New York Jets’ debut 17th game comes against Philadelphia

The first-ever 17-game regular season will feature a matchup between the New York Jets and their cross-conference green rivals.

The NFL confirmed plans to move forward with its first-ever 17-game regular season on Tuesday afternoon. League owners voted in the new change, which also trims the preseason slate from four games to three.

Under this new format, which will take effect immediately, the Jets will host a ninth home game, this debut edition coming against the Philadelphia Eagles.

A 16-game schedule had been an NFL staple since 1978, with exceptions in the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons. These newly minted extra games will apparently be interconference matchups, corresponding to the matching divisional finish with another quartet. For example, under the first year, the squads of the AFC East will battle those in their NFC equivalent.

By virtue of their fourth-place finishes, the Jets (2-14) will battle the Eagles (4-11-1) at MetLife Stadium. Division champions Washington and Buffalo will square off in Orchard Park while the Miami Dolphins will make a second visit to East Rutherford to battle their fellow runner-ups, the New York Giants. The matchups are rounded out by a battle between the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots in Arlington.

The Jets and Eagles have met quadrennially since the league switched to the current eight divisions in 2002. Alas for the Jets, the matchup has proven torturous as they have lost all 11 regular season meetings, the last being a 31-6 shellacking at Lincoln Financial Field in 2019. The teams have met annually in the preseason since 2001, a get-together that has proven far more lucrative for New York, who owns a 13-6 advantage.

In further NFL news, the 2021-22 season will open on Thursday, September 9 in a game that will likely involve the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the extra game on the schedule, the playoffs will begin on January 9 with Super Bowl LVI scheduled for February 13 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. The Pro Bowl is set to return after being forced to virtual settings last season, with the 2022 edition set to be held at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills’ 2021 opponents finalized after Week 16 action

The Buffalo Bills’ 2021 was finalized during Sunday’s action, as the outliers are shown to be fellow division champions.

While the Buffalo Bills are doing their best to make 2020 tolerable, it’s hard not to join the rest of the nation and look toward next year, especially with December 31 mercifully approaching.

Through a series of scenarios, the Bills’ 2021 list of opponents was finalized, primarily through the crowing of fellow division champions. The Bills are also set to face competition from the AFC South and NFC South, as well as their yearly pair against AFC East divisional competition.

ESM looks ahead at the Bills’ 2021 slate below…

Atlanta (Home)

The Bills and Falcons don’t meet often, but it’s often dramatic when they do. Five of the six most recent meetings have been one-possession games, including Atlanta’s overtime victory when they last visited Orchard Park in 2013.

Carolina (Home)

Buffalo will welcome Carolina to Bills Stadium for the second edition of the de facto Sean McDermott Bowl. McDermott’s former employers gave him a rude welcome to head coaching in the first meet-up in 2017, when the Panthers prevailed in a 9-3 win in Charlotte.

Houston (Home)

Houston’s visit will be their first since 2015, a 30-21 Bills victory. This will also be the first get-together between the teams since their instant classic wild-card showdown back in Janaury, won by the Texans in a 22-19 final.

Indianapolis (Home)

This former AFC East rivalry will mark the first time the Colts come to visit since their snow battle in December 2017. Indianapolis took home a 37-5 triumph in 2018 at home in the interim.

Jacksonville (Away)

The Bills will visit Duval County for the first time since making their playoff return in January 2018, falling 10-3 in a wild-card slugfest to a Jaguars team destined for the AFC title game. While the presumed addition of Trevor Lawrence should generate headlines, this game will also be the first showdown between Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Jaguars pass rusher Josh Allen.

Kansas City (Away)

Could this be an AFC title game rematch come next season? Time will only tell, but hopefully, there will be less drama around its staging. The 2020 matchup between the Bills and Chiefs was initially scheduled for Fox and NFL Network’s Thursday Night Football package, but had to be shifted due to complications with the ongoing health crisis.

Miami (Home/Away)

The Dolphins are one of two opponents remaining on the Bills’ ongoing slate, as the team will square off in the Week 17 finale. Buffalo will be going for its second straight sweep of Miami, a feat they haven’t accomplished since 2006-07.

New England (Home/Away)

Another opportunity for a divisional sweep comes on Monday night, as the Bills have a chance to truly cement their status as the new kings of the AFC East with a sweep of the eliminated Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC). Buffalo’s last sweep of the Patriots came in 1999, the final year before Bill Belichick’s Foxboro-based reign of terror began.

New Orleans (Away)

The Bills have ended countless dubious streaks this season, but will have to wait until next year to conquer a demon that has been anything but The Big Easy. Buffalo has not beaten New Orleans since 1998, with the Saints winning all five meetings since.

NY Jets (Home/Away)

Will this meeting feature a new quarterback adversary for Allen instead of his offseason buddy Sam Darnold? Either way, the Bills have taken control of the rivalry, winning four of the past six meetings, including their first season sweep since 2015.

