Heading into Week 16, the Bills find themselves in a position that has become recently familiar to them: on top of the AFC East, and in contention for the top seed. Off of a series of close games, though, Bills Mafia is rightly measuring their excitement, as the playoffs have not been a kind place for the Bills over the last few years. Here are the critical questions that they look to answer entering this critical phase.
Can The Bills Handle The Big Moments Against The NFL’s Best?
The last three years of playoff action for Buffalo has ended a similar way: a close loss causing an ultimately disappointing end to the season. Buffalo started out their season with a couple of blowouts, and things were looking like business as usual, if not even better. However, the lack of true battle tests against teams they were going to run into in the playoffs was looking like a problem.
To couple with that, the offense had been struggling to find their best form in the latest games. In exchange of dominance, however, the Bills got exactly what they needed: battles. Of their 14 games, nine of them have been decided by single digits. However, they have lost three of these games, and all of their losses have come by three points or less. They had lost three of their first five single-digit games, but have rattled off four straight close wins, five straight overall, in what has been a relatively unheralded win streak.
An important aspect of this has been Josh Allen’s ability to lead game-winning drives in clutch moments. If there was one critique of Allen that was still standing after his performance last season, it was that he struggled in close games. However, whether it’s the last-minute touchdown in Kansas City, or the stunning throw to Diggs to set up Tyler Bass on Thanksgiving, Allen has been finding his way in the big moments lately.
This bodes extremely well for the playoffs, but once the regular season ends, the Bills will be confronting a completely different environment. They’ll have to somehow cast previous years’ demons aside, but the way they are playing on both sides, they just need to play their brand of football to a high level.
Will The Hits To The Bills’ Defensive Depth Hamper Them?
Both of these last two seasons, the Bills have been near the top of the NFL statistically in terms of defense. However, with rotating and recurring injuries on that side, the Bills are struggling to find a unified identity on that side. Just as Tre White returns from his ACL tear from last year, Micah Hyde, a staple of the Bills’ secondary, goes out of the season. The core of their pass rush in Von Miller also went out for the year. While the Bills have playmakers still, and excellent playmakers at that, on defense, without two of the leaders on and off the field, the search has begun for the guys that will lead the unit come playoff time.
Right now, that guy is looking like Matt Milano. On the field versatile linebacker is able to function in multiple roles, from pass rush to run stopping to coverage. He is a quick, physical player who can find the ball and ball carrier and is an effective tackler. This season, he’s been somewhat of a defensive swiss army knife, having 85 tackles (leading the team in solo tackles), 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, eight pass deflections, 17 run stuffs and two forced fumbles, and most importantly has made game-altering plays in a stretch of close games for Buffalo.
Off the field, he’s a career Bill in his sixth year, and has been an emotional leader for the team and involved in the local community. The Bills are still talented on every position group on defense, but guys like Milano will give the defense the killer instinct they need for the bigger games.
Is The Bills’ Current Run Game Sustainable For A Playoff Run?
Having a running back-centric offense is certainly not a requirement for a playoff run, but the Bills’ running game deviates from conventionality more than most attacks. Their run game is QB-led, with Josh Allen’s 705 yards and five TDs leads the team in rushing. Singletary has been reliable as a pass catcher/running back hybrid, and James Cook has backed him up well, but neither has shown the capability to have an RB1 role.
In a surprising imbalance of 517 pass attempts and 374 rush attempts (only 251 of which are from running backs), and 30 passing TDs to 12 rushing TDs, the Bills have somehow still found a way to have not just a functional offense, but also a very effective one. However, whether this will work in the playoffs remains to be seen. The acquisition of Hines has certainly been useful for their passing game, as well as special teams, but he hasn’t been good in a traditional running role. Not having a consistent and reliable presence at running back could hurt the team.
Whether Allen’s running threat can compensate in the big moments remains to be seen, and while he is an extremely reliable and dynamic runner, nothing can replace the impact of a true RB1. Singletary and Cook will need to elevate their levels for the Bills to make an imprint this postseason.
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