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

Buffalo Bills LB A.J. Klein named AFC Defensive Player of the Week

The linebacker becomes the third member of the Buffalo Bills to earn a Player of the Week Award this season.

Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Klein had to hold out for a little bit, but a special honor awaited him at the end of Week 12’s NFL action.

The defender earned the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week for his performance in the Bills’ 27-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. Klein led all defenders with 14 tackles (3 for a loss), 1.5 sacks, and a pass breakup. His most notable contribution of the afternoon came in the early stages of the fourth quarter, when he forced Chargers running back Joshua Kelly into a three-yard loss on a crucial third-and-one in the Buffalo red zone. The takedown forced Los Angeles into a field goal that kept the lead at a manageable 24-17 margin.

Klein, 29, is in his first year with the Bills, having signed a three-year deal with the team over the offseason after seven years with Carolina and New Orleans. He struggled in the early portions of the season, but has since come up huge with Matt Milano sidelined due to injuries. Klein previously came up big in Buffalo’s statement win over Seattle, when he earned five tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble.

“I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff. I go out and do what I need to do and try to perform to the best of my ability,” Klein said of outside criticism after the Seattle win, per Mike Sherry of The Post Crescent. “It’s a good feeling when you go out and perform like this. Big plays cover probably some mistakes from earlier in the first half, but I know I can play football.”

“I have all the confidence in myself and I really don’t pay attention to any outward or outside noise. That’s one thing in this league you can’t do. You just have to focus on yourself, focus on the process and get the job done on Sundays.”

In a report from Matt Parrino of Syracuse.com, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier praised the improvement that Klein has shown in subbing for Milano.

“We didn’t know if A.J. could do some of the things that we ask Matt to do. But as we’ve gotten more comfortable with him and he’s gotten more comfortable in our system, we’ve seen him play some much improved football,” Frazier said. “That’s a credit to A.J. just sticking with it and making himself available and then when his number is called, making those plays that are there for him to make.”

Klein becomes the third Buffalo representative to take home a Player of the Week award, joining QB Josh Allen (Weeks 2, 9) and fellow defender Jerry Hughes (Week 7). Receiver Tyreek Hill of Kansas City took home the week’s offensive honor, while New England kicker Nick Folk earned the top mark for specialists.

The Bills return to action on Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers in Glendale Arizona (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Clear-cut kings of the AFC East, Buffalo Bills ready for bigger challenges

After besting New England, control of the East belongs to the build. There’s work to do, but the team is officially ready for loftier goals.

Last Sunday, it finally happened. The rabbit got to have a bowl of Trix. Wile E. Coyote caught the Road Runner. The Buffalo Bills beat the New England Patriots.

Buffalo is in the midst of a potential stretch of prosperity. Success in the NFL is anything but guaranteed…just ask, say, the conference finalist Jacksonville Jaguars…but the Bills, one of seven AFC teams with a winning record over the past four seasons, have set themselves up well in terms of the league’s long-term landscape. But something was missing, the slaying of a proverbial dragon, a monster that had dominated the lands for years. Buffalo’s first year mingling with the NFL’s elite saw then engage in a pair of competitive matchups with the fearsome Patriots but ultimately fall short on the scoreboard to create a 4-34 tally over nearly two decades of meetings.

But with the chief tormenter, Tom Brady, having absconded for pre-retirement in Tampa Bay and several other key contributors in the area dealing with injuries, inconsistency, or both, the Bills finally best their Foxboro foes. The 24-21 final, earned when Division II Ferris State alum Justin Zimmer stripped the ball from Cam Newton, wasn’t pretty but was enough to build a sizable distance between them and the Flying Elvises. It was a symbolic official passing of the AFC East torch in the eyes of some and the impact of such a win was not lost on the victors.

“Man, that was fun,” Bills defender Jerry Hughes said of the win per John Wawrow of the Associated Press. “It feels good, to be honest with you, to be on the other side of the spectrum, to be watching our offense hit that victory formation. It felt amazing.”

Buffalo (6-2) is now up 3.5 games up on the reeling Patriots and a game-and-a-half ahead of a Maimi Dolphins team that made it clear where its focus is when they sat the effective Ryan Fitzpatrick for future franchise man Tua Tagovailoa. Even if one of their immediate chasers pulls off an improbable…and the Bills own all tiebreakers with a 4-0 mark against divisional foes this season…the 6-2 mark should well sustain them in terms of an expanded playoff picture.

The playoffs seem clear. The division looms large. But the Bills know that this is no time to become complacent, even though they’ve managed to earn a sterling start under complicated circumstances.