Pittsburgh (Home)

Victories over the Steelers that set off big celebrations are becoming a bit of a tradition in Western New York. The Bills clinched a playoff spot with a win in Pittsburgh in 2019 and NBC’s Sunday Night Football cameras made their first trek to Bills Stadium since 2007 to document the team’s 26-15 triumph earlier this month.

Tampa Bay (Away)

The Tom Brady nightmare isn’t over quite yet, or at least Buccaneer fans hope it won’t be. Buffalo has been one of the biggest victims of Brady’s dominance, as the arguable GOAT owns a 32-3 record against the Bills.

Tennessee (Away)

It was the delay in the Tennessee visit that caused the aforementioned rescheduling of the Bills’ meeting with the defending champion Chiefs. This will mark the fourth consecutive season to feature a showdown between the Bills and Titans, whose most recent tilt had the honor of being the NFL’s first Tuesday game in almost a decade.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

Buffalo Bills: Division clinch means everything to playoff drought leftovers

The Buffalo Bills’ AFC East title meant just a little more to Jerry Hughes and Lee Smith, the two leftovers from their lean years.

Arguing over who is most deserving of the Bills’ long-awaited division title is extraordinarily moot. The team has captured its success through a strong sense of unity and would likely scoff at such a debate. But it’s safe to say that this one might mean a little something more to Jerry Hughes and Lee Smith.

No one on the current Bills roster has played more games with a charging pair of buffalo on their helmet than Hughes and Smith, respectively serving as a defensive lineman and reserve tight end. Hughes has partaken in 103 games since coming over in a 2013 trade with Indianapolis while Smith has shown up in 80 contests over two Buffalo stints. In comparison, guard Dion Dawkins and long snapper Reid Ferguson, both 2017 arrivals, are next on the list with 62.

As the longest-tenured Bills on the roster, Hughes and Smith are the only players in Western New York to play on-field witnesses to the dryest spell in Buffalo football history: a 17-year playoff drought that becomes a distant memory with each passing week. This historic season has seen the end of many dubious steaks, including an AFC East division title drought that has stopped at a quarter-century. A good part of Hughes and Smith’s respective tenures, however, have been consumed by building those streaks, even if they personally had little to no role in the gridiron malarkey.

Hughes, for example, has been one of the more reliable veteran pass rushers in football since debuting as a first-round pick of the Colts in 2010. Since the 2012 season, only nine weeks of regular season NFL football have been played without Hughes taking the field…and that’s only because his team had a bye week. In that span, Hughes ranks in the top 25 in sacks (55), quarterback hits (120), and tackles for a loss (80). Hughes has seen his share of individual accolades as well, appearing on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players list in 2015 (No. 63).

But the lack of team success always irritated Hughes. While he partook in a pair of playoff games during his three years with the Colts, he was subjected to several frustrating seasons of football purgatory in Orchard Park. Those campaigns were often defined by wasting fast starts, such as their 5-3 opening in 2014 that led to a 9-7 campaign.

As serviceable comrades dwindled in the defensive locker room, Hughes took on the mantle of locker room leader. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier saw that brand of leadership during Buffalo’s October win over the New York Jets. Facing a strong challenge from a desperate opponent in East Rutherford, Frazier remarked that the only thing more impressive than Hughes’ play on the field was his composure off of it. The assistant coach mentioned that Hughes’ tenacious brand of defense encouraged him to raise the pressure on opponents following one-sided losses to fellow AFC contenders from Tennessee and Kansas City over the fall. It paid off in the form of an 18-10 win over the Jets, one that saw the Bills earn six sacks and allow only 191 yards.

“We didn’t talk about things that needed to be done with the D-line, it was more Jerry taking it upon himself as a leader to pull those guys together,” Frazier said, per John Wawrow of the Associated Press. “Jerry was so positive, and encouraging his teammates on the sideline. I remember saying to myself, `Man, that’s what you need out of one of your star players who’s a leader.‘”

Hughes was the headliner in the aforementioned New York victory, picking up six tackles, two sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. He was awarded the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week Award for his efforts.

In the fateful win in the Rockies, Hughes put a dagger in the Broncos during the early stages of the third quarter. Immediately after Buffalo build a 28-13 lead, Hughes treated Bills fans to a showcase from the past, namely from his days as a running back at Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas. The defender dodged five would-be tacklers from Denver to score a 21- yard touchdown, giving the Bills a 35-13 advantage. From there on out, a countdown began to commemorate the Bills’ first AFC East crown since 1996.

Eschewing expectations, Hughes’ postgame attitude mirrored his teammate’s jovial mood, but the division title has proven to be anything but gridiron nirvana for a man desperately seeking it.

“Man, it feels amazing,” Hughes said in a report from Jourdon LaBarber of BuffaloBills.com, clad in a celebratory t-shirt bearing the insignia “Won Not Done. “This is something that we talked about once I got to this organization. We spoke about bringing a division championship home to Buffalo. So, it feels great to be a part of this team, the way we did it, the way Sean and Brandon Beane were able to assemble the team together and put guys in the right spot so we can be success and the results are showing.”

