New York Liberty clinch final spot in 2021 WNBA playoffs

The New York Liberty are playoff-bound for the first time since 2017 thanks to Sunday losses in Washington and Los Angeles.

The New York Liberty’s 25th anniversary celebration isn’t over just yet.

For the first time since 2017, the Liberty (12-20) will partake in the WNBA Playoffs. Placed in the eighth and final slot of the tournament, New York will take on the fifth-seeded Phoenix Mercury in the opening round’s single-game elimination on Thursday night (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The game will be held at Grand Canyon University Arena as the Mercury’s regular home of Footprint Center is occupied for a concert.

Though the Liberty’s season wrapped on Friday night, Sunday’s results allowed the team to punch its ticket. The wearers of seafoam needed losses from both the Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks to extend their season. Fortunately for New York, the Minnesota Lynx and Dallas Wings were happy to provide an assist.

Minnesota topped Washington 83-77 in the nation’s capital (allowing them to move past defending champion Seattle for the No. 3 seed) while Dallas narrowly defeated Los Angeles by an 87-84 margin to finish things off. The Liberty set up the Sunday scenarios with a 91-80 win over Washington on Friday night at Barclays Center, a win that snapped an eight-game losing streak.

New York now returns to the playoffs after enduring a two-win showing in the Bradenton bubble, one that forced the team to rely on the services of seven rookies, including touted top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. The Oregon alumna partook in only three games before an injury erased most of her freshman campaign. She returned to a revamped Liberty squad that brought in Bradenton’s Most Improved Player and Rutgers Betnijah Laney, as well as WNBA champions Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb through a trade.

This Liberty season, their first as full-time tenants in Barclays Center, began with wins in five of its first six games, the first of which ended in a game-winning buzzer-beater from Ionescu. Though things cooled down in terms of wins and losses, the Liberty made several proud strides throughout the season.

Laney was invited to her first WNBA All-Star Game while Ionescu earned the 10th triple-double in WNBA history in a May victory over Minnesota. Paced by Whitcomb’s 76 (second-best in the league behind Arike Ogunbowale of Dallas), the Liberty also set a new WNBA record with 321 successful three-point attempts. Bec Allen finished third in the league in steals (1.6 per game) while Michaela Onyenwere (8.6 points, 2.9 rebounds per game) is considered a front-runner for the league’s Rookie of the Year Award.

The Liberty and Mercury, two of the WNBA’s three remaining original franchises that remain situated in their original markets (Los Angeles is the other) have met twice in the WNBA Playoffs. New York took the first matchup to advance to the inaugural WNBA Finals in 1997 while Phoenix upset the Liberty as an eighth seed in 2016. Phoenix won two of the three matchups between the teams this season, the most recent being an 80-64 triumph on August 27 in Brooklyn. Two members of the Liberty’s bubble squad, Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, currently reside on the Mercury roster as they were dealt out west in the Howard/Whitcomb deal that also involved the Seattle Storm.

Full WNBA Playoff Schedule

Date Game Time (ET) TV
September 23 No. 7 Dallas @ No. 6 Chicago 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 23 No. 8 LIBERTY @ No. 5 Phoenix 10 p.m. ESPN2
September 26 TBD @ No. 3 Minnesota TBD ABC or ESPN2
September 26 TBD @ No. 4 Seattle TBD ABC or ESPN2
September 28 TBD @ No. 1 Connecticut (Game 1) 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 28 TBD @ No. 2 Las Vegas (Game 1) 10 p.m. ESPN2
September 30 TBD @ Connecticut (Game 2) 8 p.m. ESPN2
September 30 TBD @ Las Vegas (Game 2) 10 p.m. ESPN2
October 3 Connecticut @ TBD (Game 3) TBD TBD
October 3 Las Vegas @ TBD (Game 3) TBD TBD
October 6 Connecticut @ TBD (Game 4)* TBD TBD
October 6 Las Vegas @ TBD (Game 4)* TBD TBD
October 8 TBD @ Connecticut (Game 5)* TBD ESPN2
October 8 TBD @ Las Vegas (Game 5) TBD ESPN2
October 10 WNBA Finals (Game 1) 3 p.m. ABC
October 13 WNBA Finals (Game 2) 9 p.m. ESPN
October 15 WNBA Finals (Game 3) 9 p.m. ESPN2
October 17 WNBA Finals (Game 4)* 3 p.m. ESPN
October 19 WNBA Finals (Game 5)* 9 p.m. ESPN2
*-If Necessary

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Three reasons why the New York Jets can make the playoffs

new york jets, zach wilson

It won’t be easy…but it can happen. ESM has three ways the New York Jets can pull off the unthinkable in 2021.

The world was a different place the last time the New York Jets partook in an NFL playoff game. It was a freezing January evening in Pittsburgh, as the Jets fell one step short of their Super Bowl dream for the second consecutive season in the AFC championship contest.

