Could the Buffalo Bills steal the AFC East from the New England Patriots?
As good as the New England Patriots have been this season, the Buffalo Bills are in hot pursuit at 4-1. How worried should the Pats be?
We’re five weeks into the NFL season, and the Buffalo Bills have the same record as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs.
The Bills’ success is one of the more surprising stories of 2019, especially after the team was universally deemed the league’s worst squad at this time a year ago. A 4-1 record puts them among the NFL’s top teams, with their only loss coming in a very well-fought game against the New England Patriots.
Buffalo’s 2019 narrative has a few interesting beats… some for better, and some for worse. The first point a Bills doubter might make is that their schedule (Jets, Giants, Bengals, Pats, Titans) has been pretty easy, which is somewhat true. However, the Jets had Sam Darnold at the time these teams played, and the Titans aren’t that bad, so those two victories at least aren’t totally due to inferior competition.
The recipe for the Bills’ success has actually been their defense, which hasn’t yet let an opponent reach 20 points this season. The secondary boasts a fantastic safety duo in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, complemented by good cornerbacks in Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace. Their pass rush, which caused big problems for Patriots QB Tom Brady, has also racked up 12 sacks on the year.
One of Buffalo’s most impressive statistics is their opponent 3-and-out rate: 36.7%. More than a third of the time, the Bills force their opponent off the field in three plays – which easily leads the league. Their defense is flat-out dominant.
Buffalo’s opponents are also a combined 2-for-8 on field goal tries. This is a peculiar, flukey number that definitely won’t continue on that pace… but it would be funny if it did.
The problem, however, is the Bills offense. They hardly have any weapons, though Frank Gore’s still doing a good job holding the running game down at his old age. As much potential as Josh Allen has, he’s only thrown five touchdowns and has seven interceptions so far. Once in a while he plays like Lamar Jackson, but he’s often more comparable to Tyrod Taylor.
There’s a silver lining to their unimpressive roster, though: the fact that they’re still successful.
Coach Sean McDermott is in early Coach of the Year conversations, taking a Buffalo team headlined by the likes of Josh Allen and transplant receiver John Brown and bringing them to 4-1. Their defense has been great, and their offense has shown signs of growth, scoring 28 points against the Giants and already accruing almost 700 rushing yards.
At this point, the pressure is on Josh Allen to help the Bills to make the jump from “playoff contender” to “Super Bowl hopeful.” Quarterback mobility is a hot asset this season; Lamar Jackson has made dynamic improvements in his passing game, and Deshaun Watson continues to grow as a weapon. Josh Allen has the legs to scramble and turn sacks into big plays, but his accuracy and consistency need a lot of tweaking.
Of course, Allen’s numbers would see an improvement with some better players at his side. He only has two wide receivers with over 200 yards this season: John Brown and Cole Beasley.
Let’s never forget how close Antonio Brown was to becoming a Bill in March this offseason, which might have led to a very different year. In an alternate universe somewhere, Brown signed with Buffalo, kept his head on straight, and helped the Bills secure one of the best records in the AFC.
So, can they compete with the New England Patriots in the AFC East? They’re not quite as good of a team, but they did hold their own in the Week 4 matchup. Will their schedule help?
Well, Buffalo’s schedule isn’t very different from New England’s, since each division plays the same divisions in any given year. Just like the Pats, Buffalo should have a few easy games against the Redskins, Bengals, Dolphins, and Jets.
Where the Pats and Bills differ, however, is the two outlier games that align with their 2018 division standings. New England won the AFC East last year, so the Patriots get to play the Chiefs and Texans. Buffalo finished third, so they play the Broncos and Titans.
This is very significant for the Bills; they just beat Tennessee, and the 1-4 Broncos should be another victory late in the season. The Pats could easily lose to one (or even both) of the Chiefs and Texans if they’re unlucky, as those two teams are both offensive powerhouses.
In order for Buffalo to break New England’s decade-long division title streak, several things will have to go right. For one, the Patriots will have to go on a slide at some point, losing a few winnable games. Right now it looks like New England has a great shot to go about 13-3 or better, and I don’t see the Bills hitting that high of a ceiling.
As far as team success goes, Josh Allen absolutely has to break into his own and have a much better year than last year. Lamar Jackson has shown that the running-QB play style can still be improved upon and paired with arm talent, and Allen actually came out of Wyoming known for his arm strength. If he unlocks his potential and avoids interceptions, the Bills could be a force to be reckoned with.
Buffalo should also look into trades/free agent signings to bolster the offense around Allen. The team has $25 million in cap space, and more money is being spent on the defense. This year could be Buffalo’s best chance in a long time for playoff success, and they should lean all the way into it.
Ultimately, unless a lot of things go perfectly right, I don’t think the Buffalo Bills will be taking the AFC East. The New England Patriots have one of their best squads ever under head coach Bill Belichick, and the Bills are just too inconsistent to reliably keep up.
Now, I do think the Bills have a good shot at a playoff berth, and their defense could even get them a long-awaited postseason win. So while the New England Patriots still own the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills are at least finally ready to make a name for themselves.