“I know that we’ve still got a lot more to accomplish. That’s what I like about these guys. We can enjoy a milestone and still understand that the goal is still not reached. So, I’m excited. We’re going to enjoy this tonight and then we’re going to get ready for next week.”

Hughes did enjoy at least a taste of postseason glory last season, earning a career-best three sacks during Buffalo’s playoff cameo in Houston.

Smith may be one of the lesser-heralded members of the Bills’ roster, though his impact cannot be denied. The former fifth-round pick has built a sizable career since experiencing his first NFL release before taking his first snap, bid farewell by the New England Patriots at the end of his first training camp. He partook in parts of four seasons with the Bills before signing with the Raiders in 2015. Smith was asked to rejoin the Bills in 2019 and he was quick to accept, as the tight end was drawn to a Buffalo reunion by the good vibes he drew from the organization, particularly its new direction under current owners Kim and Terry Pegula.

“Mr. and Mrs. Pegula have spared no expense around here. It’s invigorating and makes the players feel not just respected but appreciated. This place is first class,” Smith said in a 2019 episode of team program One Bills Live. “I’m all about enjoying coming to work everyday. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to make a decision of where you want to go then my thing has always been that being around good men that I want to work for.”

Smith’s modern work has mostly come through special teams participation. He did earn a one-yard score in Buffalo’s September win over the Los Angeles Rams and seemed poised to add to that tally on Saturday, but his fourth-quarter catch from Josh Allen was called back due to a penalty.

Buffalo (11-3) is still in contention for one of the top seeds in the AFC’s playoff bracket. Their next contest comes on the road against the New England Patriots next Monday night (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

VIDEO: Bills Mafia greets division champs upon return to Buffalo

Precipitation and the wee hours of Sunday morning were no match for Buffalo Bills fans welcoming their team home.

The Buffalo Bills received a welcome fit for division champions as they arrived home from Denver early Sunday morning.

A contingent of fans, many of whom appeared to adorned in masks and face coverings, braved darkness and rain to greet the Bills at Buffalo Niagara International Airport upon their return from a Week 15 win in Denver. The victory allowed the Bills (11-3) to clinch their third playoff berth over the last four seasons and their first AFC East division title since 1995.

Bills fans, known as “Bills Mafia”, have been known to gather at the airport after big victories on the road, most recently doing so when the team returned from a Sunday night win in Pittsburgh last season. Social distancing protocols in the wake of the ongoing health crisis have prevented Bills Mafia, often referred to as one of the most entertaining and passionate fanbases in the NFL, from visiting Bills Stadium in Orchard Park this season. But they apparently sought to capture the game day experience, if only for a short while, after this monumental occasion.

With games in Orchard Park staged in front of empty stands, many newcomers to the team experienced the passion of Bills Mafia for the first time.

Among the chants uttered by the crowd were “Super Bowl” and “MVP”, the latter in reference to quarterback Josh Allen, who referred to the gathering as “wild” in his Instagram story. In other social media shares, Dion Dawkins and Josh Norman documented their drive out, where some overzealous, unmasked fans get somewhat close to their open windows. Trumaine Edmunds also shared his exit, though he kept his windows up.

Despite this, many fans appeared to be masked at the event. A socially distanced viewing party of Saturday’s game, a 48-19 win over the Denver Broncos, was held at the Transit Drive-In, which also hosted a viewing of the University of Buffalo’s football tilt in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game in Detroit the night before. The Bulls fell to Ball State 38-28.

The Bills return to action next Monday night against the New England Patriots (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) before their regular-season finale in Orchard Park on January 3 against Miami.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

BREAKING: Buffalo Bills clinch AFC East division title

The Buffalo Bills’ Saturday win over the Denver Broncos allowed them to clinch their first division title since 1995.

After a 25-year sabbatical, AFC East supremacy is returning to Western New York.

Josh Allen tallied 392 total yards of offense, with 259 of his passing tallies going to Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. Jerry Hughes took back a fumble for a score, while Devin Singletary capped things off with a long touchdown of his own, giving the Buffalo Bills a 48-19 victory over the Denver Broncos on Saturday night in the Rockies. The victory allowed Buffalo (11-3) to capture their first AFC East division crown since 1995 and Orchard Park will likely host its first playoff game since the 1996 wild-card round. In closing yet another dubious streak, Buffalo has also won 11 games for the first time since 1999.

It’s the latest big accomplishment of the Brandon Beane/Sean McDermott era, one that began back in 2017. The pair inherited one of the longest active playoff droughts in American sports, but have now made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.

Appropriately, it was the on-field cornerstones of the Beane-McDermott regime that rose to the occasion during their historic evening, launching themselves up the ledgers of Orchard Park’s record books. Josh Allen put in 392 yards and four total touchdowns, the latter tie tying him with Jack Kemp for the most ground scores by a quarterback in team history (25) and moved into the top ten amongst all rushing scorers (passing Willis McGahee and tying LeSean McCoy). The Minnesota transfer Diggs began his Week 15 exploits by breaking his with Eric Moulds for Buffalo’s single-season receptions, creating an 11-reception margin with two more games to go. Diggs wound up with 147 receiving yards, joined in the brotherhood of triple-digits by Beasley (117), who is breaking the career-highs he set in Dallas.

