It’s taken me a while to get back my optimism. I started the season with real hope for making the playoffs. Not a lot. But a little goes a long way.
Then came Kyle Orton.
I’ve admitted I was opposed to this switch when it happened. It really wasn’t so much about who was the better quarterback. It was about the kind of the season we were going to see. A passer with the skill set and build of E.J. Manuel is something we’ve never seen before. A journeyman with iffy accuracy and no mobility? I felt like I could script the rest of the year from memory.
Three wins and one Patriots game later, it’s… debatable. No one will argue with the record, obviously, but no one’s rushing to buy a jersey either. Defense and special teams have been the biggest reason this team is 5-3. Orton has been (Dear God, why do I have to write this again?) as good as he’s needed to be and nothing more. At one point against the Jets, the Bills had six drives start within 50 yards of the goal line. Only one of them resulted in a touchdown. Before the game-winning TD at home against Minnesota, the Bills’ scored a field goal with 4 minutes left in the 2nd quarter. Then nothing, until that last drive. Against the Vikings.
But here is where I’ll admit I was wrong. Orton’s throws to Hogan and Watkins could not have been completed by E.J. Not right now. Since benching Manuel, they’ve gone from treading water to a playoff push. It’s undeniable. It was the right move. Now comes the hard part.
There are only two teams left in the Bills' remaining eight games that don’t have a realistic shot at making the playoffs. Of the playoff contenders, three have Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks. If the Bills are for real, they need a win this Sunday against Kansas City. It’s as simple as that. The Chiefs have legit wins against the Chargers and whoever that was wearing the Patriots’ jerseys a few weeks back. But their other three came against the Rams, Dolphins, and Jets. And no one accidentally thought of Alex Smith when I mentioned the MVPs. The Bills can win this game.
Our defense is for real. Sammy Watkins is a highlight reel waiting to happen. And that crowd. OH, that crowd. Bills fans haven’t had a game to go to in three weeks and the team has a legit chance to go 6-3 for the first time since Flutie Flakes were a thing. The Ralph might bear a striking resemblance to the USO show in Apocalypse Now by the time this game kicks off. I can't wait.
1) Playoffs? PLAYOFFS?!
Seriously, we’re discussing the playoffs? I was writing a eulogy for the season after that loss to the Patriots. But, oh, what a difference playing bad teams makes. Two wins later, we’ve got a shot. A long shot, but a shot nevertheless.
Everyone at the tailgate this weekend will be explaining the same playoff scenario before kickoff (words and inebriation level may vary). Beat the Chiefs, Dolphins, Browns, Jets, and Raiders. The thing is, it really could be that simple. The Chiefs are a good team, but they’re not a great one. Neither is anyone else on that list. Win those five games and it doesn’t matter if we lose the other three by 300 points. 10 wins should get you into the playoffs this year. And even if we got left out because of some tie breaking nonsense, can you imagine the Bills winning TEN games?! I really can’t fathom it.
The devil’s advocate in me, that I always beg to shut up, points out that three of those fives teams are at least our equal, if not better, in terms of talent right now. Before Cleveland dismantled Cincinnati last night, they shared the same 5-3 record as Buffalo, KC, and Miami. But that’s why these games are that much more exciting. In a hypothetical world, if the season ended Sunday, this game would be for the last spot. Miami will either share our record next week or be just one game ahead or behind us. Three weeks from now, we play the Browns, maybe the only team hungrier for a playoff trip than we are, who are holding their own in a wide open AFC North. (Every team in the north is separated by a win. I don’t even know how that’s possible.) These games are all going to matter, regardless of the outcomes. And the Bills can hang in every one of them.
The crowd is going to be wild this Sunday. Jungle-life wild. And if, IF, the Bills can win the games they’re capable of winning in the next four weeks (see: all of them), can you possibly imagine the atmosphere the Packers will be walking into in Week 15 if we’re 9-4?! Too optimistic? Obviously. Exciting to even be allowed to think it? Definitely.
2) Sammy Watkins
But seriously folks, if my number one desire for this season is the playoffs, then a close second is finding out Watkins was worth all the picks we gave up to get him. Every team that's made a playoff run has that one guy on offense you have to account for at all times. Opponents started doing that even before Watkins could get his locker organized. Revis covered him for an entire game at a time when he had 284 yards in 5 games. And he's only going to get better at route running, weight lifting, and reading defenses. What he's doing now, he's doing on instincts and skill. I'm not knocking his "football IQ," but pro playbooks are bigger than dictionaries. There's no way he's learned everything. Once he does? Watch out.
3) The Front Four
Heart helps for huddle speeches and 2-minute drills. Talent wins the other 98% of the game. (If heart won games, the Bills would have four Super Bowl trophies.) Right now the Bills have it on the defensive line. Hughes is a wonderful revelation and Dareus is evolving into one of the top DT's in the game. But you can't focus on them or bring help, because that only makes life easier for Kyle & Mario Williams. I have no idea how opponents gameplan for it. It must be like scheming defenses against LeBron. They're gonna get their shots, you just hope you can limit the damage.
The best part might be that their harassment covers up the deficiencies in the secondary. Leodis and the rest still have those moments that make you want to go bald the hard way, but the Bills are 2nd in the league in picks. Leodis McKelvin has four interceptions. One for each lineman making his job 1000 times easier. Enjoy it while it lasts.
THREE THINGS TO TERRIFIED OF:
1) The Offensive Line
The only thing as consistent as Sammy or the defense this season has been the play of the offensive line. And that’s not good . The middle of the Bills offensive line is Eric Wood and two guys who are making him play worse. Add a rookie still learning the right tackle to the mix and it’s not hard to understand why these guys are tied for 6th in sacks given up. When you have a quarterback as immobile as Orton and two backup running backs shoved into starting roles, that’s not good.