At that time, MetLife Stadium didn’t exist…well, the building itself was there, but it was free of corporate sponsorship under the identity of New Meadowlands Stadium. A basketball team called the Nets was no longer stationed at the arena next door…then known as Izod Center…but they still played under a Garden State branding. At the cinema, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a mere three movies old and the idea of expanding the Star Wars galaxy was merely fanfiction.

In short…it’s been a while. The Jets’ playoff drought now stands at a decade, a record inherited when the Cleveland Browns clinched a spot last season. What’s scarier is that the second-most dire active drought has made to only five years, a dubious distinction shared by Arizona, Cincinnati, and Denver.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the trend isn’t ending any time soon. The Jets are trapped in a division where one reign of terror in New England gave way to another in Buffalo. Their conference’s wild card landscape isn’t any more forgiving, as established contenders pepper the other divisions. Even their own rivals in the East, Miami and New England, will be back with a vengeance. Combine that with a first-year head coach and franchise quarterback working with a mostly new cast and it’s difficult to see the Jets make major headway in the win/loss columns. Many observers agree that the Jets got better this offseason…but it comes with the caveat that the 2020 season was so brutal that there was nowhere to go but up.

But…ESM is going to look at things a little more optimistically. We have three ways the Jets’ improvements can lead to a long-awaited postseason revisit:

New York Giants, Corey Davis
Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Not Sorry, Wilson

This time last year, the Jets were going into the 2020 season with an offensive cabinet that left much to be desired. Year three of the Sam Darnold era was expected to rely upon a first-round washout (Breshad Perriman), a Le’Veon Bell who was constantly denying that he was arguing with Adam Gase, and an assortment of veteran reserves in the skill positions. A rare silver lining of hope, Denzel Mims, missed almost all of the summer preparation with hamstring issues. Darnold was also working with his third different center in three NFL seasons. Needless to say, the Jets’ offense played a major role in their two-win downfall and Darnold posted the worst numbers of his career.

Granted the second overall pick in April for their troubles over the fall, the Jets opted to start from scratch (again). Before they used that premier pick on one of the touted quarterbacks of the draft…later revealed to be BYU’s Zach Wilson…management did all they could to retroactively atone for the mistakes of the Darnold era. What they’ve assembled for Wilson is, at least on paper, is better than anything Darnold had to work with.

Corey Davis, coming off a career-best year in Tennessee, is the projected top target. Free agency endeavors also brought in Keelan Cole, who tallied 2,242 yards over the last four seasons despite endless quarterback turnover in Jacksonville. They’ll welcome back Mims and reliable slot target Jamison Crowder and when Elijah Moore fell to their grasp with the second pick in the second round at the draft, they immediately pounced. At running back, they found a potential day three draft gem in Michael Carter and signed Tevin Coleman a two-time Super Bowl participant with something to prove, to a one-year deal. Though questions linger at tight end, vis a vis Chris Herndon, they did add red zone option Tyler Kroft to the fold as well.

Wilson will also be able to take in the benefits of a revamped offensive line. Mekhi Becton was well worth the risk of passing on several elite receiving talents last season. He’s now joined by USC protector Alijah Vera-Tucker, who indirectly comes from a pick used in the infamous Jamal Adams trade (a pick acquired from Seattle was traded to Minnesota to move up the board). New York enjoyed a late-offseason surprise in the form of the consistent tackle Morgan Moses, who is expected to take over on the right side.

The depths to which the Jets sank on offense last season (only six games over 300 yards, nine games with 14 points or less) should be impossible to reach at the NFL level. But those called upon are reliable names with championship panache. If the newcomers rise to their potential, the Jets could reopen the scoring floodgates and repopulate East Rutherford’s end zones.

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Pressure Treated

Perhaps no intermission interview during a hockey broadcast is complete without the phrase “pucks on net” being uttered, to the point it’s become a bit of a meme. The football equivalent could be “pressure the quarterback”.

The NFL is undoubtedly a league ruled by offense, evidenced by its inflated scoreboards. But, every so often, we’re reminded that defense wins championships. MetLife Stadium’s turf knows about the concept better than anyone, playing host to the Seattle Seahawks’ 43-8 dismantling of the historically explosive Denver Broncos offense in Super Bowl XLVIII. Even the might Patrick Mahomes isn’t immune to the dangers of a strong pass rush. The Kansas City Chiefs are 44-10 (including postseason) with Mahomes as their starter; half of those losses (a 7-5 mark overall) have come when he’s sacked at least three times. One of those losses came against Todd Bowles’ relentless rush in last year’s Big Game.