McDermott’s former Carolina pupil Mario Addison was a constant backfield invader on defense, while undrafted gem Levi Wallace helped hold Denver’s potent rookie receiving pair in check, with Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler combining for 23 yards on a reception each. A first-round choice, Houston’s Ed Oliver, likewise earned a sack and got an early pass breakup in. Only adding to the fairy-tale setting was Hughes’ march of glory, as one of the two leftovers from the lean years took back a Drew Lock fumble for six points. While the other, tight end Lee Smith, was denied a touchdown due to a penalty, Hughes’ six-pointer more or less kept the game in Buffalo’s control. Another Beane choice, running back Devin Singletary, put one last exclamation point, a 51-yard touchdown dash that served as the unofficial kickoff to Buffalo’s divisional title party.

The effort led to one of the biggest dominoes toppled in the Bills’ return to respectability. Buffalo has officially ended the stranglehold the New England Patriots held on the quartet, as they become the first non-New England to finish atop the four since Miami in 2008.

However, in their celebration, the partygoers made it clear: the AFC East, while spurring a celebration a quarter-century in the making, is nowhere their ultimate goal. Words weren’t even necessary to convert such a message. The Bills’ celebratory t-shirts commemorating the division title bore what’s sure to become an oft-repeated insignia: “Won Not Done”.

“(The shirt) says ‘won not done’. Everything is still in front of us,” Allen said of the slogan per Daniel Fetes of WHAM. “This just gives us an opportunity to give it a shot and that’s all we can ask for.”

“This team here, we’re on a mission,” cornerback Tre’Davious White added in a report from Jenna Callari of WKBW. “I can feel it.”

But in more jovial matters, Saturday’s victory was a strong culmination of brotherhood and perseverance. No one can deny that this is a team whose camaraderie is riding at an all-time high as the most important games of their NFL careers approach. It was a development seen in the preparation for Denver, as the Bills turned Winter Storm Gail into a battleground, partaking in a snowball fight after practice earlier this week.

Expectations will widely vary with this Buffalo squad. Some see them as the biggest threat to a budding dynasty in Kansas City. Others feel like this they should be satisfied with topping the eastern quartet, confident that they’ll be a staple on the AFC bracket for years to come.

Either way, the Bills have made it clear…whatever they do in the near future, they’ll be doing it as a family…a family that has ended some of the most dubious streaks in professional football.

“Buffalo has been waiting for this for 25 years. It’s just special. It’s just an unexplainable feeling,” offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said in Callari’s report. “It’s a family, a family that stays together will win, cherish, and conquer it all. This was just step one.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

Buffalo Bills: Three stars from Saturday’s win at Denver

The Buffalo Bills departed Denver on a Rocky Mountain high, clinching an elusive division title through a dominant showing.

The Buffalo Bills are coming home for Christmas…and the playoffs as well.

Through a 48-19 victory over the Denver Broncos during the NFL’s Saturday showcase, the Bills (11-3) clinched not only their third playoff berth over the last four seasons but also their first AFC East division title since 1995. Restrictions pending, Orchard Park’s Bills Stadium is likely set to host its first postseason contest since a 1996 loss to Jacksonville in the wild-card round. Buffalo has also reached the 11-win plateau for the first time since 1999.

ESM gives out game balls for the victorious Bills…

3rd Star: DE Jerry Hughes

1 fumble recovery, 1 TD

Hughes’ fearsome size may lead to incredulousness on this end, but he got his football start as a running back at Stephen F. Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas, earning 19 touchdowns during his senior season. His ensuing time spent in Fort Worth (with TCU) and Orchard Park have rarely given him a chance to showcase his rushing talents, but Saturday’s tilt provided a welcome exception.

With Buffalo holding a 28-13 lead, they closed the book on any idea of a Denver comeback with Tre’Davious White’s sack and forced fumble of Drew Lock. Hughes picked up the loose change and athletically avoided several pursuing Broncos to put in a touchdown that took far more than the 21 yards dictated in the final box score. The 32-year-old earned the second touchdown of his career and his first since November 2014.

 

2nd Star: WR Stefon Diggs

11 receptions, 147 yards

On a historic day for Buffalo football, Diggs was sure to get his personal achievement out of the way early on. His first reception of the late afternoon allowed him to break a tie with Eric Moulds from 2002 for the most receptions in a single Bills season. With 11 grabs on the night, Diggs is likely ensuring that it will be a long time before his contemporaries even sniff his records. Diggs and Cole Beasley each broke the century mark on Saturday, uniting to earn 259 yards from Allen’s arm. Buffalo, however, may have to hold its breath when it comes to Diggs’ status moving forward. Fox Sports’ Lindsay Czarniak revealed toward the end of the game that Diggs was carted to the locker room with a foot issue, though he later returned to the sidelines before the clock let out.