“Most coaches would say they want to hit their stride in November, December, when the leaves are coming off the trees,” head coach Sean McDermott said of the team’s intriguing first half, per Mary Margaret Johnson of Informnny.com. “Overall, at the end of the day you’re trying to win one game. Rosters change week to week, lineups change week to week, challenges normally come, and with COVID, we’re trying to find one week wins and do the best you can to put the best lineup out there.”

One checkpoint has been reached. Now, it’s time for this team to set loftier goals for themselves.

As another New York state sensation that wore red and blue once learned, with great power comes great responsibility. The Bills need to set their sights on something higher, something bigger. No longer does the New England demon hover over Western New York. The video boards at Bills Stadium no longer need to highlight the Patriots on the out-of-town-scoreboard. Buffalo has taken care of business and has free reign of the division, at least temporarily.

A de facto reward awaits the Bills in the form of three nationally televised games over the final eight games, and that’s before flexible scheduling kicks in. The Week 14 team matchup with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers is currently placed in NBC’s Sunday Night Football package; it would be the first time the peacock network came to visit Buffalo for football reasons since 2007…a game that became a 56-10 shellacking at the hands of the unbeaten-in-the-regular season Patriots.

It’s time for the Bills to defend their newly earned spot amongst the NFL’s elite.

Strong as the Bills have looked, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Despite holding one of the NFL’s best records, they somehow have a negative point differential (-2) thanks to one-sided losses at the hands of Tennessee and Kansas City. The heroics of Zimmer notwithstanding, Buffalo would also like to see some more pressure generated by the pass rush.

Every week they know they’re the tip of the spear for our defense,” McDermott said of the pressure he’s hoping to generate with the front group, according to Alex Brasky of The Daily News (Batavia). “I’ve enjoyed watching them the past few weeks as we continue to build our defense. Their coordination and their chemistry and how they’re playing – that’s a work in progress at this point.

“Regardless of what type of QB you’re going against, you have to have the front to impact the QB. Your front has to play well every week. You have to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”

Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

A trial by fire could be the best thing for the Bills at this point. It ignites this Sunday with a visit from the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in Orchard Park (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Everywhere the Bills go, there’s going to be a larger spotlight on them. It’s better that they get used to it now rather than later.

Buffalo is worried about the surprises that Seattle and their MVP quarterback, Russell Wilson, have in store for them. They’re ready for such a challenge with both wariness and anticipation.

“(Wilson) does everything well,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said about the challenge to Ashley Holder of WGRZ-TV. “He knows the coverages and what makes the offense go. (There is) nothing he can’t do. He can make every throw on the run and always knows the coverages we are in. He’s the total package and a triple threat.”

Their New England demon exorcised at last, the Bills have earned their spot amongst the NFL’s elite. It’s time to prove they can stay there. Thus far, there’s indeed reason to doubt they can truly stick around. For example, they completed their season sweep against the lowly New York Jets but failed to score a touchdown. They’ve looked suspect against established contenders like the Titans and Chiefs. It’s something that the Bills are aware of…and yet another challenge they welcome.

“Our job is to put together a plan to do the things we need to do just to win a game,” offensive coordinator Brian Daboll remarked, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “The stats and all that other stuff, the only important one is the letter (W or L). That’s the most important thing to us, and that’s how we approach it.”

“Certainly, we’d like to improve in really every area of our game. We’re only half a season in, so there’s a lot of growth that we all need to have. We’ll just continue to work at it, grind it out and try to improve.”

The challenges of the NFL resemble the villainous Marvel Comics organization Hydra, where it’s said that if one head is cut off, another will take its place. Good teams find a way to tackle these challenges and fully establish their spot among the great teams. The Bills’ former tormenters from New England developed an endless stream of victorious football by tackling these challenges and taking care of business through doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well (as evidenced by their jaw-droppingly strong divisional record since the turn of the century).

Buffalo is handling the latter part. This trial by fire…with Seattle, Pittsburgh, and Arizona all looming large…will be their first chance to truly stick around the NFL’s great squads.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

The Buffalo Bills’ ultimate test comes on Sunday against New England

The somewhat reeling Buffalo Bills have a golden opportunity to pass the ultimate test against the New England Patriots.

Wide right. No goal. New England Patriots.

The preceding phrases have struck fear into the heart of Western New York sports fans for years on end. In the case of the first two, the smallest of consolation could be granted through time, as they were single-game incidents that continue to build distance from the next generation of supporters. The latter case, however, is a twice-yearly ordeal, a painful, yet necessary endeavor on par with jury duty or inventory at a retail job.

The Buffalo Bills’ rivalry with New England was even but uneventful in the 20th century (New England led 41-38-1 in a series that dated back to 1960), but the tide turned with the rise of Tom Brady in 2001. Since Brady faced the Bills for the first time, a 21-11 New England triumph at the late Foxboro Stadium (in what became Rob Johnson’s final start as a Bill), the Patriots own a ridiculously one-sided 34-4 advantage in the series.

Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not enough that the Patriots have straight-up owned this yearly pair, but the way they’ve done it could be constituted as outright bullying. Former Bills (Antowain Smith and Stephon Gilmore among them) have played central roles in the team’s demise. The method of defeat has featured increased creativity. In 2006, a Ty Warren sack of J.P. Losman became a difference-making safety in a 19-17 loss on opening weekend. A 2009 Monday night tilt saw the Bills lose a 24-13 lead over the final three minutes of game time.

There have been several potential “turning point” of the rivalry. A 31-0 Buffalo shellacking in the 2003 season opener threatened to end the New England dynasty before it truly got rolling. One of Ryan Fitzpatrick’s earliest miracles was the erasure of a 21-point deficit in 2011. But, for the most part, even the Buffalo victories were nothing to celebrate. A win in the 2014 season finale came with most New England backups on the field, the starters resting for yet another playoff run. The Bills did the unthinkable with a 16-0 shutout two seasons later, but it included the massive asterisk of having Brady sit out due to his Deflategate-induced suspension.

At long last, the winds of change have finally descended upon the AFC East. The Bills situated themselves perfectly to succeed when New England finally fell, and their efforts have paid off with a 5-2 record that has them destined toward prime playoff positioning in the conference. This season has been the reaping of meticulous planning by the Bills in their attempt to usurp New England’s throne, a quest partially assisted by Brady’s sojourn to Tampa Bay.

Buffalo has accomplished much over the past three seasons. The team has developed a defense to be reckoned with, found a franchise quarterback, and become a destination for big-name talent from elsewhere…salvation after building a playoff drought that nearly became old enough to legally purchase a six-pack of Flying Bison.

Much has been accomplished over the past three seasons, but there are many lofty goals that have proved elusive. A playoff win is one, but they can’t be gained until winter. First thing’s first…beat the Patriots on Sunday afternoon in Orchard Park (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

The turbulent transition of power of the AFC East cannot be completed otherwise.

The ultimate changing of the guard could’ve come last season, when a meeting in the penultimate week of the campaign decided the modern division’s fate. Such a battle had made its way to 21st-century national television…a 56-10 New England win in Buffalo was notably flexed to Sunday night during the former’s undefeated regular season run in 2007…but this game in an unusual timeslot carried enormous importance. Chosen to partake in a Saturday night spot at Gillette Stadium, the winner would have prime position in the chase for the AFC East. The title was routine for New England but could’ve made a return trip to Buffalo for the first time since 1995.

Buffalo had previously played the Patriots well in the first portion of the yearly pair, a 16-10 defeat at what was then New Era Field. It was a game they had to end without the aforementioned star under center, Josh Allen, who was sidelined with an injury. The opportunity to strike was perfect: the Bills had previously succeeded in their first taste of true prime time action, topping the Pittsburgh Steelers in a flexed Sunday night game six days prior. With the Bills at 10-4, their first accumulation of double-digit wins since 1999, and New England reeling from losses to Houston and Kansas City (not to mention dealing with another camera-induced controversy from their win in Cincinnati a week prior), the time to strike seemed perfect.

Inklings of a team of destiny appeared to be on display throughout the evening. The Bills were playing Patriot games to throw New England into a state of chaos. An unusual receiver scored a touchdown, with Dion Dawkins playing the role of Mike Vrabel. The Buffalo offensive charge was led by coordinator Brian Daboll, a former New England tight end coach who oversaw some of Rob Gronkowski’s finest hours. Daboll’s unit oversaw a 53-yard scoring hookup between Allen and John Brown, one that gave Buffalo a 17-13 lead for a good portion of the second half.

Alas for the Bills, further Patriot-induced heartbreak awaited in the game’s latter stages. New England scored the final 11 points of the game, the majority of which were earned on Rex Burkhead’s one-yard score with just over five minutes to go. With the exception of a 30-yard hookup between Brady and Julian Edelman, a major of the drive comprised of short, but methodically effective, rushes spearheaded by Burkhead and Sony Michel. The opposing defense forced Buffalo into a pair of three-and-outs while the deficit was erased, and stopped Allen’s would-be heroics through relentless pressure and a fourth-down spot just 15 yards away from the tying tally. Celebrations of the Patriots’ 11th consecutive division title soon commenced, relegating Buffalo to wild-card purgatory through a 24-17 victory.

Even in defeat, players and analysts saw the Bills’ respectable performance against the team that routinely tormented them as a potential sign of things to come. But Buffalo’s leaders, like Allen and cornerback Jordan Poyer, weren’t interested in making excuses or relishing symbolic wins.