The Jets’ downfall has only been exacerbated by a lack of pressure. They’ve applied pressure on only 21.4 percent of opposing dropbacks over the past two seasons, ranking 25th in the league in the category last season…a bit perplexing for a unit overseen by Gregg Williams. When you’re trapped in a division that bestows you two guaranteed matchups with Josh Allen for the foreseeable future, having a fearsome pass rush will be vital.

New York plans to start from scratch again with head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich in tow. The team is set to run a 4-3 base for the first time since the Herm Edwards/Donnie Henderson days. They spent the offseason bolstering the front seven in an effort to prepare for the transition.

For better or worse, the Jets’ most impactful free agency signing for not only the coming season but for the next few years could likely become Carl Lawson. The narrative behind Lawson is that his on-field influence goes far beyond the number in his sack column (no more than 5.5 after 8.0 in his debut campaign out of Auburn in 2017) and he has the less conventional numbers to prove it.

Though the Jets recently announced some their defensive breakouts won’t be available for the start of training camp, it’ll be interesting to see what Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers can do for an encore with a little extra help. The transformation in the front seven further continued with the arrival of Jarrad Davis, whose finest gridiron hours have come in 4-3 sets with the Florida Gators and Detroit Lions. While Davis has struggled to live up to his first round billing since Teryl Austin and Jim Caldwell were dismissed from Detroit, he has kept his pressure numbers consistent. A return to a familiar 4-3 setting could help him up the ante not only as a backfield invader but as a a leader as well. Championship contenders Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry have likewise joined the fold.

Questions, of course, still linger in the secondary. For example, Marcus Maye and Ashtyn Davis (the latter recovering from surgery) are respectively on the Non-Football Injury and Physically Unable to Perform lists, further depleting a safeties group desperate for answers. But the Jets are going to make life a heck of a lot easier for themselves if they can make quarterbacks feel uncomfortable again.

Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Meet the New Boss

Say what you will about the Todd Bowles era: its final chapters were penned in poignancy, as players were disappointed not for themselves, but that they let a strong football mind and a man of great character down. They sang of Bowles’ praises to the very end and many were upset to see him let go after the 2018 season.

Those warm feelings didn’t seem to translate to the ousting of Bowles’ successor. When the woebegone Gase was let go after two disastrous seasons, there was an aura of “good riddance”. The players’ relative silence on the matter spoke volumes, though fans were more than happy to chime in.

The hiring of Saleh, most recently the overseer of the lauded San Francisco 49ers’ defense, comes at an interesting time on the pro football timeline. It’s a move made as the league values offense, posting scoreboards that flirt with those from the defunct Arena Football League. One would also foresee an offensive mind coming in with a new franchise quarterback to mold and develop.

Yet, the players’ response to what Saleh is advertising could slowly signal the return of good vibes to Gang Green football.

Saleh had a tall task to deal with upon his arrival: convince outsiders and prospects that a two-win team that the internet turned into a football meme bank had something to work with, something that hinted at a championship climb. What he did was immediately get to work, adopt a catchy yet inspirational mantra that quickly caught on to players and fans alike, and slowly got momentum back on the green side of the New York football bridge.

What Saleh (along with general manager Joe Douglas) did this offseason was from a free agent unit of not exactly what the Jets were looking for, but finding parts that they needed. Lawson brings pressure, Davis brings knowledge of the 4-3. Saleh mostly avoided stocking up on former Bay Area pupils but the major holdover (running back Tevin Coleman) brings knowledge of offensive boss Mike LaFleur’s system and what it takes to compete for a championship. Wilson’s offensive cabinet is stocked with no true No. 1 receiver, but a series of skill players eager to proves themselves…which could well describe the state of the Jets as a whole in this point in time. Financials likely played a large role, but Saleh’s plan was apparently able to convince Jamison Crowder (by far the most consistent offensive weapon over the last two seasons) to stick around for at least one more season.

Saleh himself has admitted on several occasions that his New York restructure and tenets  are going to take some time to fully install. Votes for Coach of the Year might be more realistic at this point…after all, it won’t take much to improve upon the horrors of 2020. But faith in the right coach is capable of doing some incredible things.

Do you think the New York Jets can overcome the odds and end their postseason drought? If so, how can they do it? Follow @GeoffJMags on Twitter and continue the conversation.

Buffalo Bills to welcome 6,772 fans for Wild Card playoff game

With approval from the New York State government, the Buffalo Bills will play in front of their hometown fans for the first time this season.

As of Wednesday, Bills Mafia is back in business.

The Buffalo Bills announced that they will welcome 6,772 fans to Bills Stadium for the team’s upcoming appearance in the AFC Wild Card playoffs on January 9 or 10. It will be the first professional sporting event staged in New York State with fans in attendance since the Buffalo Sabres’ March 9 tilt against Washington at KeyBank Center.