1st Star: QB Josh Allen

28-for-40, 359 yards, 2 TD, 3 carries, 33 yards, 2 TD 

Allen’s success in Colorado probably shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. After all, he was perfect in terms of the scoreboard during Wyoming’s visits to Colorado State and Air Force. But, for Allen, Saturday’s business was personal. Denver previously passed on him during the early stages of the 2018 NFL Draft, choosing Bradley Chubb two picks before Allen got his call from Western New York.

In his first visit to Mile High, Allen showed a Broncos team at a crossroads when it comes to their franchise quarterback exactly what they were missing. He was responsible for four touchdowns on his own, two each of the aerial and ground variety, and racked up 392 total yards. Technically speaking, Allen was more or less the culprit behind six scores, but the latter couple was wiped out due to penalties. His rushing scores carried historic importance on the Buffalo landscape: he not only tied Jack Kemp for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (25) but also passed Willis McGahee to move into the top ten in the rushing score category tying Kemp and LeSean McCoy.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

Buffalo Bills ready for challenges of division title, trap game in the Rockies

Thrust into another national spotlight, the Buffalo Bills have a lot to think about as a Saturday thriller looms.

Cold weather, a special Saturday timeslot, and a chance to win a division championship 25 years in the making…if you were trying to make a trap for the Buffalo Bills and their fans, you’ll find no better seduction than what’s waiting for them in Denver this weekend.

This weekend could be one long remembered in Western New York. Collegiately, the University of Buffalo Bulls are seeking their second conference and an (abbreviated) undefeated season when they take on Ball State in Friday night’s Mid-American Conference title game in Detroit (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Less than 24 hours later, the professional Bills will battle the Broncos out west (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network). All the Bills (10-3) need to capture the elusive AFC East crown is a win over a Denver squad (5-8) in need of multiple miracles to even think about the playoffs.

The next step of the Bills’ 2020 season comes less than a week after they earned what may be their biggest win of the 21st century. In the first visit of NBC’s Sunday Night Football banner to Orchard Park since 2007, Buffalo topped one of the few teams ahead of them in the AFC playoff chase. Their 26-15 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers has placed the team firmly in the national spotlight. Colin Cowherd, for example, declared that the Bills were the best team in the NFL on his weekday show on FS1, even surpassing the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs (who previously defeated Buffalo in Orchard Park).

Needless to say, dealing with new expectations has been something of a challenge as the Bills go through their prep for the Broncos.

“The only thing we’ve earned at this point is all that noise and we’ve got to block that out, honestly,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said after the Pittsburgh victory, per Jourdon LaBarber of BuffaloBills.com. “We’re dealing with young men and young women, who, you know, some of them are new to this. You’re talking about the best of the best, so every week you’ve got to go back and reset, start all over again. But that’s where the process comes in. You’ve got to love that…You’ve got to love the preparation. You’ve got to love putting in the time and the work to get yourself to where we were with the outcome last night. That’s why it makes it so special when you can win those games because you know the hard work that went into it.”

McDermott’s players have apparently heeded his warning of complacency after such a big win. Shortly after the final seconds ticked away against Pittsburgh, players brandished a flag that bore the message “THE JOB’S NOT FINISHED”. Buffalo nearly had all the help necessary to complete one part of the job, clinching the team’s third playoff berth in four years after a 17-season drought, last weekend. They took care of their business against Pittsburgh and several other contenders dropped their own matchups, but the Baltimore Ravens didn’t feel like cooperating. Their 47-42 win in Cleveland in a Monday night thriller was the one requirement that went unfulfilled.

But Buffalo has been patient, and now the divisional clinch is far more straightforward: win.

Clinching a division title would not only bring some long-awaited good vibes to the Bills’ facility and hope and joy to an area/state in desperate need of it this holiday season, but it would also accomplish one of Buffalo’s most notable goals: it would allow Orchard Park to host a playoff game. Bills Stadium has not staged a postseason contest since 1996, a wild-card round loss to Jacksonville.

“Guys understand what’s at stake and want to be a part of something special,” defender Jordan Poyer said in a report from WIVB. “It’s not gonna be easy, they’re not just gonna come in and hand us over a win so we’ve gotta continue to prepare and continue to get ready to play our best football on Saturday.”

Standing in their way are the Broncos, as the Bills make their second visit to Mile High in as many years. Denver is anything but mathematically eliminated, but their record doesn’t indicate how much of a pest they’ve been against contending teams this season. The Bills, in fact, may be appreciative for one of their more recent efforts, dealing the Miami Dolphins a 20-13 loss last month, partially allowing Buffalo an opportunity to clinch before Christmas. Denver also took the aforementioned Chiefs to the brink in a 22-16 defeat on the road earlier in December and topped the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte last weekend. Franchise quarterback Drew Lock provided some good hope for the future with a career-best four touchdown passes.

Despite their recent success, silencing those who have asked “but who have they beaten?” with their win over the Steelers, the Bills know they’re in no position to take the Broncos lightly.

