The Buffalo Bills were prohibitive favorites in the AFC after Week 5. Now, they likely must beat the New England Patriots in their rematch to make the playoffs.
Win out, or get out.
That’s the reality facing the Buffalo Bills after a loss that went from laughable to excruciating.
For Buffalo, everything remains possible after a 33-27 overtime loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At 7-6, the Bills are the AFC’s No. 7 seed but with a favorable schedule ahead, they have an opportunity to charge hard into the postseason.
However, another slip-up and depending on tiebreakers, Buffalo’s dream season could turn into a full-blown nightmare.
The loss Sunday encapsulated what’s both right and wrong with the Bills. Quarterback Josh Allen put forth a Herculean effort, becoming only the fourth player to ever throw for 300+ yards and rush for 100+ yards in the same game, per CBS. Allen notched 417 total yards and three touchdowns, and left Raymond James Stadium in a walking boot.
Allen was asked to be the aerial assault and the ground attack for Buffalo, largely because the Bills have no faith in their running backs. For the whole game, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll called six designed runs to his backs.
Meanwhile, the defense has long struggled to get a pass rush. This issue has been compounded by the loss of All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White to a torn ACL, as Buffalo now has problems covering as well. The result was Brady throwing for 363 yards and two touchdowns while being sacked twice.
Right now, the Bills are all Allen and nothing else. It’s a recipe for excited, but fatally flawed, football.
Over their final four regular-season games, Buffalo hosts the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and New York Jets. The Bills are likely double-digit favorites in each of those games and barring a stunner, will win them. The real question is whether Buffalo can visit the New England Patriots on Dec. 26 and win at Gillette Stadium.
Should the Bills lose in New England, the realistic best-case scenario is being a wild card team in the crowded AFC field. However, a victory, coupled with running the table and New England losing this Saturday on the road against the Indianapolis Colts, and Buffalo wins the AFC East via the division record tiebreaker.
Again, everything remains in front of Buffalo, but you’d forgive Bills fans who don’t feel that way.
Buffalo was 4-1 to begin the year after thrashing the Kansas City Chiefs, 38-20, at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday Night Football. Allen went wild in the game, Buffalo’s league-best defense forced four turnovers, and the Bills were universally crowned the league’s best team through five weeks.
Since then, it’s been a struggle. Buffalo is 3-5 over its past eight games, including a hideous loss to the 2-11 Jacksonville Jaguars. Both lines have been injured and ineffective, while the Bills have become impossibly reliant on Allen to be a weekly magic show.
Despite the loss of White, the Bills have the requisite talent to make a run in the AFC and be a Super Bowl contender. The problem, though, is obvious. Buffalo is running short on time and long on problems. There is no longer any margin for error.
The Bills can still win it all. To do so, they very well may need to win them all.
Top 10 current postseason victory droughts
1. Cincinnati Bengals (1990)
2. Detroit Lions (1991)
3. Miami Dolphins (2000)
4. Las Vegas Raiders (2002)
5. Washington Football Team (2005)
6. New York Jets (2010, AFCD)
7. Chicago Bears (2010, NFCD)
8. New York Giants (2011)
9. Arizona Cardinals (2015, NFCD)
10. Carolina Panthers (2015, NFCCG)
“Cam. Cam did some good things. Cam had those two turnovers, though. Looking for things not to be catastrophic.”
– Panthers head coach Matt Rhule on Cam Newton still being his starter
Rhule is sticking with Newton, despite having an odd rotation between the former MVP and P.J. Walker. Newton threw an interception and fumbled twice (losing one) in a 29-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, while Walker threw for 75 yards on 12 attempts with a pick.
Hailed as an offensive genius before behind hired away from Baylor last offseason, Rhule has been a disappointment. The Panthers can’t get anything from the quarterback position, downgrading from Teddy Bridgewater to the trio of Sam Darold, Newton and Walker. Rhule’s contract is massive, so he’s entrenched, but Carolina needs more.
From 2001-05, only three receiver to eclipse 1,000 yards in each campaign.
You might have guessed Torry Holt and Marvin Harrison. The other? Derrick Mason. One of the most underrated receivers of his era, Mason finished with eight 1,000-yard campaigns, 69 total touchdowns and 12,061 receiving yards. Not bad.
Info learned this week
1. NFC playoff picture remains a mystery
The NFC playoff picture is a beautiful disaster.
With a huge Monday night game remaining (more on that below), the NFC remains hopelessly bunched up.