In the wake of the ongoing health crisis, Bills Mafia, one of the NFL’s most passionate fanbases, has been forced to view the Bills’ historic season from the outside. Buffalo (12-3) currently holds the second seed on the AFC playoff bracket and won its first division title in 25 years. Now, a limited number of fans will play witness to the first playoff game at Bills Stadium since the 1996 Wild Card round.

“We know that the fans have been waiting 25 years to be able to attend a playoff game and we are so excited to be able to allow the limited amount of fans that we can,” Bills co-owner Kim Pegula said in a statement on the team website. “I want to just say that we are so hopeful that there will be many more games that all fans can attend.”

Bills fans recently showed their love and appreciation after one of the biggest wins in franchise history, greeting the team at Buffalo Niagara International Airport following their AFC East-clinching victory in Denver.

The plan to invite fans was made in conjunction with the New York State government, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo. According to Ryan Dunleavy and Bernadette Hogan of the New York Post, the invitation for fans is “the first step in a first-in-the-nation pilot program launched by New York aimed at “re-opening businesses safely” during COVID-19”. The Post has also reported that Cuomo himself plans to attend the game.

According to the Bills’ website, 6,200 tickets (the rest going to the NFL and its representatives) will be available to season ticket holders, notified on a seniority basis. Attendees will be required to undergo a rapid test for COVID-19 (at a cost of $63) and contact tracing will follow after the game. Fans are also required to wear face coverings and social distance during their time in the stadium. Cash transactions and tailgating are prohibited. Should the Bills advance to the AFC Divisional playoff round and fans are again permitted, those who attended the Wild Card game cannot make the return trip.

“We want to just encourage everyone out there, all our fans that we just need to do our part,” Kim Pegula said. “Wear your mask, being compliant to CDC guidelines, social distancing. We all know what needs to be done, we just all need to do our part to get it done so that we can have everyone back in our stadium soon.”

Buffalo will host their final home game of the season behind closed doors on Sunday afternoon against the Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Giants could make the playoffs or pick as high as third overall in 2021 NFL Draft

New York Giants, Daniel Jones

Despite losing to the Baltimore Ravens yesterday, the New York Giants are still very much alive in the playoff hunt. The lowly NFC East has kept the Giants in the playoff hunt despite their 5-10 record. But the Giants do not have complete control over their playoff destiny heading into Week 17. They will need some help to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Inversely, the Giants have the unique opportunity to be awarded a top-three draft pick in 2021 if they miss the playoffs by only one game.

How the Giants could make the playoffs

The Giants will need some help to get into the playoffs next week. First and foremost, the Giants need to beat the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17. The 6-9 Cowboys are on a three-game winning streak entering the final week of the season. Over these last three games, Dallas is averaging 36 points per game. New York’s defense will need to slow down Andy Dalton and the Dallas offense to keep the playoff hopes alive.

The Giants will play the Cowboys at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Then, they will have to wait until the primetime, Sunday night matchup to see if they are making the playoffs. The Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles had their Week 17 matchup flexed to the primetime slot. The Giants need some help from the Eagles in order to make the playoffs.

If the Giants beat the Cowboys next week, they will improve to a 6-10 record, which would be the same as the Cowboys. However, the Giants have the tie-breaker over Dallas because they have the better divisional record. So, then it would come down to the Giants and the Football Team. The Giants also have the tie-breaker over the Washington Football Team.

If Washington loses in Week 17, their record would fall to 6-10 as well. If the Giants win in Week 17, they will have the same record as the Football Team if Washington is unable to win and get in. It might pain many Giants fans to do this, but this week, they will be rooting hard for the rival Philadelphia Eagles to beat the Washington Football Team and help New York make the playoffs.

How the Giants could get the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft

If an NFL team does not make the playoffs, their fans immediately turn their attention to the offseason. More specifically, once a team is eliminated from playoff contention, most fans believe that it would behoove their team to lose as many games as possible. The team with the worst record in the NFL will be awarded the first overall pick in the NFL Draft.

The first two picks of the 2021 NFL Draft have already been clinched. But every single other pick after that is up for grabs. And somehow, the Giants not only have a chance of making the playoffs, but they also have a chance of securing the third overall draft pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

In order for this to happen, the Giants need a lot of help. Firstly, the Giants need to lose to Dallas. This scenario only exists if the Giants are unfortunately eliminated from playoff contention. But it is an exciting fallback plan.

Secondly, the Giants need Philadelphia to beat Washington. New York needs this to make the playoffs, anyway, so Giants fans are rooting for Philly regardless on Sunday night. On top of that, the Giants are going to need some bottom-barrel NFL teams to pull off some upsets.

