Halfway through the Bills’ season, we contacted panelists from our preseason Bills Media Roundtable for a midseason edition. Due to their other commitments covering the NFL, just four of our panelists were able to weigh in this time, but they constitute a sterling lineup:
Judy Battista, columnist for NFL.com;
Greg Bishop, senior writer for Sports Illustrated;
Kevin Connors, ESPN SportsCenter anchor and a lifetime Bills fan;
Dan Pompei, writer for Bleacher Report and The Athletic (Chicago).
We asked our panelists just three questions about the 5-3 Bills at midseason.
The Bills have beaten the Broncos, Falcons, Bucs, Raiders and Jets, and lost to the Bengals, Panthers and most recently the Jets, who kind of stomped them last Thursday night. What is your best guess in whether this Bills team will make the playoffs?
Judy Battista: The Bills are essentially a microcosm of this totally bonkers unpredictable season. When NFL.com asked us for our midseason predictions, I said I thought the Bills would be a wild-card team, in large part because the rest of the AFC is just as up and down as the Bills are and I don't look at the rest of the conference and see teams separating from the pack. That prediction was before the Jets game, but I'll stick with it.
I think the Saints game will tell us much more -- they have successfully shut down quarterbacks during their recent winning streak, so the running game is going to have to do a lot better than it did against the Jets. One caveat to my prediction -- they're going to have to win a game on the road in the second half of the season. At the Chargers and at Miami (season finale) would seem to be the most likely candidates.
Greg Bishop: We submitted our midseason playoff picks for the MMQB today and I picked the Bills to make the playoffs as a fifth seed. This will sound like a couch but it's the truth: I'm not really a believer in the Bills yet. But I like how the AFC playoff picture lines up for them. Teams I thought might be in play for the wild card – Denver, Oakland, Baltimore – look like long shots now. The Bills still play the Chargers, Colts and the Dolphins twice. Win those four and they may get in. Win those four and one other game – Saints at home this weekend? – and they're in for sure. Plus, they'll be competing against teams like the Titans or Jaguars (whoever doesn't win the division) or a team like Oakland (losing record, no margin for error) to get there.
Kevin Connors: We’re making the playoffs. Home to the Saints, in LA against the Chargers, home to the Colts, two games against the Dolphins – we’re winning every one of those games. 10-6 gets you in the playoffs.
I love the direction we’ve gone with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane. 2017 proves to be a turning point for the organization and that includes ending the longest playoff drought in football!
Dan Pompei: The Bills have been a much better team than I thought they would be in the first half of the season. As they enter the second half, they clearly are a playoff contender. The Patriots have not run away with the AFC East. Not yet, anyway. And even if the Patriots get hot, the Bills still will be in the wild-card picture if they put together a second half similar to their first half.
The wild-card picture is completely unpredictable, however. There are only two teams – the Browns and Colts – who appear hopeless. I’d say every other team has legitimate playoff hopes at this point, and the Bills are one of those teams.
The Bills’ offense seems less consistent than the defense this season, but there are hopes here that adding Kelvin Benjamin to the active roster and getting Charles Clay back will give the offense more balance. Do the Bills have enough weapons on offense to be a dangerous team that others don’t want to face?
Battista: Adding Kelvin Benjamin is not going to hurt the biggest weakness on the roster, that's for certain, considering that currently the most productive wide receiver is Jordan Matthews, with a grand total of 21 receptions. Benjamin is a big target who can stretch the field, which should force defenses not to key on Taylor, which might give him more opportunities to run. His arrival comes at a good time – the remainder of the schedule features quite a few teams that have struggled with pass defense (although the Patriots have improved in recent weeks after a start full of miscommunications). Again, the Saints game will be a great test – they have shut the passing game down against Cam Newton and Matthew Stafford, among others.
Bishop: I don't think it hurts to get those guys. Let's start there. I didn't think the Bills had enough firepower on offense to be a playoff team this year. Look what their former wideouts are doing in Los Angeles. But I like the Bills overall formula toward football: play good defense, run the ball, control the clock, etc. LeSean McCoy deserves more credit than he's getting for being one of the top players in the league, Tyrod Taylor is having a great season without a ton of weapons and to answer your original question the trade for Benjamin and the return of Clay should at minimum make the Bills better than they have been on offense. How much better? That's tough to say. But good-enough-to-make-the-playoffs better? That seems possible.
Connors: Prior to the Benjamin trade, I didn’t think so. But adding him – and getting Clay back gives Tyrod two more serious playmakers.
My biggest concern remains pass protection, but two gigantic targets can mask a lot of question marks. Don’t mistake this group for the 1990 Bills…but we have enough here to make teams pay.
Pompei: The Bills know their formula for winning has to be to play really good defense and efficient, don’t beat yourself offense. Benjamin should help, definitely, but the Bills aren’t going to threaten opposing defenses the same way teams like the Patriots, Chiefs and Steelers do. If Tyrod Taylor keeps playing well and Shady McCoy can pick it up a little, the Bills can be good enough on offense with the weapons they have.
The team seems more disciplined and unified under first-year coach Sean McDermott and his coordinators than in recent seasons. What kind of impression do you have of the Bills’ coaching staff?
Battista: I think you have a football operation that is finally on the same page and a coaching staff that is detail-oriented. Those were two things that apparently did not exist -- or were at the least in short supply -- when Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley were there. And look at the Marcell Dareus trade -- the team rid itself of a high-profile but unhappy player. And the team has already overperformed against very low expectations without players like Watkins and Darby. So the early returns are certainly positive. But lots of regimes have honeymoon periods (Rex was 5-4 in his first year, too), so let's see how this team looks at the end. The fast start has raised expectations dramatically.
Bishop: I think he's done a better job than any reasonable person could have expected at the outset. In fact, I think McDermott deserves Coach of the Year consideration, along with guys like Sean McVay (the Rams), Doug Marrone (Jaguars) and Andy Reid (Chiefs). All of those coaches have more talent on their roster than McDermott does. But his team plays disciplined football. It's the reason the Bills have surprised some folks so far -- and the reason I believe they'll play a January football game this season. (And if they don't, let me apologize in advance for our jinx.)
Connors: There is no way you can watch this year’s team and NOT see the difference in coaching. The tackling, the recognition, the overall execution. This is a different regime and, this time, we got it right.
I feel the pain of my fellow #BillsMafia members after the letdown against the Jets…but that’s the one clunker through eight games. We’ve been in every other game and we’ve beaten some really good teams. Keep the faith and expect results. They’re coming.
Pompei: It’s an excellent staff. McDermott was a very good defensive coordinator, and he may even be a better head coach. He has a lot of respected, experienced coaches working for him, so I’m not surprised they are reaching the players and utilizing them well. The three coordinators are all strong. Bob Babich, Rob Boras, Juan Castillo and Mike Waufle are among the most respected assistants in the league at their respective positions.