“We knew we had to finish the game,” Poyer said of the honorable defeat, per Nate Mendelson of BuffaloBills.com. “He’s the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and we knew they were going to come back and try and strike. Like I said, they just made more plays than we did today. I’m proud of our guys today, but in the end, there are no moral victories.”

“It’s one of those games you learn from. “If you don’t learn from it, it’s a complete loss,” Allen added, according to Nicole Yang of Boston.com. “It (stinks). Obviously, they’re an AFC East division rival, and that’s their consecutive whatever it is year winning the division. We got to find a way to get over that hump.”

New York Giants could look into Devin Mccourty this offseason.
Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Brady is gone, but the opportunity lingers for the Bills, whose prosperity lies at a crossroads. They got off to a red-hot start at 4-0, but endured consecutive losses to contenders from Tennessee and Kansas City…each in newly customary primetime slots. The Bills got back into the win column last weekend against the New York Jets, but had to rely on six Tyler Bass field goals after failing to reach the end zone. With the winless Jets and the Miami Dolphins more or less focusing on the future with the transition to Tua Tagovailoa, the AFC East appears to be the Bills’ to lose.

It’s great that the Bills sit at 5-2, situating themselves handsomely in terms of the premature AFC playoff picture. They’re taking care of business and ensuring that they don’t have to be scoreboard-watching in December. Yet, as long as items remain unchecked on Buffalo’s to-do list of returning to respectability, questions and doubts will likely follow them. Failing to visit the end zone against the lowly Jets (even if the defense allowed only four green yards in the second half) is only going to raise more quandaries over whether they truly deserve to be counted amongst the NFL’s elite.

“We have to find ways to finish in the end zone,” Allen said, in a report from WBEN-AM. “It has to be better on my part. A couple of penalties pushed us back and put us in a bad position. Shout-out to T-Bass for making those field goals and getting us the win.” In the same statements, running back Devin Singletary mentioned the need to “get back to the drawing board” and described Sunday’s win as “rough”.

There’d be no better way to get back on track than exorcising the New England demon.

The mere thought seems impossible, but the matchup with the Patriots presents rare ground…a trip game. New England enters with a 2-4 record, reeling from the worst kind of uncharted territory in the Bill Belichick era. The Patriots have lost three consecutive games (their first such ledger since 2002) and the most recent defeat was almost Jets-ian in nature. Their 33-6 loss at the hand of the San Francisco 49ers was the worst margin of the Belichick era at Gillette Stadium and provided little if any bright spots in terms of growth and developments. It’s only perhaps added to Brady’s legacy. Whereas the Patriots have faltered under Cam Newton (whose fast start was stifled by a positive COVID-19 diagnosis), Brady has performed well enough in Tampa to warrant the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Month Award.

But the fact of the matter is that Brady isn’t the Bills’ problem anymore, at least not until slated to play the Buccaneers in 2021. In fact, Brady wasn’t even the Bills’ biggest problem during the most recent editions of their yearly pair. Over the last six get-togethers between the divisional rivals…all of which went the Patriots’ way…Brady only broke 300 yards once and threw only four touchdowns in that span. The real enemy has been the defense, which has held Buffalo to no more than 17 points in each of those past six showdowns. Allen has partaken in three of them…and has thrown five interceptions.

Veteran receiver Stefon Diggs, a newcomer to the Bills-Patriots story, but he knows just how important it will be to master the New England defense. He knows what it’s like to be neutralized by the unit, being held to 49 on five receptions (most of it coming on a 24-yard grab in the first half) in the Minnesota Vikings’ 24-10 loss to the Patriots in December 2018.

“They’re fundamentally sound, Diggs said, per Dante Lasting of BuffaloBills.com. “They do a lot of things well on defense, they are active, they have some great players and they’re smart. All the guys play as a unit, everybody’s always on the same page, they are big on communication, and everybody’s in the right spot so it’s definitely a challenge for us. It’s something that I look forward to for our offense to go out there and try to execute at a high level, make some plays, and fly around. It’s more so that we have to execute better than they do. They do a great job, have a great scheme, and have great coaching staff so it’s definitely going be fun.”

Furthermore, the Patriots show no signs of giving up divisional rights with a battle. Enough living, breathing cautionary tales have been written about declaring the Patriots dead in the Belichick era. Sure, a lot of those redemption chapters have been authored by Brady, but nobody needs to prove their mettle less than Belichick. Brady missed almost the entirety of the 2008 campaign, and that still didn’t stop Belichick-supervised destruction with Matt Cassel leading the way under center in a traditional sweep…one of which was a 13-0 shutout to complete an 11-5 ledger in the season finale.

Defensive captain Devin McCourty was blunt yet confident after the San Francisco debacle in analyzing just what the Buffalo game means to the Foxboro dwellers.