The Houston Texans need to beat the Tennessee Titans in order for the Giants to get the third overall pick. The Giants also need the Atlanta Falcons to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Titans are very unlikely to lose to a poor Houston Texans team, but it is a divisional matchup, so you never know what could happen. That goes for the Falcons as well who will be playing the Buccaneers. Luckily, the Bucs have already clinched a playoff spot, so they could be resting their stars. This could give the Falcons, who just went down to the wire with the Kansas City Chiefs, a chance to win in Week 17.

Lastly, the Giants need two more upsets to get the third pick. New York needs the Bengals to upset the Ravens and the Lions to upset the Vikings. While the Lions winning is somewhat plausible, it would still be an upset. The Vikings have a better record and Detroit is coming off of a putrid Week 16 performance. The Bengals beating the Ravens, however, is a huge longshot. Baltimore is rolling and fighting for a playoff spot. It is unlikely they let the Bengals take that playoff opportunity away from them.

So, while it is a longshot, it is a possibility for the Giants to receive the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Most Giants fans will likely be rooting for a playoff birth instead, but it might be reassuring to know that, if the Giants miss the playoffs, they will have the opportunity to draft near the top of the 2021 NFL Draft.

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 star acquisition Stefon Diggs: “I could be a lot better”

Stefon Diggs has reached heights few Buffalo Bills have seen before. Yet, the Orchard Park newcomer is anything but satisfied.

In the history of the Buffalo Bills, 49 men have earned at least 100 receptions. Only two have reached that landmark in a single season. Eric Moulds first set the record in 2002, adding intrigue to an otherwise meaningless season finale against a two-win squad from Cincinnati. It took Stefon Diggs 13 games with a charging buffalo on his helmet to get to triple digits.

Diggs, one of the newest players to enjoy the Western New York experience, has wasted no time in leaving a lasting impression on the Bills’ history books. Moulds may be trending over the next few weeks, if only because Diggs is set to break his single-season franchise marks. The pair are currently tied at the century-mark for the most receptions in franchise history (good enough for Diggs to lead the league entering Week 15), and Diggs will have three weeks to earn the 201 yards necessary to pass Moulds in that department.

It also helps that Diggs has saved his best performances for the Bills’ most crucial contests. When NBC’s football cameras descended upon Orchard Park for the first time since 2007, Diggs earned 130 yards on 10 receptions, one of which went for a score in the Bills’ 26-15 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Six days prior, he had 10 other receptions in a visit to Glendale, Arizona to battle the displaced San Francisco 49ers on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. 

But after the former performance, Diggs said perhaps the scariest thing an NFL defender could hear going into the postseason.

“I could be a lot better so I don’t think too much of it. I’m just trying to chase these wins,” Diggs said after his latest showing against the Steelers, per Cameron Hogwood of Sky Sports. He was keener to give credit to his offensive comrades, namely quarterback Josh Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll.

“I give a lot of credit to the people around me, especially Josh Allen. Young quarterback, he put his faith and his trust in me to make plays with the ball in my hands and catching the ball. And coach Daboll, he calls the right stuff, he draws it up upstairs and puts me in the best position to make plays. Then my wide receivers coach Chad Hall, we put in a lot of work in practice. We rep a lot of stuff that is more game-like than anything.”

With Diggs in tow, the franchise quarterback Allen has taken several steps forward in his development, and Buffalo (10-3) has gone from mere playoff contender to potential division champion, one that would be a quarter-century in the making. The NFL has taken notice, as each of the Bills’ four December games will be broadcast on national airwaves. That division title can arrive when the Bills travel to Denver for the league’s traditional late-season Saturday showcase (4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

A talented roster has been assembled in Orchard Park, one that many see in the postseason on a consistent basis moving forward. But many Buffalo representatives have yet to taste how sweet the playoffs can be, much of their experienced limited to cameos on the road in the wild-card rounds of 2018 (Jacksonville) and 2020 (Houston).

Who better to bring in than the star of one of the most renowned highlights in recent January memory?

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Diggs’ time as a Minnesota Viking came to an end after five seasons in March, but his time in purple was immortalized through the “Minneapolis Miracle”, the jaw-dropping 61-yard touchdown in the final seconds of the 2018 NFC divisional playoff tilt against New Orleans. Some place the video on the same playlist as the Immaculate Reception or The Catch.

With Diggs disgruntled in purple, the Bills reached out and sent over four draft picks to obtain him. One of those choices has since become Justin Jefferson, the 22nd overall pick in April’s selection meeting who is well on his way to Rookie of the Year honors.

But in a year filled with uncertainty and a team on the cusp of true contention, Bills general manager Brandon Beane wanted a surefire veteran to work with when it came to molding the offense into a fearsome unit. He knew he had that player in Diggs.

“Yes, the draft is stacked with receivers,” Beane said during the offseason, per Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com. “But I think it became evident with what’s going on around us now, that we don’t know what kind of offseason we’ll have. I just felt like it was going to be really hard, unless I traded up really high to find a guy that I know could walk in, day one, August 1st, and be ready to roll.”