“I don’t really care what the record is. It’s the same thing each and every week, we don’t care what the record is, we know this is a good football team,” cornerback Micah Hyde said in a report from team writer Dante Lasting. “They got weapons outside, obviously, with the two rookie receivers (Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler) and (Noah Fant). He’s an Iowa guy, and those Iowa guys are studs. They’ve got a running game with two really good running backs, so they’re just another talented offense and it starts with (Lock). He’s able to make any throw on the field (but) we understand if we get pressure in his face and get pressure on him, at times he turns the ball over.”

To Hyde’s point, the sophomore Lock has thrown 13 interceptions this season. Only Carson Wentz of Philadelphia has thrown more (15).

As Buffalo sets their sights on becoming the first team other than the New England Patriots to win the AFC East since 2008, quarterback Josh Allen believes that they can take a lesson from the Foxboro monopoly: that of taking care of business. New England often built their dynasty through handling their affairs in games they were expected to win. Those situations would often come against overmatched divisional competition.

“This division’s been dominated by a team in Foxborough for a long time, and they’ve had a lot of sustained success, and that’s kind of the mold. That’s what people want to be and how they do it and how they’ve done it is what people want to do,” Allen said per WIVB. “We understand what’s a stake every time we step on the field from here on out and we know we have a chance but our goal is to play Saturday and put our best forward and try to win a game.”

While the Bills are aiming for heights they haven’t reached in over a decade, Allen wants both his team and the football-loving public know that they have no intentions of stopping at a mere division title, even if they wrap up the four-team affair by the end of Saturday’s visit to the Rockies.

“It’s not just an end-all, be-all we won the AFC East let’s celebrate. That was our goal, that’s been our goal and that’s the easiest way to get to the playoffs by winning your division. It’s no small task, we set our goal to have a home playoff game and that just secures that one right to do so. It’s not the end all be all, it’s a step in the right direction and we gotta continue to keep working hard.”

Should they fall to Denver, Buffalo can also clinch the division if the Dolphins fall to the Patriots on Sunday.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills: WR John Brown set to return from injured reserve

As the Buffalo Bills close in on a playoff berth, they’re set to welcome back one of their veteran receiving options this holiday season.

The Buffalo Bills (10-3) have gained their share of supporters and believers as they continue their trek towards the NFL postseason. Now, it appears they’re going to gain back one of their most experienced receiving options as the playoffs approach.

Bills head coach Sean McDermott mentioned this week that the team will test Brown in practice with the intention of having him play in Saturday’s visit to Denver (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network). Brown is eligible to come off injured reserve after spending the past three weeks on the list with an ankle injury sustained during the November 15 loss in Arizona.

McDermott said that while Brown will practice during this short week, he mentioned that “we’ll have to see how it goes” when asked if the receiver will suit up at Mile High, per Thad Brown of RochesterFirst.com.

Injuries have prevented Brown, 30, from building on the best season of his career, which began in 2014 as a third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals. Last year, his first in Western New York, Brown earned personal bests with 1,060 yards on 72 receptions, also scoring six touchdowns. Separate calf and ankle ailments have limited Brown to only eight games so far this season, during which he has earned 29 receptions for 386 yards and two touchdowns. Brown did rise to the occasion during the Bills’ November win over Seattle, picking up a season-high 99 yards on eight grabs in the 44-34 triumph. His most renowned moment in Buffalo came in the team’s playoff cameo last January, when he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass against Houston in the AFC wild-card round.

Bills receivers have certainly risen to the occasion in Brown’s absence, winning each of their three contests played with Brown on injured reserve. Stefon Diggs became the second receiver in Bills history to reach triple-figures in receptions, currently leading the NFL with 100. Cole Beasley also took advantage of an increased workload, posting a career-best showing (9 receptions, 130 yards) in a Monday night win over San Francisco earlier this month.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

How the Buffalo Bills can clinch a playoff spot/division title in Week 15

Baltimore’s Monday night thriller denied the Buffalo Bills a clinch last week, but there are several simple avenues on the Week 15 slate.

The Buffalo Bills appear to be well on their way to the 2021 NFL playoffs. But, like Han Solo before them…never tell them the odds.

Buffalo (10-3) took care of business on their end when it came to officially punching their ticket to the postseason, topping the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Sunday night showdown at Bills Stadium. Several other factors, namely in the form of losses from New England, Miami, and Las Vegas. The Baltimore Ravens weren’t in the mood to cooperate, however, as their 47-42 thriller over Cleveland on Monday night prevented a letter from forming next to the Bills’ name in the standings. Nonetheless, the odds experts at FiveThirtyEight currently have the Bills at over a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs in their updated playoff ledger.

How can the Bills add those precious percentage points and clinch their third playoff berth in four seasons? The Bills simply need ONE of the following to go down during Week 15 action…

Win @ Denver on Saturday

The Bills can return from the Rockies with the sweetest of Christmas gifts if they simply take care of the Denver Broncos in a special Saturday late afternoon game (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network). Winning out west hasn’t been too much of a problem for the Bills, who are 3-1 in the Mountain and Pacific time zones this season, the one loss stemming from Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins’ collaborative miracle in Arizona.

