ORCHARD PARK — We’ve been here before.
The Buffalo Bills have caught fire and once again feel like one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL, with back-to-back wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys. The offense has found the consistency it was lacking earlier in the season and has averaged 29.3 points per game since Joe Brady took over for fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.
But they’ve been here before.
The Bills were rolling after a 48-20 thrashing of the previously unbeaten Miami Dolphins. After the game, the Bills poo-pooed the notion of a letdown game, even if it involved flying to London to face the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had a one week head start.
They lost that game and four of the next seven afterwards to put their playoff hopes in jeopardy.
Now the Bills are coming off a 31-10 win over the previously sizzling Cowboys, with winnable games against the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots before a showdown with the Dolphins in Week 18 that could determine Buffalo’s playoff fate, and potentially, the AFC East.
The Chargers are without their star quarterback Justin Herbert and receiver Keenan Allen, while coming off a 63-21 walloping at the hands of the Las Vegas Raiders that resulted in the firing of general manager Tom Telesco and head coach Brandon Staley.
Maybe the Chargers will get a bump from interim coach Giff Smith or the embarrassment of losing by 42 points. And maybe the Bills know the next two games are winnable and will take their foot off the gas.
Buffalo currently has a 63% chance to make the playoffs and have a better than 99% chance if they win their remaining three games, according to Upshot’s playoff simulator. Those odds drop below 30% if they lose to either the Chargers or Patriots and the Bills are aware, no matter how much they say only the next game matters.
“Every game from here on out is a playoff game for us,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen said. “That’s the mentality that we have. It’s essentially win or go home. So again, we got to be prepared for every punch that the Chargers can throw at us and be able to respond and adjust accordingly in game. So, yeah, we have to be ready.”
The Chargers, despite being 5-9 and losers of five of their last six games, still have stars on defense, namely edge rusher Khalil Mack and safety Derwin James. Mack, at 32 years old, is experiencing a career resurgence. The Buffalo alum is No. 3 in the NFL with 15 sacks, his first season with double-digits since 2018.
But Los Angeles No. 29 in the league in total defense and 30th in passing defense, allowing 261.4 yards per game. Although the Chargers are 19th in rushing defense, they have surrendered more than 100 yards in six consecutive games after doing so twice in the first eight contests.
So, a defense surrendering 146.2 yards on the ground since Week 10 now meets a Bills offense averaging 175.8 over their last five games. James Cook, who is battling an illness after rushing for a career-high 179 yards against Dallas, has 222 yards receiving and three touchdowns on 16 receptions and is facing a defense that has allowed the second-most yards receiving to running backs in the NFL (679).
“You have to take every measure each week to play your best football whether it’s last week or this week, because if you’re not on your A game, it shows up rather quickly and then you head to the buses with sour faces and everything,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “There’s a way to get the results in this league and it starts with putting in the work and earning the right to win.”
Meanwhile, a Buffalo defense that has surrendered one 300-yard passer all season squares off with Chargers backup quarterback Easton Stick, who made his first start last week after Herbert was placed on injured reserve with a fractured finger.
Stick, a 2019 fifth-round pick, finished a respectable 23 of 32 for 257 yards, three touchdowns, an interception and a fumble. But 182 of those yards came in the second half, when the Chargers already trailed the Raiders 42-0 at halftime.
Typically a defense will study three or four games of film on a quarterback, but Stick has 1 ½ games of tape on the record. It’s not nothing, but not ideal. But Stick will be without NFL receptions leader Keenan Allen and Los Angeles’s running game averages just 3.8 yards per carry, making the offense predictable.
“You just try and really focus on the scheme and just going off his eyes,” Bills safety Cam Lewis said. “With him, he does really lock into a lot of his first reads. Wherever he’s looking, that’s where he’s kind of going.”
Who to root for
The Bills enter Week 16 as one of five AFC teams with an 8-6 record, but are ninth in the conference due to tiebreaker losses. So, even if Buffalo wins out, it will still need some help along the way.
Cincinnati Bengals (8-6) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-7), 4:30 p.m., Saturday: The Bengals currently occupy the No. 6 seed and own a head-to-head win over the Bills. Led by quarterback Jake Browning, Cincinnati has surprisingly won three in a row without Joe Burrow. The Steelers, meanwhile, are turning to third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph to snap a skid of three losses in four games. Upshot projects Buffalo’s chances to make the playoffs improve to 67% with a Pittsburgh win and 57% with a Bengals win.
Indianapolis Colts (8-6) at Atlanta Falcons (6-8), 1 p.m., Sunday: Another team with a backup quarterback, the Colts have won four out of five with Gardner Minshew at the helm. Since Atlanta is an NFC team, it’s a no-brainer as to who the Bills need to win. But Atlanta has had its own quarterback issues and has lost five of seven after dropping a 9-7 game to the Panthers last week.
Cleveland Browns (9-5) at Houston Texas (8-6), 1 p.m., Sunday: The Bills actually want the Browns to win this game, and if they do, their playoff odds increase to 65%, compared to 59% with a Texans win. Houston will be without starting quarterback C.J. Stroud (concussion) for the second game in a row and still has a Week 18 date with the Colts.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7), 4:05 p.m., Sunday: Another no-brainer. The Jaguars may also be without starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence (concussion) against a Buccaneers team that currently leads the AFC South.
Dallas Cowboys (10-4) at Miami Dolphins (10-4), 4:25 p.m., Sunday: This one couldn’t be more obvious. A Dallas win only bumps Buffalo’s playoff chances to 64%, compared to 61% with a loss. But if Buffalo wins out and Miami loses at least one of its next two, the AFC East will be up for grabs when the teams meet in Week 18.
If the Bills beat the Chargers and all five of the aforementioned scenarios go to plan, their odds to make the playoffs jump to 86%.