“They’re first in the division. We’re 2-4. So I definitely wouldn’t call us the team to beat this year,” McCourty said in a report from Nick Goss of NBC Sports Boston. “I know, me personally, I talk about it every year, it doesn’t matter what’s happened here in the past. I’ve always said that when you talk about the Super Bowls won in the early 2000s, that doesn’t have anything to do with us. Super Bowls after 2010, they have nothing to do with us.”

“I would say right now, we’d be crazy to think coming into the game that we’re the team to beat. They’re No. 1. They’re gonna be a huge challenge for us on the road. The top team, we’ve got to really bring our A-game coming off three straight losses. I think, for us, our backs are against the wall. We’ve got to go out there and play well.”

McCourty is right in his analysis; the past means nothing as the Bills-Patriots Rivalry enters its sixth decade. That message apparently has resonated through the New England locker room.

If it hasn’t in Buffalo, the clouds of questions over the Bills’ place in this evolving NFL world will continue to hover over Orchard Park more dangerously than that of any snowstorm.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Four plays that decided the New York Jets’ Sunday fate vs. Buffalo

The New York Jets actually held a brief two-possession lead on the Buffalo Bills, but the normalcy of defeat followed soon after.

Usually, three-pointers haunt New York’s trio of professional basketball franchises. This time around, however, one of their football teams ended up on the wrong side of a showcase of triples, namely six from Tyler Bass.

The Buffalo Bills’ rookie kicker converted 6-of-8 field goal attempts on Sunday afternoon, leading a comeback effort over the winless Jets. It negated what was probably the Jets’ most consistent half of the season from an offensive standpoint. They tallied 186 yards and 10 points over the first 30 minutes but only four yards in total over the latter half. Buffalo prevailed by an 18-10 final. Sam Darnold threw for 120 yards and had two passes intercepted in his return from injury, while La’Mical Perine scored his first career NFL touchdown.

ESM looks back on the Jets’ latest loss, grabbing a play from each Sunday quarter that, for better or worse, that shaped their past, present, and future of their team…

1st Quarter: Sack Attack

At first glance, it’s hard to truly hate what the Jets (0-7) were able to accomplish on their opening drive. They were able to enjoy a 29-yard field from former CFL and XFL participant Sergio Castillo to give them a rare early lead. But it could’ve been so much more from a New York standpoint.

In his first drive back from the injury-induced absence, Darnold led a swift, methodical drive, situating the Jets at the Buffalo 17. However, the Bills’ defense gave him a cruel welcome back in the form of a shared sack between A.J. Epenesa and Trent Murphy. The seven-yard loss more or less killed New York momentum before it could truly return, a pair of short passes failed to erase the damage and a Buffalo penalty couldn’t even help matters at a five-yard charge. Not only did it forced the Jets to end a relatively successful drive with a mere Castillo triple, but it was a foreboding warning of things to come. Darnold would go on to be sacked six times over the course of the afternoon.

2nd Quarter: Misplaced Faith

The Jets’ propensity for going for it on fourth down should be somewhat commended. Knowing there’s little, if anything, to lose in this woebegone campaign, New York has taken Bob Dylan’s axiom of “when you ain’t got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose” to heart. The Jets went for it on fourth down 10 times entering Sunday, the fourth-most in the league.

Converting them, however, has been the real challenge.

The Jets converted only two tries in their prior decalogue of attempts, and that number didn’t improve on Sunday. Playcalling has been the main reason behind the lack of success, in yet another recurring problem. Playcalling affairs were turned over to offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains for the Buffalo matter, but his shotgun draw to Perine on fourth-and-one…putting the Jets’ first-down plans in jeopardy before they could ever truly begin…left a lot to be desired. Jerry Hughes and Quinton Jefferson invaded the backfield to stop Perine in his tracks, stifling the Jets’ attempt at points. A field goal was going to do the Jets no good with a 3-0 lead…but neither would a shotgun draw.

THat play wound up permanently shifting the game’s momentum. The Jets earned 103 yards over their first two possessions…they gained 87 for the rest of the game.

3rd Quarter: Can You Diggs It?

Defensively, the Jets actually did a decent job in holding Stefon Diggs in check, keeping him at 48 yards on six catches. But he still managed to change the course of the game in the early stages of the third quarter.

Facing third-and-five at the Bills’ 32, the Jets defense had a major opportunity to swipe momentum away. Alas, they couldn’t stop Diggs to the right, as the veteran receiver picked up a crucial 12-yard-gain that kept the Bills’ drive alive. It would lead to a 46-yard field goal from Bass, a triple that narrowed the Jets’ lead to 10-9. Who knows how much things would’ve changed with this simple stop, but it’s safe to say that that play affected the Jets’ mindset for the remainder of the affair.