There’s not much else to say about the issue. We’re stuck with it. The rookies might improve, but there’s nothing new to try out if they don’t. Glenn & Wood are proven commodities. Pears & Urbik are… warm bodies. Unless Richardson and Henderson learn their positions in a hurry, it won’t matter who we start at quarterback or when Fred gets healthy. The learning curve doesn’t get any easier this weekend against Tamba Hali (4 sacks) and Justin Houston (12).
2) Nate Hackett
I already mentioned Hali and Houston, but the Chiefs are deep everywhere. Including the two linebackers, they sent six defenders to the Pro Bowl last year. They’re 5th in yards allowed and 2nd in points. And this is a squad that’s already seen Manning, Brady, Rivers, and Kaepernick, so no one’s breaking a sweat when they see Orton line up under center. Except maybe Orton.
Is there an answer to this dilemma? The answer is a solid maybe. MAYBE Hackett recognizes the fact that while the Chiefs have given up the fewest passing yards in the league, they’re 19th against the run. And MAYBE Boobie or Bryce Brown (or a combination of both) are ready to have one of those humongous games that unknown backs occasionally have before they fade back into obscurity. That would be, in a word, amazing. But that is contingent on Hackett making it happen. Conversely, if his plan is to ask the aforementioned offensive o-line to protect Kyle long enough to throw the ball 40 times, with the occasional run up the middle for 1 or 2 yards? Well. Then we’re screwed.
3) Eric Berry
Justin Houston is deservedly going to get most of the pregame chatter, but I can't help but worry about a different Chiefs defender. Eric Berry recently returned from injury and is slowly starting to readjust to the speed of the game and regain the abilities that made him a Pro Bowler last season. The Bills have relied on getting at least three or four big plays in the passing game. Against Minnesota, they each came in the same drive. The numbers for Orton are there by the end of the game, but most of the time I'm stunned to find out he threw for 300 yards. (Seriously? Where do they all come from?) The one loss the Bills had in his three games at quarterback was against New England when Revis made Watkins a non-factor. This is why I’m slightly concerned about Berry.
When you have a great ballhawk in the backfield, it makes everything more difficult. They stuff runs, they prevent big plays, and they turn poor passes into points. All things we don't do well already. He scored 2 touchdowns off 3 interceptions last season and could wreak havoc on Sunday if the Bills don't keep track of him. If the two terrifying things I mentioned prior go bad, Berry could be the biggest beneficiary.
WHY YOU CAN'T HATE THEM:
Losing four straight Super Bowls is an unmatchable amount of pain, but Kansas City in our lifetime might be the next worst thing. Three Hall of Fame coaches, Joe Montana, Marcus Allen, Tony Gonzalez, Priest Holmes... zero Super Bowl appearances. Then after years of mostly winning, in 2006 they traded a pick that turned into Leon Washington for Herm "We Can Build On This" Edwards. After that predictable train wreck was cleaned up, they doubled down on the wreckage by firing Edwards and replacing him the Todd Haley, who soon after was joined by Charlie Weis & Romeo Crennel. Now that they've crawled out from under that rock? The predictably pass-happy, roll-polly Reid who will undoubtedly win tons of regular season games and never get them to the Super Bowl.
You don't have to feel sorry for them. But you really can't hate them.
- Carson Palmer, and what's left of his shoulder, signed a three-year contract extension with the Arizona Cardinals this week worth a reported $50 million. He's the second formerly washed-up quarterback to sign an extension this year. The other is this weekend's Alex Smith. The Chiefs resigned the former #1 pick for three more years and $68 million. These numbers are overblown most of the time and teams rarely wind up paying all the possible dollars in any deal. I only mention all of this because the asking price is rising on Kyle Orton.
- Wow, the Jets are bad. They are so terrible that Rex Ryan is openly waxing nostalgic about the AFC Championship game they played against the Steelers four years ago. I'd feel bad for them if they didn't simultaneously employ the most unlikable quarterback tandem in the history of the league.
- In other schadenfreude news, the Cowboys are sending both halves of Tony Romo and what's left of their playoff hopes to London this week to try and convince London that they want the Jaguars. We're seriously still trying this? Didn't we all agree NFL Europe failed miserably because no EPL fan is gonna flip for American football because he watched Blake Bortles play? If Shahid Kahn wants to move the team to London, fine, let him. No one will actually travel to play them, mind you. They'll just cease to be a member of the NFL and have intermural games amongst themselves. We'll carry on and pencil in a win against the AFC South each year like we do already and that way Buffalo doesn't have to watch YET ANOTHER FUCKING HOME GAME GET SHIPPED TO ANOTHER GOD DAMN COUNTRY. *ahem* Pardon me.
- Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice are probably going to find out when they can start playing again soon. Because (and remember this women and children) the lesson is beating your wife and kids is bad and to punish you, we'll make you hide for a while and wait for everyone to stop caring. And that's really only if there's photo/video evidence. This kind of behavior will be tolerated.
God I want this win so much it hurts. If Kansas City jumps out earlier, we're in deep trouble. The offense has been slow in every first half Orton has played in, so if they get in an early hole, I don't like their odds of another comeback against the Chiefs' defense. But I think the crowd is going to be an impact from the start and I wouldn't be surprised if we deferred the opening kickoff and let our rested front four get after Alex Smith to set the tone. This has nail-biter written all over it.
Buffalo 23, Chiefs 20
The playoff push starts now. Go Bills.