.7%, the second highest in the AFC behind the Patriots. This has been steadily rising week on week.
If the Bills were to play .500 football for the rest of the season, they would finish 9-7, which has been enough for the wildcard spot in the past, although 10 or 11 wins is more likely to be needed. It won’t be entirely straight forward as the next segment of their schedule is tougher than the first six games and they have so far only beaten one team with a winning record. That was the shut out of the Patriots in week 4, with Garropolo injured and Brady suspended. Going forward, Buffalo face difficult road games against the Raiders (4-2) and Seahawks (4-1) and a matchup with the Steelers (4-2) as well as a second game against the Patriots (5-1), with Brady back at the helm. Games against the Bengals (2-4) and Raiders are critical conference tie-breakers after the earlier loss to Baltimore. However, despite these more challenging opponents, they also face the Jets (1-5) and Miami (2-4) twice in the AFC East division as well as the Browns (0-6) and Jaguars (2-3). In short, it is definitely do able, as long as the Bills do not drop any of these statistically more ‘winnable’ games. The Patriots game in week 8, assuming a victory over Miami in week 7, could be key as it would improve the Bills’ record to 6-2 and also secure their first season sweep of New England since 1999. A Bills loss to New England wouldn’t be crippling for their playoff hopes, but it would put Buffalo back in familiar territory, chasing the division-leading Patriots into November.
The last time the Bills finished their first-half schedule at least tied for first place in the AFC East was 2011 so in order to make the most of the opportunity with which they find themselves, the Bills will have to continue to show the development they have since their week 1 and 2 losses. Rex Ryan described the San Francisco game as having ‘washed off the last of the dirt’ from those defeats. The Bills are certainly rolling on both sides of the ball. Running back LeSean McCoy ranks second in the NFL for rushing yards (behind Ezekiel Elliot) and is proving difficult to defend, as is the complete rushing attack who rank number one in the league. McCoy ran rings around the 49ers defense on Sunday. On the defensive side, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander is leading the league in sacks and they are consistently pressuring opposing QBs. Coaching changes, following the two initial defeats, have also had an impact. The replacement of Greg Roman with Anthony Lynn as offensive coordinator simplified the offensive scheme. They did something similar on defensive, giving play calling duties to Dennis Thurman. A more straightforward approach on both sides on the ball, has played dividends; the Bills have had four straight wins and have outscored opponents 124-53 in these victories.
As with every team, a little bit of luck is also required, to ensure no further key players get injured. Specifically the loss of QB Tyrod Taylor and RB LeSean McCoy would be terminal to the offense. But that is just the nature of the NFL and something largely out of the teams’ control. What Buffalo can control is continuing to perform on the field and show that the first half of the season was no fluke. If they can prove they are able to stand up against more accomplished opponents, don’t be surprised if we see Bills Mafia alive and well in January.
photo credit: www.buffalobills.com