4th Quarter: Block-Down

For all their shortcomings, the Jets still had an opportunity to push things to overtime, the score at a manageable 18-10 tally thanks to Bass field goals and a strong defensive effort that kept the BIlls out of the end zone. Alas, it wasn’t enough to push the Jets forward for a new opportunity to nab their first win of the season.

Pressure from Buffalo was raised to 11 on the final attempt, swarming Darnold on the first play of the final drive. They picked up 15 yards on a brutal hit on Breshad Perriman by Michah Hyde, but the Bills continued to be relentless, forcing George Fant into a holding penalty just to keep things relatively sane. It was Hughes that wound up rising to the highest of occasions, not only sacking a reeling Darnold but then picking up an interception through the quarterback’s desperation and sealing the Jets’ fate.

Particularly troubling in this game was the return of Mekhi Becton. The rookie had a decent day blocking, but had two penalties, including one that wiped out a 14-yard third-down conversion from Chris Herndon. Becton had one penalty through the first three games of his career.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets Game Preview Week 1: Buffalo Bills

New York Jets, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

A familiar foe awaits the New York Jets in their return to action, as they’ll face the Buffalo Bills for the second straight kickoff weekend.

What: New York Jets at Buffalo Bills
Where: Bills Stadium, Orchard Park, NY
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
Watch: CBS

It will be deja vu all over again on Sunday afternoon for the New York Jets. For the third time in four seasons, the Jets will open their regular season proceedings against the Buffalo Bills.

Special, unusual circumstances hover over this particular meeting, however. Not only will fans be barred from entering Bills Stadium, in conjunction with COVID-19 protocols, but this will be the first time the teams are facing off against a squad in different-colored equipment. Training camp scrimmages and preseason games were put on hold as the NFL navigated its offseason through the ongoing health crisis.

“In preseason games you kind of have that feeling of, okay, this is live. I can get sacked here and things can happen and I can escape the pocket without the whistle being blown so now that it is the real deal, kind of another feeling out process,” Jets quarterback Sam Darnold remarked in transcripts from the Jets. “In the offseason, you try to simulate live reps and all that with coaches with noodles or with different things to throw out you. You try to simulate things like that, but there’s nothing like a guy who’s trying to tackle you. It’s just going to be going out there on Sunday and I think the first couple series, we’ll start to get back into a groove, especially just speaking for myself, if I get hit a couple of times, I feel like I’ll start to get back into it a little bit.”

The Jets (7-9) are coming off their best win tally since 2015, but matching that output might be a tall task with several key contributors from last season having either moved on (Jamal Adams) or opting out of the 2020 proceedings entirely (C.J. Mosley). Players from both sides of the ball are set to make their debuts, including a completely revamped blocking unit headlined by the arrival of Mekhi Becton, the 11th overall pick of April’s draft. Darnold’s top targets have likewise been adjusted, with second-round choice Denzel Mims on pace to man the receiving corps alongside veteran arrival Breshad Perriman. Adam Gase will also enter his second season as head coach of the Jets.

Meanwhile, the Bills (10-6) have been pegged by many as AFC contenders after reaching 10 wins for the first time since 1999. The Bills reached the playoffs for the second time in three seasons back in January, falling in overtime to the Houston Texans in the wild-card round. Buffalo’s offense is headlined by young talents Josh Allen and Devin Singletary, while All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White returns after inking a $70 million contract extension. Buffalo is coached by Sean McDermott, who has earned a 25-23 record over three seasons with the team.

The Series

This will be the 120th meeting between the Jets and Bills, a showdown that dates back to 1960. Buffalo leads the all-time set by a 63-56 tally. Sunday also marks the third time over the last four seasons that the Jets and Bills have met on opening weekend.

The Bills won last year’s debut in a 17-16 final at MetLife Stadium. Buffalo made up a 16-0 deficit in the second half, their comeback completed with a 38-yard touchdown pass from Allen to John Brown. The Jets built their lead through Mosley’s interception return for a touchdown and a nine-yard Darnold hook-up with Le’Veon Bell. New York would close the year with a 13-6 win in Orchard Park during the final week of the regular season, taking advantage of resting Bills starters. Darnold and Jamison Crowder united for the only touchdown of the day on a one-yard pass.

The Jets and Bills have split their yearly pair in each of the past three seasons.

History Happens: 2002

Overall, the Jets and Bills have met in Week 1 a dozen times, with Jets leading 8-4 in the subset. The 2002 get-together was one for the literal record books as the Jets’ 37-31 victory was earned through what was then the fastest overtime in NFL history.

