Nobody, as Chris Berman likes to remind us ad nauseum, circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills. And after the ESPN anchor’s adopted team beat the stuffing out of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving to improve to 9-3, droves of converted skeptics (including moi) are jumping on those (band)wagons.
NBC has decided the Bills are ready-for-prime-time players, flexing their Dec. 15 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers to Sunday Night Football. And this week’s highly anticipated game against the torrid, Lamar Jackson-led Baltimore Ravens has prompted a spike in national media credential requests.
These are indeed heady times for the Bills, who not only have become national media darlings, but perhaps destiny’s darlings.
Things have unfolded rather nicely for a franchise that finally ended a 17-year playoff famine two years ago and is 95 percent assured of returning to the playoffs this season. Yes, you can dump Lake Effect snow on their record and rail that they’ve beaten a bunch of patsies, but they are, as legendary coach Bill Parcells was wont to say, what their record says they are. Only five teams have more wins than Buffalo.
And the whip cream on the pumpkin pie for Bills fans came last Sunday night as they watched a frustrated Tom Brady throw incompletions and temper tantrums during the New England Patriots’ loss to the Houston Texans. I’m not quite ready to dig a grave for the Pats dynasty. Heaven knows, we’ve plunged shovels into earth several times before only to watch Bill Belichick have the last laughs by hoisting Lombardi Trophies at Super Bowls. But it is obvious Brady’s bunch has issues at receiver and along its banged-up offensive line. And these issues may not have immediate solutions, especially now that this season’s deadline has officially passed for Hall-of-Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski to come out of retirement.
The Bills, meanwhile, have been trending up, though new challenges await and more skeptics will need to be won over. Their next three opponents, starting with Sunday’s Ravens game at jacked-up New Era Field, are a combined 27-9. And one of those games will be against the wounded-but-still-formidable Patriots in Foxboro on Dec. 21. It’s plausible to believe the Bills could split their final four games, beating the Steelers on the road and the grounded Jets in the regular-season finale at New Era. That would give Buffalo 11 wins and the opportunity for its first post-season victory since 1995. Imagine that?
A playoff victory would be another step in this amazingly rapid reclamation project engineered by coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, who should merit serious consideration for NFL coach- and executive-of-the-year honors if the magic continues.
We figured the defense, under McDermott, would be good again, and it has. It really shined against the Cowboys, who entered the game with the top-ranked offense. The Bills forced three turnovers, including a strip-sack fumble by rookie first-round defensive tackle Ed Oliver. After a slow start to the season, in which he saw his snap-count drastically reduced, Oliver has bounced back with a vengeance. Don’t look now, but he has 5.5 sacks, with four coming in the last three games. The Bills are getting more pressure on the quarterback and beginning to force more turnovers — good signs as they prepare for the stretch run.
But the biggest cause for optimism is Josh Allen’s development. The second-year quarterback proved on Thanksgiving that the national stage wasn’t too big for him. In the most efficient game of his brief NFL career, he completed 79 percent of his passes for 231 yards and two scores, and continued to show his dual-threat value, rushing for 43 yards, including a touchdown and a crucial first down after a botched snap. During the Bills’ three-game win-streak, he has completed 67 percent of his passes and had six touchdowns and one interception. He’s also rushed for 155 yards and two scores, giving him eight rushing TDs, most by any quarterback.
Here are some other stats that denote progress. In Allen’s first 12 NFL games, he completed 52.8 percent of his passes and had 10 TD tosses and 12 interceptions. In the dozen games since, he has completed 61.5 percent of his throws, and had 16 touchdowns and just eight picks.
He clearly has been helped by the addition of veteran receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, who have combined for 116 receptions for 1,517 yards and 10 touchdowns. (Two more reasons why Beane should receive executive-of-the-year consideration.) But Allen deserves credit, too. He works extremely hard at his craft, and all that extra time is paying dividends. The bottom line is that the Bills no longer are winning in spite of him, but because of him, and that bodes well during this challenging stretch, especially Sunday, when they’ll probably need to score more than 24 points in order to beat the dynamic Ravens.
This is an intriguing matchup, featuring two of the league’s hottest teams and two promising quarterbacks. McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier will have their hands full devising a plan for slowing down Jackson, who not only is the most elusive running quarterback of all-time, but also one of the league’s top passers, with 25 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. Given Allen’s progress, this might be a game where McDermott and coordinator Brian Daboll take the reins off him a bit more, realizing they are going to need the offense to carry more of the load than usual.
Of course, the narrative also will focus on Jackson versus Allen. Interestingly, they were ranked below Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield and Josh Rosen in that bountiful quarterback class of 2018. For this season, at least, Jackson and Allen appear be at the head of that class.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.