The Buffalo Bills have a penchant for exceeding their fans’ expectations while simultaneously (and ironically) making fans feel as if the team should have a better record than it does. This season is a perfect example; while most Bills fans would have expected that the team would be worse than 3-2 going into its bye week, the Bills have somehow managed to exceed meager expectations while also making us feel as if their record is a let-down.
With the Bills within a half-game of first place in the division, they enter a portion of their schedule that will truly define what this season becomes. The next five games include three home contests, a road game against a 1-4 team, and a primetime road tilt with another division foe currently exceeding expectations. If the Bills want to be taken seriously in contending for their first playoff berth since the 1999 season, they’ll need to win four of these games. Does that seem extreme? Of course it does. Could the Bills win 3 of those games and still be in playoff contention? Absolutely. However, if the team is able to pull off a 4-1 stretch, they’d sit at 7-3 before entering an absolutely brutal back stretch of the schedule.
In Week seven, Buffalo hosts a difficult-to-peg Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad. They have a solid young quarterback in Jameis Winston (who may or may not play), excellent receiving weapons in Mike Evans, Cameron Brate, O.J. Howard, and DeSean Jackson, and a solid running game led by recently-reinstated Doug Martin. However, it’s the defensive unit that has let them down so far—and this is a theme that will continue throughout this stretch of Buffalo’s schedule—as the Bucs’ defense currently ranks 30th in yards allowed per game and 14th in points allowed per game.
The Bills then host some familiar faces in Week eight, when the Oakland Raiders come to town. With quarterback Derek Carr expected to play this week against the Los Angeles Chargers, the fun of an EJ Manuel reunion is less likely; however, Marshawn Lynch will return to Orchard Park for the first time since he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks in 2010 (Beast Mode did run for 113 yards and a touchdown in a 50-17 drubbing during the 2012 season, but that “home game” was in Toronto). The Raiders’ defense has also struggled this season, ranking 23rd in yards per game and 16th in points per game.
On a short week, the Bills will take the short flight from Buffalo to New Jersey to take on the suddenly-tough-at-home New York Jets in Week 9. Many Bills fans will want to circle this game as a victory, but this game will probably be a fight. The Jets have improved quite a bit since their Week one loss in Orchard Park, and they are 2-1 at home this year (with a tilt against the New England Patriots on Sunday serving as the first blemish on that record). The Jets defense is 25th in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed.
Week 10 brings a matchup with the New Orleans Saints. Playing this one in the friendly confines of New Era Field gives the Bills a much more favorable matchup than if the game were played on the fast-track of the Superdome in Louisiana, but the Saints can’t be taken lightly regardless. The Saints have allowed a ton of yards (29th in YPG) but not as many points (11th in PPG), and their offense is just as potent as ever. With this game, the Bills will have had four straight matchups in the northeast.
A Week 11 road contest with the Los Angeles Chargers is no easy task, but it may not be as difficult as it would have been in years past. When the Bills were playing in front of a sold-out crowd of fiery San Diego fans, it provided a truly hostile road environment. Playing in front of (maybe) 20,000 apathetic fans in Los Angeles takes away any home-field advantage Philip Rivers and company would enjoy. A solid offense has been undermined by a porous defense, as the Chargers rank 24th and 21st in yards per game and points per game, respectively.
All five of those games are winnable. If the Bills want a legitimate shot at the playoffs, they’ll need to win four of them, and at the very least, they’ll need all three of the AFC games. 9-7 with a solid conference record could squeak in as a wild card in what looks to be a wide-open conference; however, 10-6 will almost certainly earn a playoff spot. If Buffalo beats Tampa Bay, Oakland, and the Jets, then loses to New Orleans before traveling west and beating the Chargers, they will be 7-3 and in fine shape. Why is 7-3 so important? Consider the Bills final six games:
Week 12: @ Kansas City Chiefs
Week 13: vs. New England Patriots
Week 14: vs. Indianapolis Colts
Week 15: vs. Miami Dolphins
Week 16: @ Patriots
Week 17: @ Dolphins
A split record of 3-3 in that stretch is going to be very difficult, and 4-2 would be very impressive (and imply that the Bills are probably going to win the division). Assuming that the Bills will go 2-4 in this stretch, with the wins coming at home versus Indianapolis and Miami, the Bills need to be 7-3 prior to traveling to Kansas City in order to finish at 9-7. Going into Arrowhead at 6-4 gives Buffalo no margin for error.
Even if Buffalo drops both of their remaining NFC contests, giving them a 3-2 mark over the next five games, they can salvage that 9-7 record by beating Miami twice or by knocking off a very vulnerable Patriots squad at least once. Defeating their divisional rivals could even pave the way for Buffalo to win its first divisional title since 1995.
With a difficult back end of the schedule looming, Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy and company will need to step up in order to gut out some tough wins. If they can continue to stay tough until Charles Clay and Jordan Matthews return from injury, we may have playoff football to discuss for the first time in forever.
Are these the “same old Bills”? Is this just the first step in “the process”? Or, will this team do what no team has done since Doug Flutie, Antowain Smith, and Eric Moulds suited up for the squad?
The next five games will answer lots of questions.