Buffalo tied the game with 26 seconds left in regulation on a Drew Bledsoe touchdown pass to Eric Moulds but the Jets immediately put the concept of momentum aside. Chad Morton took the ensuing overtime kickoff back 96 yards, ending the extra period only 14 seconds in. It was the second kickoff return of the game for Morton, who currently serves as the running backs coach in Seattle.

They Said It

“We try to put our players in the best position possible. So, when guys do go down, when we do have some kind of change, we can’t flinch as coaches, we just adjust what we’re doing. We do everything we can to put those guys in the best position possible. Sometimes it’s through trial and error, sometimes it’s, ‘Hey prove to us that you either can do something or you can’t.’ That comes through the entire time of training camp.”Adam Gase on the “next man up” philosophy, per Jack Bell

“We went through the (scouting) process with Sam. I have a lot of respect for Sam and his work and who he is. As you look at him, he’s mobile, he does a good job in the pocket (and) he does a good job getting them in and out of checks at the line of scrimmage based on the looks he’s presented with. So, he looks like a young quarterback with a lot of upside.”Bills head coach Sean McDermott on Sam Darnold, per Eric Allen

Matchup To Watch

T Mekhi Becton vs. DE Jerry Hughes

The Jets were likely among the teams most affected by a lack of preseason games. Four consequence-free opportunities would’ve been a good chance for a completely rebooted offensive line to build some chemistry. Individually, Becton could’ve gotten used to the pace and surroundings of an NFL environment.

Becton has yet to play a single down in green, but he already holds an unerasable place in team history. If he succeeds, and the Jets’ offense enjoys a much-needed wake-up call, Becton will go down in the same sentence as D’Brickshaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. If his NFL career doesn’t pan out the way the Jets are hoping, the ever-prevalent hindsight of football fans and draft enthusiasts everywhere will question why the Jets didn’t go for one of the talented receivers available to them at No. 11. A quartet of game-paced scrimmages would’ve been a good way to start his professional career.

The Louisville alum will immediately be thrown into the NFL fire. Attacking Darnold’s blind side will be Hughes, the talented pass rusher out of TCU. In his last outing, Hughes sacked Deshaun Watson three times in a playoff game. He’s earned 51.5 sacks over an NFL career that’s about to hit a decade. He owns a career-best 43 tackles, including 10 for a loss, against the Jets. Thus, Becton has no opportunity for a “training day” afforded to countless rookies before him.

The lack of preseason games has also appeared to affect Hughes as well, as he’s had no opportunity to see Becton work in the New York offense.

“It kind of feels a little bit like college-esque in the sense of there’s no preseason games to go off of,” Hughes explained to Maddy Glab of BuffaloBills.com. “Some guys don’t even have NFL tape, so you’re pulling up things from the archives of what they did a year or two ago in college. It’s kind of eerie being in this position just because we’ve always had the preseason games to kind of catch our bearings, catch our breath and get into the whole game flow.”

The Jets Will Win If…

The lack of preseason game preparation doesn’t come back to haunt them.

Shortening or eliminating preseason games has been proposed even in “normal” times, but Gase has been a rare voice against the concept. The Jets are a team with many newcomers, both rookies and veterans alike, and they could’ve used an opportunity to build chemistry in what could well be a trying season. Teams like Buffalo are relatively set due to their sense of continuity and relatively little turnover at the top of the depth chart. Even with expanded playoff capital in the AFC, it’s going to be a tall task to ask the Jets to reach the playoffs. Getting some good wins, especially against divisional opponents filled with hope and expectations, would help a tricky season go by a lot smoother.

The Bills Will Win If…

They avoid the trap.

Almost everyone’s preseason darling has emerged from Buffalo. But how many preseason Super Bowl champion have we seen fall into oblivion once the real games get going? The “Dream Team” edition of the Philadelphia Eagles certainly comes to everyone’s mind. The Bills are so eager to be known as the Empire State’s team and they would be wise to take advice bestowed to one of the state’s most famous fictional residents: with great power, comes great responsibility. Buffalo is in a spot where they’re the team that’s in the best spot to pick up where New England left off. Thus, they’re already in a position to play trap games. The Patriots built their sterling reputation by dominating subpar divisional competition. If the Bills truly want to take over, they need to handle affairs in winnable games.

Prediction

Sunday could be the start of something extraordinary. Jets-Bills has never truly been must-see, prime time television, but there’s a prime opportunity for the yearly pair to become one of the NFL’s strongest rivalries. Both teams need to take care of their business and win games for the rivalry to truly flourish, but the New York factor and the battle of 2018 draftees under center could make a premiere matchup in the coming years.

The Jets could take advantage of Buffalo’s most unusual trap game scenario. To bring up the lack of August football factor again, we could see some sloppy football in the early stages of the year. Such surroundings tend to favor the underdog. But asking the Jets to win their first game with mostly new personnel is going to be a tall task without the proper game-pace preparation. The time the favored Bills spend getting their game legs back could allow the Jets to keep pace, but asking for a win is simply too tall a task at this point in time.

