Bills have inviting path to playoffs

Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills wide receiver Zay Jones, right, is congratulated by teammates after scoring a 26-yard touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Someone smart once said you don’t really know the NFL until Halloween.

The trick or treating is still about two weeks away, but … close enough.

With the Bills now through their bye and playoff sugarplums dancing in the heads of Western New Yorkers everywhere, it seems a reasonable time to examine how Sean McDermott’s crew can finish their hot start with a berth in the postseason.

There are 11 games remaining. I’ll put them in three categories.

The You Better Win Games:

Home against Washington and two vs. Miami

Ryan Fitzpatrick always comes with a full supply of moxie and Washington is unbeaten under interim head coach Bill Callahan, but if the Bills can’t win these three … I mean, c’mon.

The Asking A Lot Games:

At Dallas and at New England

The Bills D is certainly good enough to keep them in any contest this year. However, the Bills are making the longest road trip of any team leaving town for a Thursday game. On a short week, that’s a tough chore against a seemingly pretty good Dallas squad. The Patriots have already beaten Buffalo in Orchard Park, so expecting a Buffalo win in Foxboro seems a bit pie in the sky.

If those go as expected, that makes the Bills 7-3. Which leaves …

The Swing Six:

(Alliteration. It’s a sports crutch, I admit, but it’s working). I’ll list them in order from easiest to hardest (in my opinion).

Home for Denver. The Broncos are two last second field goals from being 4-2 and have a top five defense in yards and passing yards allowed. They won’t be a playoff factor (there’s not a breather on their schedule until week 17), but they are going to be a headache lots of weeks.

Home for the Jets. The difficulty with the Jets is no one really knows what they are right now–the Jets, least of all. They frustrated the Bills for three quarters with C.J. Mosley and Buffalo ran over them without Mosley. Sam Darnold certainly seemed to make a difference in his return against the Cowboys. This game is the season finale. Predicting which Jets team shows up then is a fool’s errand.

At Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh’s four losses are New England, Baltimore, Seattle and San Francisco. It wouldn’t knock you over to see those four teams still standing for the conference championships. Two and a half of those games were without Ben Roethlisberger. You would not expect this Bills defense to be tested by the likes of Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges, but the Steelers could still be plenty feisty at home.

At Cleveland. The Browns are the Steelers without the championship pedigree. Three of their four losses are against the Rams, Niners and Seahawks. Sure, the opening day thumping by Tennessee looks REALLY ugly now, but the Browns also whooped the division leading Ravens in Baltimore. Aaaand… they still have their starting quarterback. Maybe another month of the Baker Mayfield/Freddie Kitchens show cleans up some of the problems.

Home for Baltimore. Like the Bills, the Ravens are off to a hot start thanks a bit to a soft schedule. Their four wins are Miami, Cincy, Arizona and the Big Ben-less Steelers. As mentioned above, a home date with underachieving Browns did not go well. We’ll get a much better read on the Ravens over their next two games when they travel to Seattle and host New England with a bye in between.

Home for Philly. These aren’t the Super Bowl champs, but the Eagles might be the best offense the Bills will have faced when they come to Orchard Park a week from Sunday. They might also be close to fully healthy for the first time in a while against Buffalo. First up for Philadelphia is a battle for the division lead against Dallas this weekend. With emotions sure to be high for that one, the Bills may catch some advantage being the next game up.

That list does not contain any drop dead NFL powers. Baltimore and Philly could be, but could just as easily end up 8-8.

To reach 10-6, all the Bills have to do is split those six games. If they can’t find ten wins on this Angel-soft schedule, they probably don’t deserve to be a playoff team.

And Buffalo may need all ten wins, despite only two other AFC non division leaders over .500 at the moment: Oakland and Indy. Both are a decidedly non-threatening 3-2.

However, take a gander at their schedules (I just did). There’s a few avenues for each to finish 10-6. Barring a Houston or KC collapse, these might just be the teams jostling with the Bills for Wild Card position.

I know there are Process Kool-Aid drinkers eyeing this story. I’ve got a section for you, too. Could Buffalo possibly steal the division title away from New England?

It’s certainly more in the realm of possibility than ever. New England has a brutal stretch starting in November that goes at Baltimore, at Philly, home for Dallas, at Houston, home for the Chiefs.

The problem for the Bills is, though the standings say they are one and a half games back, it’s really two and a half. Buffalo is going to be hard pressed to win a tiebreaker.

They already have to win in Foxboro to square the head to head record with New England. Unless you think the Pats are losing to Miami or at home to the Jets (this Monday night), the Bills can’t win a tie on division record either.

Next up is common games. Of which, the Bills and Patriots play 14. The easy way to figure this one out is look at the two NON-common games. Whoever has the better record among these two games loses the tie.

Buffalo already has a non-common game win in Tennessee. So, the only way to even a push with the Patriots on common games is a Bills loss at home to Denver or the Patriots beat both the Texans and Chiefs.

Suddenly, the path to a tiebreaker win feels claustrophobically narrow.

It’s not dreaming to think the Bills can outplay New England by two wins over the next two months when you compare schedules. Then, perhaps, Buffalo could force a winner take all contest for the AFC East in Foxboro the weekend before Christmas. In one game, anything can happen.

One thing is undoubtedly clear. If the Bills just handle their business over the next 11 weeks, they are going back to the playoffs.

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