“Obviously, time will tell if this move for Stefon was right. Sometimes the best-laid plans don’t always translate, but we’re confident and that’s why we swung with a first-round pick. You know I love draft picks and that was not easy for me to part with a first-round pick, but at the same time I view (Stefon) as our first-round pick and I thought it was good for the value of getting a guy like Stefon.”

So far, the translation is crystal clear.

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

 

How the Buffalo Bills can clinch a playoff spot in Week 14

The Buffalo Bills’ postseason outlook is already pretty strong, but they can officially punch their ticket with a little help this week.

Buffalo Bills fans could experience deja vu all over again in the sweetest of ways this week.

A Sunday night get-together with the Pittsburgh Steelers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) could play a major role in securing the Bills’ spot in the 2020-21 NFL playoffs. Buffalo (9-3) clinched their spot in last year’s postseason with a win in Pittsburgh during the Peacock network’s prime time showcase. The proceedings move to Orchard Park this season under similar circumstances. Buffalo’s playoff odds already stand at 99 percent, by NFL Network’s Cynthia Frelund has them situated at a 99 percent chance to make the playoffs.

How can the Bills earn a letter next to their name in the standings? ESM has the criteria…

Buffalo Win vs. Pittsburgh

Everything starts with a win against the Steelers on Sunday night. It worked perfectly last season, as they used a 17-10 victory to clinch their second playoff spot over the last three seasons. Pittsburgh (11-1) is no doubt seething after losing their dreams of a perfect season against the Washington Football Team last week.

New England Loss/Tie at LA Rams (Completed)

AFC East fans beyond Foxboro have no doubt relished the Patriots’ demise, but the Buffalo faithful particularly enjoyed their 24-3 loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Rams. The Bills wrap up their season series with the Patriots on December 28 during the final Monday night game of the season. They’ll be seeking their first sweep of New England since 1999.

Baltimore Loss at Cleveland

The Ravens (7-5) are the one thing standing in front of the Bills clinching on Sunday, if only because they partake in the Monday night game against the Browns (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Miami Loss vs. Kansas City

A loss from the Dolphins (8-4) against the defending champion Chiefs would not only help the Bills’ regular playoff case, but also give them a chance to secure the division title next weekend. Buffalo owns the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to a win in Week 2, though they’re due for a rematch in the regular season finale.

Las Vegas Loss vs. Indianapolis

The Jets and their questionable defensive playcalling were of no help to the Bills last weekend, as the Raiders (7-5) earned a bit of a playoff jackpot, their postseason hopes extended by another week. Buffalo owns a head-to-head tiebreaker over Las Vegas from a win back in early October.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Giants in tight race to win the division with Washington Football Team

New York Giants, Ryan Lewis

The New York Giants, for a short while, sat alone in first place in the NFC East. After a clutch, statement victory over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, New York improved its record to 5-7, moving into first place in their division. It looked like New York would hold onto that position, as the 4-7 Washington Football Team was scheduled to play the 11-0 Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night. However, Washington earned a statement victory of its own on Monday, improving to 5-7 and tying the Giants for first place in the division.

The Giants, of course, have the head-to-head tie-breaker over Washington. The division rivals already played their two scheduled contests in 2020, with the Giants coming out with the victory in both of those matchups. Still, Washington and New York have the exact same record after thirteen weeks this season. With the other two NFC East teams imploding, it looks to be a tight race to win the NFC East between the Giants and The Football Team.

The race to win the NFC East

With four weeks left in the season, the Giants have a tight race to win the NFC East. New York is on an impressive four-game winning streak and looks like a completely different team than they were when they were started the season 0-5. But the Washington Football Team has also improved drastically over recent weeks and could try to steal the Giants’ playoff spot.

Washington is now on a three-game winning streak after handing the Steelers their first loss of the season. But with four games left to play, Washington just might have a more favorable schedule than New York.

The Giants’ Remaining Schedule

The Giants will host the 6-6 Arizona Cardinals this week in another intriguing matchup. This is certainly a winnable game for the Giants but they need to be careful when facing Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins, and the Cardinals’ electric offense. This should be a good, close matchup.

Then, in Week 15, the 9-3 Browns will travel to New Jersey and give the Giants one of their toughest tests of the season. Cleveland is on a serious roll in recent weeks and poses a serious threat for the Giants on their upcoming schedule.

The Gmen will then travel to play another AFC North team after that, the 6-5 Baltimore Ravens who have looked like anything but the Super Bowl contenders they were expected to be before the season began. But the Giants cannot sleep on a Ravens team that features the reigning league MVP.

Finally, in Week 17, the Giants will have their final divisional game as they host the disappointing Dallas Cowboys. Dallas is 3-8 on the year and is by far the Giants’ weakest opponent on their remaining schedule.