Atop the picture, the Arizona Cardinals are 10-2 but would fall to the No. 3 seed with a loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay would both leapfrog Arizona in that scenario, in that order. With a win, however, the Cardinals are atop the conference while the Packers and Bucs remain where they currently are.
Think that’s crazy? Take a look at the wild card situation.
With the San Francisco 49ers beating the Cincinnati Bengals, they move into the No. 6 seed. Behind them? A five-way tie for the No. 7 seed with the Washington Football Team, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles all fighting to make the postseason.
So who has the easiest road of that group?
Both the Eagles and Washington only play games in the NFC East. Big advantage.
After pounding the New York Jets, the Saints visit the Buccaneers and then finish with three below-.500 teams (Miami, Carolina, Atlanta). The Falcons travel for the Niners and Bills, but host the Detroit Lions and Saints. The Vikings get the Chicago Bears twice, but also the Packers and Rams. Finally, San Francisco faces the Titans and Rams, but gets the Falcons and Houston Texans.
All told, seems one of Washington or Philadelphia has the inside track, with the 49ers being in good position as well.
2. Lamar Jackson hurt, yet result says more about Browns
The Baltimore Ravens are holding their breath. Cleveland Browns fans shouldn’t do the same.
In Sunday’s 24-22 loss, the Ravens were without Lamar Jackson for the second half after he left with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Going into the break, Cleveland led 24-6 with the Ravens stuck featuring backup quarterback Tyler Huntley and a 31st-ranked pass defense.
In the second half, the Browns didn’t score a point. Baker Mayfield went 6-of-12 for 47 yards. The Ravens scored two touchdowns and recovered an onside kick before Cleveland finally made a stand to win.
The cliché of a win being a win is certainly true, but it’s also painfully short on context. In a must-win game with Jackson not playing most of the game, the Browns barely won and needed to hang on. They showed no ability to pull away. At 7-6, Cleveland is alive, but it feels like a stay of execution more than anything.
As for the Ravens, Jackson missing any time might keep them from the playoffs. Baltimore sees the Packers this weekend before a trip to Cincinnati, then home games with the Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL for any contender.
3. Chiefs, Chargers set for epic battle on TNF
On Thursday night, the AFC West might well be decided when the Kansas City Chiefs visit the Los Angeles Chargers.
For the Chiefs, they’re riding a six-game win streak after clobbering the Las Vegas Raiders, 48-9. The defense has allowed 13.5 points per game over that span, and only two touchdowns over the past three games. Meanwhile, the offense is beginning to come around, with Patrick Mahomes throwing two touchdowns on Sunday while only missing on four attempts.
For the Chargers, an easy win over the New York Giants sets up an incredible opportunity. Since Justin Herbert and Co. beat the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 3, Los Angeles would pull ahead in the division with a home victory.
Essentially, with a Chiefs’ win, they lead the AFC West by two games. A 2-1 record in any fashion, or a Week 18 victory over the Denver Broncos, and the division is clinched. If the Chargers win, they can run the table and finish off the Chiefs, with only the Raiders, Broncos and Texans in their way.
The victor has a real shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The loser likely faces a long January jaunt on the road.
4. Cardinals, Rams fighting for NFC West on Monday night
For the second consecutive week, a huge divisional battle on Monday night.
It’s time we find out about the Rams, who visit Arizona under the lights. Los Angeles had a great win in September against the Buccaneers, but have been handled since by the only four teams they’ve played with a winning record since Week 3 (Cardinals, Titans, 49ers, Packers). The combined score of those games? 132-74.
If the Rams are going to be a true threat in the NFC playoffs, it’s time to show why. Beating the Jacksonville Jaguars is fun and the score looks imposing, but it’s meaningless. Los Angeles hasn’t posted a quality win in almost three months. Let’s see it happen.
Additionally, the Cardinals can finish off the NFC West in any realistic capacity with a win. At 10-2, Arizona leads Los Angeles by two games and already has a Week 4 win over Sean McVay’s club. Another head-to-head win, and the Cardinals would need one more win — or a Rams loss — to seal the division.
5. One-and-done? The NFL hot seat is blazing in the AFC
In 2007, Cam Cameron and Bobby Petrino were both fired after one season coaching the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons, respectively.
Could we see another offseason of multiple such firings? Heck, could we see three of them?
Both the Jaguars and Texans are sitting at 2-11. In Jacksonville, Urban Meyer has been the epitome of a disaster, seemingly walking into one self-made crisis after the next. Jacksonville might not be willing to eat the remainder of his salary, but is Meyer prepared for more of what is clearly a stunning experience for him?
