ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Given up for done after consecutive losses in early November, the Buffalo Bills have their fans clambering back onto the bandwagon and checking out the latest playoff projection simulators to verify what their eyes apparently fail to see: a bona fide contender.
Sure, at 8-6, the Bills’ path to the postseason remains complicated.
And the team could have made it easier by not blowing late leads to New England and Denver, with “12 Men” — a too-many-men penalty that resulted in the Broncos hitting a game-winning field goal as time expired — already stenciled on this season’s epitaph should Buffalo fall short.
Since then, though, the Bills have regained their swagger, overcome their injury-depleted defense and discovered a new dynamic running dimension to their offense. All those elements were on display in the James Cook-led 31-10 stampede over Dallas on Sunday.
After consecutive wins against the Cowboys and Chiefs, the Bills getting to 11 wins doesn’t appear as unfathomable as it seemed three weeks ago. That’s when McDermott’s future was being called into question after Buffalo squandered leads in the final minute of regulation and overtime in a 37-34 loss at Philadelphia.
Buffalo even has a shot at claiming its fourth straight AFC East title, which could come down to a season-ending showdown at Miami. The Dolphins are 10-4, but the Bills have already beaten them.
For all the criticism heaped on McDermott, perhaps the seventh-year coach deserves a little praise for keeping the ship afloat.
He fired offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and replaced him with quarterbacks coach Joe Brady in a move that’s reinvigorated Josh Allen and the offense. After going six games without scoring 26 or more points, the Bills have topped 30 in three of four outings under Brady.
Buffalo’s offense has become less Allen-centric and more balanced, with Brady placing an emphasis on the ground game. In four outings, Cook has gone from ranking ninth in the NFL with 837 yards from scrimmage to entering Monday third on the list with 1,401. He’s scored four touchdowns during that stretch, bringing his season total to six.
Cook’s numbers got a big boost from his 179-yard rushing performance against Dallas, but credit Brady for sticking with what worked.
This is the type of complementary style of play McDermott previously sought from his offense to offset Buffalo’s defensive deficiencies. Too much of the burden was being placed on Allen, which led to him committing nine turnovers over a six-game stretch before Dorsey was fired.
Allen has just three giveaways in four games, and enjoyed his first turnover-free outing in 10 games on Sunday.
And then there’s the innovative adjustments McDermott has made to his defense to offset injuries to cornerback Tre’Davious White (torn Achilles tendon), linebacker Matt Milano (right leg) and tackle DaQuan Jones (torn pectoral muscle).
The Bills enter Monday having allowed the 12th-fewest yards and fourth-fewest points in the NFL. Against Dallas, Buffalo limited the league’s top-scoring offense to three points through 57 minutes and a season-low 195 yards overall.
“I think we’ve definitely found ourselves as a team. We’ve started to play with a lot of swagger, a lot of juice,” defensive tackle Ed Oliver said Sunday. “It’s contagious. We’ll be in the playoffs not before long.”
Three more wins just might do it.
Ball control. The Bills have topped 35 minutes in time of possession in each of their past four outings, keeping their defense well rested.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
A schedule that is out of Buffalo’s control. The Bills have a short week to prepare before traveling to face the Los Angeles Chargers on Saturday night. The Chargers have been off since Thursday, giving interim coach Giff Smith a few extra days to prepare since Brandon Staley was fired following a 63-21 loss to Las Vegas.
Cook, who else? The second-year running back’s 221 yards from scrimmage on Sunday were the most by a Bills player since Fred Jackson had 227 in a 30-7 win over Indianapolis to close the 2009 season. Cook is 32 yards short of becoming Buffalo’s first player to reach 1,000 yards rushing since LeSean McCoy in 2017.
It’s hard to knock anyone at the moment.
DT Jordan Phillips is out indefinitely after having wrist surgery. … McDermott said Micah Hyde (neck) and edge rusher A.J. Epenesa (rib) are both improving after not playing against Dallas.
10 — Number of games Allen has had this season with a TD passing and rushing to break the NFL record of nine set by Kyler Murray in 2020.
The Bills can’t afford a misstep against a floundering Chargers team that’s missing Justin Herbert.