The Buffalo Bills have officially clinched the AFC East for the third consecutive season. There are still two games remaining in the regular season, but the rest of the division has not been able to keep up with the Bills’ six-game winning streak, leading to a 12-3 record through Week 16.
Buffalo traveled to face the Chicago Bears this past weekend for a freezing Christmas Eve matchup against a team void of much success. It was a must-win showdown against a quarterback who’s been a threat to tally the greatest rushing season in the history of the league at his position. The AFC’s No. 1 seed was able to stall quarterback Justin Fields on the ground throughout the day, while the offense sputtered through the first half. It wasn’t until the second half where Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey figured out that Chicago’s defense had zero answers for Buffalo’s rushing attack. It felt like a game where records could have been set with more volume — the Bills ran for 254 yards on 31 carries Saturday afternoon.
Three rookies played a role in the tean’s success on Saturday, with familiar faces being the catalysts for success. Let’s talk rookie performances from a big 35-13 win over the Bears.
CB Kaiir Elam
Elam seemed to have a solid game on Saturday. Fields did very little in the passing game throughout the afternoon, going 15-of-23 for 119 yards. The Bears hit two passing plays of 20-plus yards. One of those plays was with Elam trailing fellow rookie Velus Jones Jr. in coverage. The Bills were clearly in a zone coverage, likely with matching rules since Elam trailed Jones on a crosser to the other side of the field. Fields placed a beautiful ball between Elam and a sinking Tre’Davious White. It’s difficult to dictate fault on the play without a true look at All-22 to determine what coverage Buffalo ran. That 44-yard play given up was the only passing play Elam was really involved in. He was relatively quiet the rest of the game, a good sign for a corner’s play on the day.
Elam will have a huge test against the Cincinnati Bengals’ receiving corps on the national stage next Monday night. That will be a big gut check for the Florida alum.
RB James Cook
Second-round pick James Cook is now flexing his muscles down the home stretch of the regular season. Another dazzling performance saw Cook nearly achieve his first 100-yard rushing milestone. Though it didn’t happen, he did score his second touchdown on the ground of the season. 11 carries for 99 yards will do just fine for Cook. He’s seeing things develop in front of him at a much higher level. He’s also getting more opportunity to show off his coveted athleticism and set runs up for himself. It’s a night-and-day shift for Cook from Week 1 to the latter stages of the 2022 season.
Watch the video below. Left tackle Dion Dawkins takes on immediate penetration from the rusher pushing inside — playing into his leverage. Cook makes a quick cut to avoid the penetration, then sticks his foot in the ground just as he gets the defensive tackle to peek his way. Before the defensive tackle can react, Cook is through the hole and taking off for an easy first down. Cook has a subtle running style, but he’s explosive, and he’s really starting to get what it means to be a back at the NFL level.
Bills rookie James Cook with another splash play against the Bears. His lateral quickness and ability to accelerate are popping today.— Seven Rounds in Heaven (@7RoundsInHeaven) December 24, 2022
The second-round pick out of Georgia has 55 yards from scrimmage on 4 touches in the first half. pic.twitter.com/5RsdVMjBHP
LB Terrel Bernard
Bernard continues to be a factor on special teams, but he’s not going to be one on defense this year. Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano are healthy. Bernard will look to see what role he can carve for himself in 2023.
WR Khalil Shakir
Shakir made a notable play for the first time in weeks for the Bills in this game. He scored on a two-point conversion on the first score of the second half to pull the Bills ahead, 14-10. A coverage bust resulted in the fifth-rounder being wide open to tiptoe the back of the end zone. Shakir also had a five-yard reception in this game. It’s not going to show big in the stat sheet, but Shakir has made plays when his number’s been called. I’m still high on Shakir’s future with the Bills.
CB Christian Benford
Benford remains on Injured Reserve with an oblique injury. There may be room for him to crack the rotation once again upon returning, since the cornerbacks room hasn’t necessarily lit the world on fire this season. Benford could still return during the regular season, but that hasn’t been something guaranteed by head coach Sean McDermott.
LB Baylon Spector
Spector is now amongst the consistent healthy scratches with the addition of A.J. Klein back to the linebacker room. A healthy Edmunds and Milano does not trend in Spector’s favor. He beat the odds of making the team in the preseason. It will be interesting to see if he can vault himself to another roster spot in 2023.