Miami Loss vs. New England (clinches division) 

The Dolphins (8-5) took the defending champion Chiefs to the brink last Sunday, but it wasn’t enough to buy themselves real estate in the standings. Their ensuing loss has set up a scenario where the Bills’ so-called “magic number” toward their first division title since 1995 is down to one. Thus, a Dolphins loss of any kind will earn the Bills one of the top four seeds. They’ll be taking on a desperate Patriots team whose salvation lies far, far beyond winning out to keep their postseason streak alive on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Baltimore Loss vs. Jacksonville

It’s highly unlikely that the Ravens (8-5) fall to a Jaguars team destined for one of the top two picks in April, though the return of Jacksonville’s Gardner Minshew does make things a tad less certain on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS). A loss in-conference would allow the Bills, should they fail to top Denver on Saturday, to clinch the conference record tiebreaker (Buffalo is 7-2 while Baltimore sits at 5-5).

Other Week 15 Games That Could Affect the Bills

Pittsburgh @ Cincinnati

The win over the Steelers last Sunday night secured not only some major style points amongst fans and analysts alike, but the Bills also earn the tiebreaker that trumps them all: the head-to-head victory, which could come up big if Pittsburgh (11-2) carries on this troubling streak of consecutive losses after winning their first 11 games. Many expect them to get back on the right track against the lowly Bengals (2-10-1) in a Monday night divisional match (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Kansas City @ New Orleans

A potential Super Bowl preview in The Big Easy, a Sunday matchup (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) with a Saints team reeling from last week’s upset loss in Philadelphia will be must-see television from every football perspective. The Chiefs (12-1) have the inside track on the top seed and the only first-round bye in the AFC playoffs, as well as the impenetrable head-to-head tiebreaker over Buffalo. Kansas City can clinch the precious top seed if both the Bills and Steelers lose this week.

Detroit @ Tennessee/Houston @ Indianapolis

The Bills are closing in one being one of the AFC top seeds, but they’ll want to keep a close eye on the AFC South proceedings. With Kansas City pulling away in the race to No. 1, Buffalo would probably want to avoid the fourth slot as best as they possibly can. If they do, the earliest they would play the Chiefs in the playoffs would be the AFC title game. The Titans and Colts each sit at 9-4, with Tennessee holding the tiebreaker through a better divisional record (the teams split their yearly pair).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

Buffalo Bills: Sunday night perfectly defines the Brandon Beane era

Brandon Beane’s extension needed little justification, but his Buffalo Bills were more than happy to oblige on Sunday night.

NBC’s Sunday Night Football last visited Bills Stadium in Orchard Park, New York in November 2007, when the establishment still bore the Ralph Wilson Stadium moniker. This visit was one of the first examples of flexible scheduling, a concept the Peacock network introduced upon their return to NFL broadcasting to gain the most attractive matchups to their slate. A divisional matchup between the Buffalo Bills and New England booted a get-together between Chicago and Seattle, a rematch from the previous year’s postseason.

On most occasions, it’d be an honor for the local Bills, in the midst of a rebuild that wound up taking two decades, to be granted such a privilege. But the ensuing edition wasn’t so much a primetime football game as it was a showcase for the visitors…it was as if the Washington Generals somehow got to host a home game against the Harlem Globetrotters. En route to a perfect regular season, the Patriots cruised to a 56-10 triumph, the only Buffalo relief coming through J.P. Losman’s 47-yard touchdown pass to Roscoe Parrish in the first quarter.

Brandon Beane likely wasn’t too concerned about the Bills’ endeavors. As a member of the Carolina Panthers’ front office, he was likely more concerned about their 31-17 loss in Green Bay earlier that afternoon. Heck, he was probably more upset over his alma mater UNC Wilmington dropping a men’s basketball game against Illinois State. Little did he, or anyone, involved in the Bills organization, know, that it would be another 13 years before NBC’s cameras descended upon The Queen City for another football game…or that Beane himself would play a major part in it.

No flexing was necessary for Orchard Park’s latest Sunday night endeavor, as their Week 14 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers was always destined for an evening kickoff. Social distancing endeavors kept jovial hordes of Bills Mafia loyalists out of the seats, but the on-field intensity more than made up for it, as the Bills took a 26-15 decision from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Buffalo (10-3) has now won the first two games of what’s at least a four-game stretch of nationally televised contests. Their upcoming matchup with Denver was recently chosen to open a Saturday afternoon doubleheader (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network) and they’ll play their second Monday night game in three weeks on December 28 against New England.

(Photo: Getty)

The impact of winning in prime time hasn’t been lost on the Bills, especially in the hallowed month of December.

“It’s been really tough for us because we have a set amount of time that we can be in the building,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said, per Adam Unger of WKBW-TV. “(Head coach Sean McDermott) and (defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier) have always preached it’s not about how you play football in September, it’s how you play in December.”

Beane’s extension was granted a multi-year extension that will keep him in Western New York for the foreseeable future. Little justification was needed for such a transaction as it was. Under his watch, the Bills have ended many dubious streaks including the lack of Sunday night games in Buffalo and the worst playoff drought in franchise history (17 seasons). Buffalo has also won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1998-99. A Miami loss helped them inch closer toward their first division title since 1995.