The Football Team’s Schedule

The Washington Football team’s schedule seems to have less formidable opponents. Washington will travel to play the 5-7 San Fransisco 49ers this week. Record-wise, this is an even matchup. But San Fransisco looked ready to throw in the towel early in last night’s loss to Buffalo and might be cooling off for the season.

Washington will then host a tough, but beatable 8-4 Seattle Seahawks team. The Giants are celebrating a thrilling victory over Seattle this week, but they should hope that Seattle can put together a better performance in Week 15.

The Football Team’s Week 16 matchup is another beatable team. The Carolina Panthers have dealt with many key injuries this season, pulling their record down to 4-8. However, stud running back Christian McCaffery might return in time to play Washington, which could give the Football Team’s solid defense some trouble.

The Football Team’s final game of the season makes things very interesting. Washington will finish their season in Philadelphia against the struggling 3-8 Eagles who just benched starting quarterback Carson Wentz. This projects to be a favorable matchup for Washington, but this will likely be one of those ultra-rare moments where Giants fans root for Philadelphia.

The Path to the Playoffs

Simply put, if the Giants keep playing the way they have been playing, and if they keep winning football games, they should win the division. New York’s defense has been dominant in recent weeks. The best way to win the race to the playoffs is to win out. But, realistically, the Giants might drop a game or two before the season’s end. The Giants should hope to see Washington lose in Philadelphia in Week 17 in order to weigh down their divisional record and give the Giants a greater chance of winning the NFC East.

Buffalo Bills: The best moments in the throwback uniforms

The Buffalo Bills’ beloved throwback uniforms returned on Sunday against Los Angeles. ESM looks back on their finest hours.

With championship dreams approaching this winter, the Buffalo Bills and their fans are ready to party like it’s 1965…the last year the team won an official league championship.

It turns out, the Bills are happy to dress for the occasion as well.

For their Week 12 home tilt against the Los Angeles Chargers, the Bills opted to break out their classic throwback uniforms, an aesthetic more or less defined by the simplified buffalo logo on their helmets. This blast from the past is meant to replicate the team’s look worn from 1962 through 1973, when the “streaking” buffalo was introduced. The Bills’ modern full-time uniforms strongly resemble their throwbacks, but Buffalo completed the look on Sunday with the adjusted helmets.

The gambit paid off. Josh Allen scored through both the air and ground, while Cole Beasley trickery led to a touchdown toss to Gabriel Davis. Buffalo (8-3) took the game by a 27-17 final, allowing them to keep a one-game lead over Miami for the AFC East division lead.

In honor of the Bills’ trip down memory lane, ESM looks to do the same, looking back on when relics from the past previously led to good times in the present…

9/11/05: Carr Wreck

The Bills broke out the throwbacks for the first during the 2005 season opener against the Houston Texans. In a performance that would make Tom Sestak, Mike Stratton, Booker Edgerson, and Georga Saimes proud, the Buffalo defense dominated the day, allowing only 120 yards and earning five sacks and turnovers each. Troy Vincent intercepted Texas quarterback David Carr twice, while Aaron Schobel had two sacks. Chris Kelsay and Takeo Spikes each forced a fumble in the effort as well. On the scoreboard, Rian Lindell booted five field goals to slowly break the Texans’ will, while the lone Buffalo touchdown of the afternoon came on J.P. Losman’s one-yard pass to a then-second-year blocker Jason Peters. The Bills earned a 22-7 victory to kick off the second year of the Mike Mularkey era.

Buffalo wore the throwbacks on the road a week later in Tampa Bay, but the good vibes didn’t come with them in a 19-3 defeat en route to a 5-11 seaso and Mularkey’s eventual resignation.

12/9/07: Royal Entrance

In the midst of a playoff push, the Bills put away notions of a trap game against the 0-12 Miami Dolphins away in the early going. A pair of Robert Royal touchdown receptions from Trent Edwards kickstarted a 24-point first quarter for the Bills, who also enjoyed a separate pair of scoring grabs from Lee Evans. The rookie Edwards completed only 11 passes on the afternoon, but his four touchdown passes were a career-high. Elsewhere, Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch each reached triple digits in rushing yards (uniting for 222 on the ground) while Donte Whitner and Terrence McGee each earned interceptions in the 38-17 win.

Alas for the Bills, that would be their final win of the 2007 season, losing their final three games to drop out of the postseason race.

9/21/08: Edge of 17

The Bills got off to a 4-0 start in 2008, an opening kept alive through a gutsy effort in the throwback against the artists formerly known as the Oakland Raiders. Buffalo’s defense was mostly taking care of business, limiting Oakland to 10 first downs, but turnovers and short drives forced the Bills to face a 23-14 deficit past the halfway mark of the final frame. Through big-gain collaborations with Evans and Josh Reed, Edwards narrowed the gap with a 14-yard scoring pass to Roscoe Parrish, capping off a drive that took just over two minutes. The defense then forced a three-and-out, leading to two more big gains from Parrish and Evans. Lynch would tick off the final yards, situating Lindell from 38 yards out to boot the game winning field goal in a 24-23 triumph.