Bills 19, Jets 13

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

 

One burning question for each AFC East team

New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New England Patriots, Sam Darnold, Tua Tagaviola, Cam Newton

The AFC East has been at the forefront of league news throughout the past couple of months. Tom Brady left New England, Cam Newton replaced him. Miami drafted Alabama standout and injury-riddled Tua Tagovailoa. New York traded Jamal Adams to the Seahawks. Buffalo traded for veteran wide receiver Stefon Diggs.

Through all the changes and breaking news, each team still has some questions to be answered. So, let’s address one burning question that remains for each team in the division.

New England Patriots

Question: Which Cam Newton are they getting?

From the moment Cam Newton was drafted by the Panthers in 2011, he was one of the most dynamic players in the league. He led Carolina to a 68-55-1 record as a starter and brought them to the Super Bowl in 2015. Being a true dual-threat quarterback, he totaled 29,041 yards with 182 touchdowns through the air and 4,806 yards with 58 touchdowns on the ground.

However, he has an injury history. He’s coming off a shoulder injury that caused the Panthers to move on from him. No now knows how he’ll play or if he’ll even be a sliver of what he once was. Now, obviously, Cam Newton has been posting videos of himself in the gym and on the field, and he looks good. That doesn’t prove anything. The only way to know for sure is through real game action.

The entire Patriots season is riding on Cam Newton’s health and ability. If he is anywhere near what he once was, they’ll be good. If he’s not, they won’t. So, the question remains, which Cam are they getting?

Buffalo Bills

Question: Can Josh Allen improve as a passer?

Josh Allen has helped turn this Buffalo Bills team into a real playoff team. The third-year quarterback led the Bills to the playoffs last year, before losing to Houston 22-19. His performance in that game is a perfect example of how he needs to improve.

In that game, Allen had 9 carries for 92 yards. That’s a whopping 10.22 yards per attempt. He also threw for 264 yards. However, he didn’t have a touchdown and completed just 24 of 46 passes for a 52.17 completion percentage. That is not ideal for a quarterback that is expected to be the franchise guy.

Yes, he’s helped lead the Bills to a 15-12 record as a starter and a playoff appearance, but it’s not because of just him. He has been helped out by a fantastic defense, as well. Allen can certainly make plays when needed, but most of those big-time plays are made on the ground. He needs to improve as a passer because, frankly, a 56.3 completion percentage through two seasons isn’t going to cut it.

New York Jets

Question: Is Adam Gase the right coach for this team?

I could’ve gone two ways here. I could’ve either focused on Gase or whether or not Sam Darnold is the future of the Jets. Gase seemed like the better question because the Jets haven’t had great luck with coaches, everyone seems to have mixed feelings about Gase and, well, I didn’t want every question to be about a quarterback. So, let’s get to the point.

Adam Gase’s hiring was a somewhat questionable one for many fans because people such as Mike McCarthy were available. McCarthy has been to a Super Bowl, Gase hasn’t even come close. He blew onto the scene when he took over as the head coach of the Dolphins and led them to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. Since then, with the Dolphins and Jets, he’s had three consecutive losing seasons.

His first season as the Jets head coach was off to a dreadful start, but a late-season push led to a 7-9 record. That push may very well have saved his job. Sure, he still might’ve stayed as head coach, but his “leash” would’ve been much shorter. In order for Gase to help his own case, the team needs to at least improve to 8-8. If they finish with another losing record, fans are going to be calling for Adam Gase’s job.

Miami Dolphins

Question: Can Tua Tagovailoa stay healthy?

Okay, time to go back to a quarterback. Tua Tagovailoa was one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football when he was on the field. He replaced Jalen Hurts as the quarterback for Alabama in the second half of the 2017 National Championship. What’d he do? He won the National Championship as a true freshman.

As a sophomore, he led Alabama to another championship appearance but lost to Clemson. Last season, as a junior, he dealt with a massive amount of injuries. He had surgery ankle surgery after a game against Tenessee. Later in the season, he suffered three injuries on one sack. He broke his nose, suffered a concussion and his hip dislocated and fractured the posterior wall. That one instance forced everyone to begin questioning his draft stock and NFL future.

When the Dolphins drafted him fifth overall, they took a big gamble on the collegiate star. If he can fully rebound from the injuries, specifically the hip, he has tremendous upside and may be the best quarterback in the draft, ahead of Joe Burrow. If he can’t stay healthy, the Dolphins’ future plans have to take a new route. All in all, the entire future of this team seems to be resting on Tua’s health at this point.

 

Photo edit credit: Anthony Rivardo