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Jerry Sullivan’s Mailbag: Any losses by Steelers are a help to Bills’ playoff chances

What? Christmas is two weeks from today? I should be addressing Christmas cards and shipping boxes back home to Rhode Island, not sifting through questions about the Bills’ pass rush and their playoff chances.

But things are getting interesting with the Bills, so the mail traffic was brisk this week. I even got a note from Santa, asking what’s all this talk about Rex Ryan having a problem with Blitzen?

OK, so maybe I got a little carried away by my comic debut at the Larry Norton roast. Let’s get on with this week’s mail:

@bcredmosquito asks: Come January 3rd, will the Bills be playing a game where they still have a chance to make the playoffs, even if they need help?

Sully: Timely question, Bcred, since it’s never too early to ponder all the possible playoff scenarios, although you run the risk of having your head explode.

Yes, I think the Bills will still be alive in the final week. Last year, they were eliminated the week before in Oakland, which spared Bills fans the anguish of having to pretend they could win a game in Foxborough that actually mattered.

The Bills should go 2-1 in their upcoming three-game run through the sorry NFC East. That would put them at 8-7 heading into the finale against the Jets at The Ralph. In that event, the Bills would probably have a chance at a wild card, assuming the Steelers or Jets don’t win their next three.

The Chiefs are 7-5 and have an easy schedule the rest of the way. So I’m assuming they get one of the wild cards. That would likely leave the Bills, Jets and Steelers to battle for the other wild card.

The Bills have already beaten the Jets, so they merely have to be a game behind them heading into Jan. 3, because a second win would tie the Jets and they would win a tiebreaker on head-to-head.

The Steelers are 7-5, but they’re 4-4 in conference play with all of their remaining games against AFC opponents. So assuming the Bills get to 9-7 by beating the Jets, that would give them a 7-5 conference record and the tiebreaker over Pittsburgh if both finish 9-7.

So Bills fans should root for the Bengals to beat the Steelers this Sunday at home. Every loss by the Steelers is big. A win over Cincinnati also would guarantee the Steelers the wild card over Buffalo in the unlikely event both finish 10-6 (based on record vs. common opponents.)

Confused? That’s inevitable when you try to project playoffs with four weeks to go. I won’t even consider some of the nutty things that could occur, like the Dolphins or Raiders running the table, or the Colts and Texans both finishing above .500 in the AFC South.

Kathleen Sullivan asks: Regarding the dropoff in the Bills defense, especially in the sack department, isn’t the current defense similar to the one installed just two years ago by Mike Pettine, a disciple of Rex Ryan’s? They led the league in sacks.

Sully: Very insightful, which proves she’s no relation. The Pettine and Ryan defenses are similar. Pettine worked with Ryan for more than a decade with the Ravens and Jets. So did Dennis Thurman, currently Ryan’s defensive coordinator with the Bills.

But every coach does things a little differently. Both systems are blitz-heavy, though Pettine was more partial to edge rushes and blitzes by defensive backs. He used Nickell Robey a lot in that role two years ago, when the Bills set a team record with 57 sacks.

Pettine didn’t drop his defensive linemen into coverage as much. That’s been the main complaint of the Bills players, particularly Mario Williams, who was used much more as an edge rusher in 2013. Pettine let his four guys go after the passer more often, and it showed in the statistics.

Mario Williams (13), Kyle Williams (10.5), Jerry Hughes (10) and Marcell Dareus (7.5) combined for 41 sacks in 2013. Of course, they combined for 40 last year under Jim Schwartz, who also liked to set his pass rushers out wide. They’ve combined for 10 of the Bills’ 18 sacks this season.

Sacks aren’t everything, as Ryan likes to tell us. Pettine’s defense was weak against the run (28th overall). And the fact is, that 2013 team actually allowed more points (24.3 per game) than this year’s defense through the first 12 games of the season (23.2 points a game).

Still, Ryan was supposed to make a good defense even better. It is puzzling that this D could be so much less effective rushing the passer. You have to wonder how good they could be if Ryan and his staff had done a better job of adapting the scheme to the personnel.

Mike in Virginia asks: Do you think the Bills do not line up Watkins in backfield, like Green Bay does with Cobb, and give him the ball because the Bills are concerned about Watkins being injury prone? How would you try to get Watkins the ball more?

Sully: Injury might be part of it, but I’m sure Greg Roman prefers to get Watkins the ball by more conventional means. Sammy is best at beating his man off the line of scrimmage, which he has done more consistently of late.

They might try an occasional wide receiver screen to make sure Watkins doesn’t get lost in the offense. I’d like to see more quick slants. Tyrod Taylor tends to look away quickly when teams shade a safety Sammy’s way. Those throws are quick enough to compensate for the safety.

@emperormax09 asks: It appears Dan Bylsma is not wedded to any particular line combos. Seems like constant changing leads to no chemistry. Thoughts?

Sully: I’m old school and miss the days when lines stayed together for years. Coaches are too quick to change nowadays. But it’s early enough in Bylsma’s tenure, and in the careers of many young Sabres, to search for the right combinations at this point.

I like the fact that he put Jack Eichel and Evander Kane back together. Let’s hope they stay together this time.

@manseeknee asks: Surprised by the Griffs start in the MAAC? Seems like they can contend this year.

Sully: I assume you’re talking hoops. I’m not surprised. I didn’t expect Canisius to be competitive last year and Jim Baron did a terrific job with the talent at hand. This year’s squad is certainly entertaining. Entering Thursday’s game at Penn State, they were 12th in the country in scoring at 87.3 points a game.

They were also 282nd in the nation in field-goal defense, which should be a problem this season. They’re not a very big team and will struggle against the few MAAC teams with superior post play.

@EWSchultzLaw asks: Is it rationalizing to say Bills would not trade 4 Super Bowl losses for 1 win?

Sully: Yes.

@10,000maniacs asks: What’s your favorite Harry Nilsson song?”

Sully: “I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City.”