Why the Bills — yes, the Bills! — are a stealth playoff contender
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Why the Bills — yes, the Bills! — are a stealth playoff contender

Overlooking the Bills is usually easy. As one of American professional sports’ smallest markets, Buffalo has struggled to receive national media attention in the post-Doug Flutie years. In 15 of the past 17 seasons, the Bills have won from six to nine games, cementing their off-the-grid status.

Even Buffalo's flashy quarterback maneuver last year came in a season when four other teams made major investments in rookie passers. With Lamar Jackson piloting a Ravens division title, Baker Mayfield mounting an offensive rookie of the year pursuit in Cleveland, the Jets’ market producing frequent attention and Josh Rosen spending this off-season in several NFL news cycles, Josh Allen is by far the least discussed member of 2018’s five-QB first round.

A post-draft Super Bowl odds list slotted the Bills in the John Mellencamp Oscar likelihood realm – the 10,000-to-1 figure better than only two franchises’ May outlooks – and only three AFC teams have worse playoff odds entering OTAs. Given the many high-profile off-season moves elsewhere and the Bills’ 21st-century M.O., this makes sense.

But the Bills won six games with a woefully understaffed offense last season. Football Outsiders graded Buffalo’s 2018 offense as the third-worst DVOA attack of the past five years — better than only the 2018 Cardinals and 2016 Rams. 

Considering the free agency and draft capital the Bills allocated to repairing their offense, and Ed Oliver joining a defense that finished second in yards allowed and DVOA last season, the Bills look like a 2019 deep sleeper.

Skepticism is obviously appropriate. The Bills beat no playoff teams in 2018 and finished with a minus-105 point differential. But they went 5-5 in contests in which Allen played throughout.

Although Allen outperformed Rosen, Jackson and Sam Darnold in Total QBR (52.2, 24th – one spot behind Mayfield), the project passer completed just 53 percent of his throws and was inconsistent as a rookie. How could he not be? Equipped with one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL and a bottom-tier offensive line, Allen cannot be properly evaluated yet. That will be easier to do this season.

The John Brown and Cole Beasley arrivals did not move the needle like Antonio Brown and Tyrell Williams did in Oakland, but they give the Bills competence at wide receiver and bring complementary skill sets. Adding a reliable slot target and deep threat, along with mid-level tight end investments in Tyler Kroft and third-rounder Dawson Knox, will be critical to Allen’s development.

Three of Allen’s top four targets last season were either undrafted (Robert Foster and Jason Croom) or currently unemployed (Kelvin Benjamin). 

John Brown is an injury risk but played 16 games last season. The Ravens’ switch to Jackson harpooned Brown's effectiveness. On pace for more than 1,100 receiving yards after nine games, the speed merchant went from 66.8 yards per game with Joe Flacco to 16.2 with Jackson. Brown will make Allen’s deep-ball affinity more fun than it was last year.

Brown, Beasley, Foster and Zay Jones represent a more reasonable aerial crew for Allen. Buffalo's new offensive line will help, too.

The Bills led the NFL in rushing by a substantial margin in 2016; their offensive line deteriorated into one of the league’s worst by the end of last season. After deploying Pro Football Focus’ No. 26-rated line, the Bills signed six offensive linemen and drafted Cody Ford in Round 2. Ford compiled quality marks as a run- and pass-blocking right tackle at Oklahoma last season and should be a Week 1 starter at right tackle or right guard. Placing him next to new center Mitch Morse would allow dependable ex-Washington swing tackle Ty Nsekhe into the lineup over a trending-down Spencer Long. 

Although Brian Daboll’s offensive coordinator career — a run with the Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs from 2009-12 that featured zero top-20 offenses — is not encouraging, the Bills’ front office at least gave him a better chance to field a league-average attack.

Oliver still overshadows Buffalo’s buy-in-bulk offensive overhaul. The Bills preparing to use the measurables monster as a three-technique, as opposed to the nose tackle role he often occupied at Houston (which he still used to register 53 tackles for loss in three seasons), will give Kyle Williams’ successor the best chance at realizing the “Aaron Donald lite” destiny some scouts have attached to him.

Placing a potential interior game-wrecker on Sean McDermott's well-coached defense will further allow the unit to work as a safety net while Allen develops.

Odds Shark gives the Jets better playoff odds than the Bills, but they boast the kind of lineup deficiencies the Bills no longer do. Other middling AFC teams’ issues leave the door ajar for a surprise No. 6 seed. 

The Texans’ offensive line will rely on bargain-buy guards and small-school rookie tackles. A Ravens team that lost plenty defensively is tethered to a quarterback in need of considerable passing improvement. Marcus Mariota's stunted growth gives the Titans quarterback uncertainty; the Jaguars paid a lot for their passer but do not boast weaponry for Nick Foles. Pass coverage and post-Antonio Brown pass offense prompt questions for the Steelers. 

Buffalo's place in this mix does not work without Allen taking a step forward, but GM Brandon Beane ditching the low-ceiling Tyrod Taylor setup allows for an attempt at grander ambitions. This year’s still-rebuilding team will also likely be a low-ceiling operation, but this off-season armed the Bills with a better roster than they have possessed in many years. 

They may not break out of their six- to nine-win comfort zone in 2019, but this rebuild continues to trend in the right direction. The big-spending Jets will receive more attention, and the Dolphins will have greater resources in 2020. But the Bills are currently better positioned than either to be the top Patriots AFC East challenger (even if that’s a pointless distinction for the time being) and potential divisional successor.  

This season will be pivotal in determining how quickly Buffalo can challenge for that spot.

Sam Robinson is a Kansas City, Mo.-based writer who mostly writes about the NFL. He has covered sports for nearly 10 years. Boxing, the Royals and Pandora stations featuring female rock protagonists are some of his go-tos. Occasionally interesting tweets @SRobinson25.

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