11/29/09: Defeat Occurs in Real Time

Buffalo introduced the contemporary white version of their throwback during their 50th anniversary season in 2009, coinciding with the American Football League’s 50th anniversary. Matchups with former AFL brethren were marked with special throwback schemes, though the Bills lost these matchups to New England and Tennessee. They broke out the blue version for a visit from the Dolphins, reeling after the firing of head coach Dick Jauron. Happy times briefly returned to The Ralph, however, as the Bills once again used a 24-point quarter to their advantage. Miami led 14-7 entering the final 15 minutes, but Jackson opened the closer with a three-run scoring run to tie it. Most of the tally came over the final 3:35 of game time. Lindell’s 56-yard boot, a career-long, gave Buffalo the lead for good before Drayton Florence’s interception got them the ball back. Terrell Owens cashed in on the very next play with a 51-yard scoring grab from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Another turnover, this one being a Whitner interception, allowed Jackson to add some final insurance, a seven-yard run by Jackson that gave interim head coach Perry Fewell the first of three victories.

9/15/13: He’s the Manuel

Bills fans may well be somewhat spoiled with Josh Allen in town, as some may have already forgotten the failed franchise quarterbacks that preceded his arrivals. Florida State’s EJ Manuel was one of those final attempts. For a brief moment, clad in the white throwback, it truly felt like Manuel was going to be the man to lead the franchise into the future.

Engaged in a back-and-forth thriller with the Carolina Panthers, the Bills trailed 23-17 with 98 seconds remaining. Manuel’s arm accounted for every single yard of the ensuing 80-yard drive that led to victory, capping things off with a two-yard touchdown pass to Steve Johnson…ironcially caught with two seconds remaining in the fourth quarter…that sent Western New York into hysterics over a 24-23 victory. Alas for Manuel, longevity was not to be. He suffered an LCL injury less than three weeks later during a Thursday night game and was never the same upon his return.

9/14/14: Carpe 3’em

The Bills got off to a strong start in 2014, topping the Bears in overtime before opening their Orchard Park slate with a visit from the Dolphins. It turned out to literally be a special victory, as Dan Carpenter booted five field goals and C.J. Spiller brought a kick back 102 yards. On defense, Leodis McKelvin also had an interception, while Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, Stefan Charles, and Mario Williams each had a sack in the 29-10 final.

9/13/15: Lucky 27

2015 was the introduction of the Bills’ trippy “Color Rush” uniforms, but the throwbacks kept their early season slot. The aesthetic allowed Buffalo to start the Rex Ryan era off on the right note, scoring the first 24 points in what became a 27-14 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Tyrod Taylor likewise enjoyed a strong debut in Western New York, tallying 195 yards through the air and 41 on the ground. His first Buffalo touchdown was a 51-yard toss to Percy Harvin on the final play of the first quarter. Karlos Williams and Anthony Dixon scored on the ground, complementing a defensive performance that saw interceptions from Ronald Darby and Aaron Williams.

12/31/17: Miami Nice

The Bills’ first playoff appearance in nearly two decades is unusual in that everyone seems to remember the finishing touch: Andy Dalton’s comeback against Baltimore that fulfilled the postseason caveat. But Dalton’s shining moment wouldn’t have meant anything if the Bills didn’t take care of business during their Week 17 visit to Miami. Each team ended the year in a time machine, with the Dolphins likewise clad in their 1970s-inspired throwbacks.

Buffalo responded in perfect fashion, building a 19-0 lead through a strong game from every side of the ball. Taylor kicked off scoring with a 26-yard touchdown toss to Nick O’Leary before allowing Steven Hauschka to take over with three field goals in the onslaught. In the interim, six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams lined up as a fullback and scored on a one-yard push to help put Miami away. Buffalo took the game 22-16 before returning to the locker room to watch Dalton work his magic.

11/25/18: Revenge is Best Served Old

Ten months after the Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars played to a 10-3 victory for the latter in the AFC wild card playoffs, each team’s return trip was more or less canceled, the two sides saddled with losing records in late November. But Buffalo did earn a quantum of revenge in the rematch, topping the Jaguars in a 24-21 tilt in their vintage threads. It was one of the earliest displays of power from Josh Allen, as the rookie quarterback scored through both the air (Robert Foster being the lucky recipient from 75 yards out) and ground for the first time in front of a Western New York crowd. Isaiah McKenzie had the lone non-Allen touchdown, while Poyer and Matt Milano had interceptions.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags