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Playoffs? After three in a row, it's natural to speculate

Column as I see 'em, Week Five:

Things sure do turn around in a hurry, don't they? Three weeks ago, the Bills were 0-2 and Rex Ryan's seat was the hottest in the NFL. The prevailing sentiment was that they were bound for 0-4 and an inevitable housecleaning.

Now they're 3-2 and the NFL media are singing Ryan's praises. Suddenly, the talk isn't about two presumed defeats but two likely wins. Fans are putting the next two games in the 'W' column and looking ahead to the rematch against the Patriots on Oct. 30, with first place in the AFC East on the line.

Yes, the next two -- at home vs. the Niners, away at Miami -- are eminently winnable games against struggling teams. But as the players and coaches are quick to remind us, it's never wise to look too far ahead in the NFL, where teams are rarely as good or bad as they seem and calamity is ever-lurking.

But when the Bills are on the rise, it's never too early to ponder the playoff possibilities. Playoffs? Did I say playoffs? Five weeks in, they're tied for second AFC wild-card spot, so fans might as well entertain visions of snapping the 16-year playoff drought while they can.

There are some encouraging signs. The AFC seems down. The conference is 10-14 against the NFC so far. The Bengals, who went 12-4 last season and won the AFC North, fell to 2-3 with a 28-14 loss to Dallas that was 28-0 with 10 minutes left. Denver fell from the unbeatens with a home loss to the Falcons. The Ravens lost again at home, this time to Washington.

The AFC South is a mess, as usual, and will likely send only the division  champ to the playoffs. The Bills are already two games up on the Dolphins and Jets in the AFC East. I know it's early, and a lot can change in a few weeks, but it looks now like the Bills' main rivals for wild cards will come out of the North and West.

The Chiefs, who made the playoffs last season, are 2-2 and have some brutal road games ahead (at Oakland, Carolina, Denver and Atlanta). The Ravens are 3-2 (with a win over Buffalo), but fired offensive coordinator Marc Trestman after two straight losses on Monday and are in a sudden crisis.

Assuming they don't fall apart over the next month, the Bills will be in the thick of the wild-card chase heading into a tough four-game stretch from Nov. 20-Dec.11, after their bye week. They play at Cincinnati, vs. Jacksonville, at Oakland and home against the Steelers.

They might need to win three of those four games to have a chance. Of course, it's hard to look that far ahead. I just flew in on the red-eye a few hours ago and my head is spinning. But it sure beats talking about 1-4 or 0-5.

* * *

The Cowboys raised their record to 4-1 with an emphatic win over the Bengals,  becoming the first team in 43 years to win at least four of its first five with a rookie quarterback (Dak Prescott) starting all five games.

The last team to do it? The Bills in 1973 with Joe Ferguson, the year O.J. Simpson ran for 2,003 yards.

Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick from Mississippi State, has been a revelation. Through five games, he has completed 69 percent of his passes for 1,239 yards and four TDs with zero interceptions. They say he's yet to throw a bad pass. He also has three rushing TDs.

The raging question in Dallas is whether Prescott will go to the bench when veteran Tony Romo returns from injury. Romo was scheduled for an MRI on his back Monday and there's speculation he could return for the Cowboys' home battle with NFC East rival Philly on Sunday night, Oct. 30.

Owner Jerry Jones said it's a "wonderful position" to be in. I'm guessing the 'Boys will go back to Romo. They have the league's top offensive line, a big reason for Prescott's early success. If they're going to make a Super Bowl run, they're more likely to do it with the veteran Romo, assuming he stays healthy.

* * *

The Cowboys chose Prescott with the 135th pick of last April's draft, four spots before the Bills took Cardale Jones. It makes you wonder what the Bills would have done if Prescott had been on the board when they took Jones -- or if they had held on to the 117th pick they swapped to move up for Reggie Ragland.

My hunch is they still would have taken Jones, who was a raw quarterback and no threat to the established pecking order at the position. The Bills had no interest in bringing in a rookie who would challenge starter Tyrod Taylor or backup EJ Manuel, the perpetual fixation of general manager Doug Whaley.

Granted, we wouldn't know about Prescott if Romo hadn't gotten hurt. But it's clear that Prescott was more ready for the NFL than the draft experts -- or the Bills -- imagined. Whatever the case, the Cowboys were fortunate to get him.

Just think, if the Bills weren't locked in to their top two QBs, and if Whaley wasn't so consumed with seeing Manuel succeed, they might have been the ones who drafted Prescott -- giving them a chance to be lucky.

* * *

Last Wednesday, LeSean McCoy said that before long, we'd look up and see the Bills back in the top five in the NFL rushing statistics.

Sure enough, they moved up to third in the league after rushing for 193 against the Rams. The Bills, who were seventh heading into the weekend, have 686 yards on the ground, trailing only the Cowboys and Titans. They jumped from fifth to first in yards per rush at 5.1 a pop.

A year ago, the Bills led the NFL in rushing yards (2,432) and yards per carry (4.8). They're on pace for 2,195 rushing yards this season.

* * *

Brian Hoyer, who took over as the Bears quarterback when Jay Cutler hurt his hand, has passed for over 300 yards in three straight games. Hoyer, playing on his fourth team in five years, has 1,016 yards in his three starts, with six TDs and no interceptions. His 71.4 percent completion rate leads the NFL.

Hoyer had his best season with the Texans a year ago, throwing 19 TD passes and only seven picks as Houston won the AFC South. But he had a horrible day against the Chiefs in the playoffs, throwing four interceptions. The Texans moved on and signed Brock Osweiler for $18 million a year in free agency.

Osweiler has been dreadful. He has six TD passes, seven interceptions and a 70.6 rating for the 3-2 Texans, who are locked into him for another season. At this point, they must wonder if they would been better off keeping Hoyer.

* * *

For all you fantasy football players, I'm starting a new feature called "Is He Owned?" I'll highlight an offensive player who has recently emerged and might still be available in your league. This week, it's Steelers wideout Sammy Coates.

Coates had a career-high 139 yards and his first two TDs against the Jets on Sunday. Coates, a second-year man out of Auburn, has 19 catches for 419 yards, a 22.2-yard average reminiscent of teammate Martavis Bryant, who is serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

Smart fantasy players were already hip to Coates, but I checked four ESPN leagues and he was still available in two of them.

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