America, meet the Buffalo Bills. Though seemingly locked into a wild card spot, this team will still have work to do in the coming weeks: Buffalo had the toughest-rated remaining schedule in the NFL before going into Dallas. After a series of wins, peppered by a few close losses, the Bills have much to be confident about. Their defence is gelling, their offence looks like it’s found it’s groove, and their kick return unit is one of the best in the league. They have their issues, but this developing team is one year ahead of schedule in their rebuild, competing for the playoffs and establishing a winning culture. Clearly, they’re on their way up, but are they ready to battle for a Lombardi Trophy?
For those who weren’t paying them any attention (most of the league), every major media outlet in America deemed the Buffalo Bills a 4-8 win team at best this season, but those estimates seem to be off, ever so slightly. They have admittedly faced an “easy schedule”, though it has featured some talented skill players and several of the NFL’s top defences, and the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots are the only teams league-wide to face easier schedules. That doesn’t explain the shellacking they provided the Dallas Cowboys with, but we’ll get to that. For a young team, a relatively fresh head coach, sophomore QB, and massive roster turnover to churn out a 9-3 record, a lot has to go right. Let’s take a look.
Last year, the Buffalo Bills quietly locked down the #1 passing defense in the league, largely in part due to the incredible play of lockdown cornerback Tre’Davious White, along with top-tier safety duo Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. This season looks like business as usual, with another top-5 defense allowing the 3rd-fewest points league-wide. Their run defense was notably absent early in the season and is still a bit of a question mark, but both the coaches and players have made excellent adjustments. The pass-rush, led by DT Jordan Phillips, has awoken, as demonstrated against a notoriously strong Dallas O-line. The 9th overall pick in the 2019 draft, Ed Oliver, has gotten stronger as his season has progressed, making more room for the DE’s to work and notching a few sacks of his own (including one for a strip). Their LB core is one of the youngest and most athletic in the entire league, and they’re only getting better. Tremaine Edmunds has stepped into a leadership role, and Matt Milano is playing like a man possessed. It’s rare for a defense to improve all season, especially as offenses find their groove and start to heat up, but the Bills seem as able to lean on their unit now as they did early in the season.
This whole unit was a big bowl of question marks heading into 2019. Could Josh Allen develop into a starting-caliber QB? Could one of the worst O-lines in the league last year turn it around? Would an aging RB room slow them down? Who were their receivers? Returning with only 2 starters from 2018 on this side of the ball, it’s clear that GM Brandon Beane had one of the best offseasons in recent memory, and he did it without breaking the bank. Though they started off slow, the Buffalo offense has established itself these past few weeks; dominantly putting away the Miami Dolphins (not that impressive), the Denver Broncos’ 4th-best defense in the NFL (quite good), and the star-studded Dallas Cowboys (all before thanksgiving dinner). This unit is still the weakness of a team that has been on the up-and-up all year, but Josh Allen’s playmaking combined with an increasingly hard to ignore WR core has turned this storied franchise around, clearly for the better.
Buffalo may have played like a top-level team the past few weeks, and they’ve more than proven that they deserve plenty of respect, but are they ready to compete for the big one? With Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New England, and New York Jets to close out the season, the Bills could very well see themselves in the top wild card spot (a position they currently hold by a clear 3-game margin) at 11-5, if not better. Despite all this, the Buffalo Bills likely don’t have what it takes for sustained playoff success. Their rebuild has been far more successful than any might’ve expected, but it’s still a rebuild.
With a projected $88.5M in salary cap space next year, and a very attractive free-agent destination for those looking to compete, Buffalo may well be Superbowl contenders next season. Their new team culture, championed by HC Sean McDermott, is growing into one of the best in the league, and it seems as though the drought is a thing of the past. Gone, but not forgotten by the Buffalo faithful. Look out America, you may have gotten a taste of Buffalo on Thanksgiving Thursday, but they got a bite of playing on the big stage. They’ll be back for more.