In Houston, David Culley is 66 years old and wasn’t Houston’s first choice this past winter. Does general manager Nick Caserio go with Culley again, or do the Texans look for a clean break with both their coach and quarterback Deshaun Watson?
Then there’s Robert Saleh and the New York Jets.
First off, it’s unlikely he’s not retained. Saleh is young and was a much-ballyhooed hire less than 12 months ago. Still, the returns have been dismal. Rookie quarterback Zach Wilson has arguably been the league’s worst starter all year, completing a brutal 56.1 percent of his attempts with six touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Furthermore, Saleh is a former defensive coordinator and New York’s defense is almost historically awful. The Jets are allowing 30.5 points and 419.2 yards per game, both league worsts. The Jets probably give Saleh another chance, but they’d be justified in thinking about it.
The Jaguars opened as three-point favorites over the Texans over at WynnBet. Hammer Houston. If you’re getting points against Meyer, you take them.
The narratives about the New England Patriots are all wrong.
Turn on sports television, and the takes start coming. Mac Jones is the next Tom Brady. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are geniuses for throwing only three times in Buffalo. The Patriots aren’t a true contender because they don’t have star playmakers on the outside.
Positive or negative, they’re all missing the truth.
The Patriots are going to be a playoff team, by wild card or division title. They will be riding the strength of their coaching acumen — Belichick isn’t a genius because of his Buffalo plan, he’s a genius because he’s willing to adjust on a game-to-game basis. New England is a physical team in an age where most teams prefer finesse, and it wins based on an efficient offense which compliments a stellar defense.
Come the AFC playoffs, New England is at a disadvantage. Jones isn’t Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen. The Patriots’ best offensive weapons wouldn’t be first or second options for the Chiefs, Bills or Chargers. If the Tennessee Titans are healthy, same for them.
Yet with New England, it won’t beat itself. The Patriots will prey on its opponents making errors. To that end, the Chiefs have the second-most turnovers in football, and the most drops. In Baltimore, Jackson has thrown eight interceptions since the start of November and is now hurt. For the Bills, Allen has also launched eight picks in the past six games.
If the Bills play their best, maybe they beat the Patriots. The Chiefs likely would. But playing your best is awfully difficult, and New England knows it.
Inside the league
Few owners are respected in NFL circles more than John Mara.
Mara, who has owned the New York Giants since taking over for his father, Wellington, in 2005, the team has seen the ultimate peaks and lowest valleys. The Giants won Super Bowls in ’07 and ’11, but have only reached the playoffs once since and have no postseason wins.
Now, Mara needs to prove himself again. The Giants have run through four head coaches since the 2015 season and are soon to be looking for a fifth. Joe Judge is 10-19 and has cratered, losing the fanbase and likely any remaining patience in the building. With general manager Dave Gettleman almost certainly gone come Black Monday, Mara has key hires to make.
New York is desperate for winning football, something neither team is providing. If the Giants are to step up, Mara must open the wallet, broaden his search and find the best replacements for Gettleman and Judge as the Giants have a huge offseason ahead with two first-round picks to utilize.
If Mara fails, New York will once again be a laughingstock.
In 1965, the Baltimore Colts and Green Bay Packers played a Western Conference playoff game that would have broken brains if it happened today.
With Baltimore’s Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas sidelined with an injury going into the contest, halfback Tom Matte took over duties under center for the Colts. Matte’s emergency situation led to the first wristband call sheet in NFL history. Meanwhile, Bart Starr was out for Green Bay after the first series due to a rib injury, giving way to backup Zeke Bratkowski.
Despite the Colts starting a back against Vince Lombardi’s Packers at Lambeau Field in a playoff game, they led 10-7 deep into the fourth quarter. With 1:58 remaining in regulation, Green Bay kicker Don Chandler booted a 31-yard field goal. It sailed wide right. Chandler threw his head back in disgust. Somehow, the officials called it good. Years later, Chandler acknowledged he missed.
In overtime, the Packers won 13-10, this time on an undisputed Chandler kick. It became the first of Green Bay’s three consecutive titles, to this day the only time an NFL team has three-peated.
The AFC North has the makings of a race for the ages.
As aforementioned, the Ravens are 8-5 with Jackson’s uncertain health looming. Below them are the 7-6 Bengals, the 7-6 Browns and the 6-6-1 Steelers.
Over the season’s last four weeks, there are a remarkable four inter-divisional matchups, including two for each squad, all with one home and one away.
What’s perhaps most incredible — and indicative of the entire AFC — is how fluid the situation is. Each one of the four teams could win the AFC North and have a home playoff game. As easily, each could could miss the postseason entirely.
Four weeks left, and so little decided. Hang on.