The midway point of the season always brings with it a handful of answers to questions we had coming into the year. On the other side of that coin, it also sprouts a plethora of new questions as we embark on the stretch run and mad dash to Super Bowl LVIII. Arguably the biggest question in the NFL at the moment is this: What is wrong with the Bills?
Back in the summer, Buffalo was a popular Super Bowl pick with Josh Allen among the betting favorites to win the MVP award. With nine games in the books, Sean McDermott's team is barely hovering above .500 at 5-4, and the Bills' three losses over the past five games have them on the outside looking in on the playoffs if they were to begin today. Fortunately for the Bills, they still have an entire half of the season to dig themselves out of this hole and keep their hopes of a deep playoff run alive. As they look to do that, let's dive in on a handful of key factors that have Buffalo in such disarray at the moment.
We can't talk about the Bills' skid without noting that they have been hit hard by injuries at key positions on defense. Most notably, the team lost both linebacker Matt Milano (leg, knee) and cornerback Tre'Davious White (Achilles) for the remainder of the season. Milano suffered a fractured leg in London in Week 5 and that came the week after White tore his Achilles against Miami. It's no coincidence that this dip in the standings coincides with the loss of both of these players.
At linebacker, Milano -- the longstanding heart and soul of Buffalo's defense -- was taking on even more of the load after the Bills lost Tremaine Edmunds in free agency last offseason. When also accounting for the loss of Edmunds, that strength at linebacker has been gutted. Meanwhile, quarterbacks are averaging 274.4 passing yards per game against Buffalo's secondary in the five games played without White. With him in the fold in the first four games, quarterbacks were averaging 194.2 yards through the air. We'll dive into other problems with the Bills, but losing two of their five best defensive players hasn't helped.
The Bills are a completely different team when they are at home compared to being on the road. At Highmark Stadium, they are a crisp 4-0 and are averaging 31 points per game while holding opponents to 23.2 points. When they leave Buffalo, that's when their play drops off. In the five games they've played outside of upstate New York (including London where they were technically considered the home team), the Bills are 1-4 and are scoring at half the rate, averaging 14.3 points in those contests. They're also still allowing opponents to score over 20 points per game (20.6).
A lot of those struggles can be placed on the shoulders of Allen, who has seen a dramatic drop in production outside of Buffalo.
|Josh Allen stats
The Bills currently have the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Dolphins, so the AFC East crown is still within their grasp, but they should simply be trying to get in a wild card position at the current moment. If that's all they can muster to get into the postseason, that'd mean they'll likely be on the road for however long they are in the playoffs. Judging by the way they've performed away from Highmark Stadium so far this year, that postseason run may not last long if things don't change.
Sluggish starts have plagued the Bills this season and have contributed to this slide in the standings. Just last week against Cincinnati, they found themselves in a 21-7 hole by halftime thanks to turnovers and an inability to move the chains on third down. That was also the case in their upset loss to the Patriots, who built a double-digit lead in the first quarter back in Week 7 and they were shut out in the first half of their eventual win over the Giants the week prior. While they may be able to get away with it and claw themselves to victory against inferior teams like New York, that's an impossible task against the more elite teams like the Bengals as we saw in Week 9.
In the first quarter this season, the Bills rank 20th in the league in time of possession, holding the ball on offense just 48.56% of the time. They also rank 26th in points allowed in the opening quarter, letting opponents average 5.8 points out of the gate. That number is even worse when shrinking the scope to just the last three weeks where they are allowing eight points per game in the first quarter (31st in the NFL).
We've referenced Allen a few times already (particularly his home/road splits), but it does seem like the quarterback is playing at less than 100%. He has been listed on the injury report with a right shoulder injury dating to Week 7. While he hasn't missed a game because of the injury, it does seem to bother him in-game as he's routinely seen being checked out by personnel on the sideline and has been seen holding it at times.
Even with that injury accounted for, Allen has made several questionable throws this season, which has led to turnovers. The Bills QB has thrown an interception in five straight games, which is the second-longest active streak among starting quarterbacks. It's also been 43 games since Allen has gone consecutive games without a turnover, which is the longest active streak in the league. He also has the most giveaways and interceptions in the NFL since the start of last season. That trend simply needs to be correct if the Bills want to remain competitive in playoff settings, especially as the schedule ramps up. If Allen is eliminating scoring opportunities and giving short fields to the opposition, that'll be a nail in the Bills' coffin.
Outside of the turnovers, Allen and the Buffalo offense have also struggled to push the football down the field. On throws with 20 or more air yards, Allen is completing 30% of his passes with just one touchdown and six interceptions. Since Week 6, he has only completed three of his 20 attempts from that distance. That's quite the dip compared to last year Allen was completing 39% of those throws with nine touchdowns and just four picks.
The road ahead
vs. Denver Broncos (Monday)
vs. New York Jets
vs. Dallas Cowboys
at Los Angeles Chargers (Saturday)
vs. New England Patriots
|at Miami Dolphins
These next two weeks are extremely important for the Bills. They'll be a Highmark Stadium where they've played well and yet to lose this season. If that trend continues, they'd find themselves three games above .500 right as they enter the toughest part of their schedule. Not only do they have to play the team that was in the Super Bowl a season ago, but will do so on the road which, as we've noted, has been difficult for them. If they stumble in any one of these next two games and are merely hovering at .500, losses to Philly and Kansas City could send them into a serious spiral. With that in mind, it's not hyperbole to suggest that these games against the Broncos and Jets are absolutely must-win situations for McDermott and Co.