But, if there were any naysayers who didn’t believe in what Beane had to offer, they were effectively silenced by the time Sunday night’s festivities ended.

The Buffalo showcase coincided perfectly with Beane’s extension, as several of the general manager’s additions came up huge for the Bills in their win. Enough has been dedicated to his drafting of Josh Allen, who recovered after a slow start to throw for two touchdown passes and 238 yards, whose inclusion in the MVP conversation can no longer be denied. But with Allen off to a slow start, Beane’s more polarizing and lesser-heralded decisions rose to the occasion and allowed the Bills to make a stronger case as to why they belong amongst the NFL’s elite.

At the head of the cause was receiver Stefon Diggs, who paced Buffalo with 130 yards on 10 receptions, adding a touchdown at the onset of the second half. Diggs became the second Bills receiver to reach the triple-digit mark in receptions during a single season, tying the mark Eric Moulds set in 2002. Another Moulds record, the 1,368 yards he earned in 1998, is just over 200 yards from falling.

Diggs, a former postseason legend, was brought in from Minnesota in exchange for a sizable deal that sent over four draft picks, including the 22nd overall selection in last spring’s draft. Taking on Diggs and his sizable contract (he will be nearly a $50 million cap hit over the next four seasons combined) seemed like a risk and could’ve only opened Beane to further criticism when the Vikings added LSU athlete Justin Jefferson with the lost first-round choice. Jefferson appears to be on the fast track toward Rookie of the Year honors, leading first-year catchers in most major receiving categories.

The idea of a trade that benefits both sides, much like Jerry Seinfeld’s claims of a completely “mutual breakup” on his titular sitcom, seemed completely taboo, especially in football circles. But the early returns on Diggs have shown that Beane has somehow pulled it off. Teammates are certainly enjoying and reaping the benefits such an association has to offer.

“Diggs is so special that as I see him play, I just want to rip off my captain’s ‘C’ and throw it on his chest, because he’s a stud, man,” offensive lineman Dion Dawkins said of Diggs, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “He’s been grinding. He’s come in and he just continues to outperform, outshine and prove to us day in and day out that he’s a different guy and he’s our guy.”

To get through a tough opening stretch, Allen said that he turned to Diggs to get things rolling. The 19-yard scoring toss to Diggs was part of a stretch of 11 consecutive completions earned during the third quarter.

“I can say with a lot of confidence, I think I like any match-up with 1-4,” Allen said, referring to Diggs’ uniform number in a report from Cameron Hogwood of Sky Sports. “He’s one of the best, if not the best guy in the league, but I have supreme confidence in him. All he wants to do is help his team win football games. He’s a competitor and we have very similar mindsets. I love the guy. He goes out there and competes his tail off and I’m just super blessed that we traded for him.”

The Buffalo takeover carried on through some of Beane’s other choices that might’ve flown under the radar. Taron Johnson and Levi Wallace, both day three draft-related selections through the fourth round and the rookie free agency process back in 2018, earned crucial interceptions of Ben Roethlisberger. Johnson’s interception may well have changed the course of Bills history, giving them a permanent lead just before halftime. Another Allen touchdown pass went to another day three choice, Gabriel Davis. It was his sixth tally of the year and good for third amongst rookie receivers (behind Jefferson and Chase Claypool of Pittsburgh). Siran Neal (fifth-round, 2018) provided strong coverage when Johnson had to leave the game due to a head injury. Sixth-round rookie Tyler Bass booted two more field goals. Excepting a desperation 61-yarder at the end of the first half against Seattle, he hasn’t missed a triple in nearly two months.

With every selection, every acquisition playing a crucial part of the Bills’ success, it’s no secret that they’re inching toward the NFL’s elite and no secret why it won’t be another 13 years before NBC comes back to 1 Bills Drive. It creates a strong unit and a sense of camaraderie that isn’t present in some of the NFL’s other locales.

Such unity was perhaps best displayed even before the opening kickoff. In the pregame hype, Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster checked into his second job as a TikTok star by dancing on the Bills’ streaking buffalo at midfield, to the delight of the black and yellow nation. The stunt was noticed not only by SmartPhone viewers, but those who bore the emblem on their white helmets.

But the Bills opted to do their talking on the field. Only when the victory was sealed did they dance, doing so after Wallace took the ball away one last time. Wallace’s celebration was anything but solo…he was joined by his teammates, jovial in earning the first Sunday night victory at Bills Stadium since Moulds, Sam Cowart, and Marcellus Wiley took revenge for the Music City Miracle against Tennessee in the 2000 season opener.

“Seeing them dancing on our logo pre-game and seeing all that, that turns you up a little bit,” defender Jordan Poyer said, per Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com. “It kind of gives you a little second itch to come out and play with some extra fire. We were hyped up on the sideline, we had a big win. And we were just having fun.”

If this keeps up, the true fun hasn’t even begun yet. 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags