The Buffalo Bills are in the knockout portion of their schedule, where losing pretty much is not an option if they have any hope of making the playoffs.
And no remaining game carries such implications to the degree that Sunday’s clash with the Kansas City Chiefs does, because both teams are 5-5 and, for all practical purposes, competing for a wild-card playoff spot.
“The loser of this game is definitely a long shot to make the playoffs,” linebacker Preston Brown said Wednesday. “It definitely is a must-win game for us.”
“This is a playoff game for us, pretty much,” said linebacker Nigel Bradham. “We’ve got to take it that way and prepare all week as we’ve got to win this game.”
To do so, the Bills have some significant hardships to overcome, beginning with the health of quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
He was officially limited in Wednesday’s walk-through practice with the injury to his right (throwing) shoulder he suffered late in Monday night’s loss at New England. In the early phase of the session open to the media, Taylor mostly was standing and watching while EJ Manuel and Josh Johnson did the bulk of the throwing. Taylor later said that he “did most of the handoffs” through the rest of the workout.
That didn’t provide much support to Taylor’s and Rex Ryan’s assertions that he would be fine for Sunday’s game, but his level of participation in Thursday’s full practice figures to be more telling.
And what about Mario Williams and the injured foot that caused him to make an early exit Monday night and kept him out of practice? “He’s running around on a scooter right now, if that gives you any indication,” Ryan said.
It does, but not simply about the health status of another of the Bills’ more important players. It’s also reflective of the less-than-encouraging state of the team as it enters a game that will go a long way toward determining whether its streak of non-playoff seasons extends to 16.
The Chiefs are, as Ryan pointed out, “hot,” having won four games in a row. They’ve beaten the Bills in each of the last two seasons at Ralph Wilson Stadium. This time, they have the additional advantage of playing at Arrowhead Stadium, among the loudest venues in the NFL.
The Bills have won two of their last three, but the loss to New England took a fairly heavy physical toll compounded by the fact they have one less day to recover. Four other players injured against the Patriots – guard John Miller (ankle), wide receiver/special-teams ace Marcus Easley (concussion protocol), defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (knee), and safety Bacarri Rambo (shoulder) – were either spectators or limited in Wednesday’s practice. Miller and Easley have all but been ruled out of the Chiefs’ game, and it’s likely the Bills will be without the two Williamses on their defensive line: Mario and Kyle, who will miss his fifth game with a knee injury.
Another major concern for the Bills has to be the state of their offense, which has produced only two touchdowns in the last two games and ranks first in the league in three-and-outs. They’re 22nd in the NFL in total yards, 29th in passing yards.
Just when it seems that the Bills’ defense has turned a corner, giving one of its most impressive performances of the season by knocking around Tom Brady and limiting him to under 300 passing yards and only one touchdown throw, the offense is trending in the opposite direction. Taylor had the worst of his eight career starts, badly misfiring and twice failing to connect with receivers on deep routes that would have produced touchdowns.
One was to wide receiver Chris Hogan, who had safety Patrick Chung beat but the ball was underthrown and hit Chung – running with his back to Taylor – on the right shoulder before falling to the ground.
On another long pass, running back LeSean McCoy was on the verge of scoring just before cornerback Devin McCourty, capitalizing on the pass arriving a hair too late, emerged at the last second to stick in a hand to help cause a drop.
Although Taylor offered a charitable if not somewhat delusional view of the Bills’ offensive production Monday night when he said they “moved the ball up and down the field,” he did acknowledge that he wanted “a couple of balls back from that game” and that he needs to be better at capitalizing on opportunities to score touchdowns.
Such near-misses won’t cut it with as much on the line as the Bills have Sunday. If Taylor plays, he must be at his sharpest, along with his supporting cast.
“It’s one of those moments where every possession counts,” McCoy said. “Every pass. Every catch. Every carry. That’s the mindset.”
Monday night’s effort notwithstanding, that has been the approach of core members of the offense the past two weeks. Well aware of the increased importance of each game, Taylor has had extra post-practice meetings with McCoy, Hogan, receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, and tight end Charles Clay to review videotape and make sure everyone is on the same page.
One point of emphasis is the fact, with Taylor’s exceptional ability to keep plays alive with his feet, that all of the pass-catchers constantly stay alert because the ball could come to them at any time.
“Tyrod is teaching in those meetings,” Hogan said. “He’s got the clicker, he’s the voice we’re all listening to, so he’s really taking a leadership role in that sense. He’s been communicating very well with all of us.”
The Bills are running the ball effectively. McCoy has gained 306 yards in the last three games, including scoring runs of 48 yards against the Dolphins and 27 yards against the Patriots.
Now the pressure is on for similar results through the air.
“In the passing game, there’s going to be big plays to make,” Hogan said. “It’s just up to us … Tyrod and Sammy and Robert and Charles, whoever’s getting the ball thrown to him, to make those plays. You’ve got to make those, especially going down the stretch now.”