The standings were not supposed to look this way in Week Eight.
The Oakland Raiders were supposed to be Super Bowl contenders entering 2017, with a Pro Bowl quarterback in Derek Carr and All-World defensive end in Khalil Mack. The Buffalo Bills were afterthoughts in the AFC, thought by many to simply be killing time until the 2018 draft.
A funny thing happened once the games started, though. The Bills have defied expectations, racing out to a 4-2 record that, if the season ended today, would earn them the fifth seed in the AFC postseason. The Raiders, meanwhile, lost four straight games after a 2-0 start and are in fourth place in the AFC West.
Here is how the Bills and Raiders match up:
When the Bills pass: Tyrod Taylor is now 2-6 in games in which he’s thrown for 250 or more yards. That’s a fairly incredible statistic. Taylor played his best game of 2017 against the Bucs, completing passes to 10 different receivers. Without a dynamic threat in the passing game, that will have to continue. He has another favorable matchup against an Oakland defense that ranks 23rd in passing yards against per game (246.7). The Raiders are the only team in the NFL without an interception this year. Oakland’s pass defense is particularly bad at defending the deep ball, and has struggled against play action – which is something the Bills have utilized frequently with Taylor. EDGE: Even.
When the Bills run: LeSean McCoy looked like, well, LeSean McCoy against the Bucs. He had more room to run and was making the first guy miss the way we’ve become accustomed to. The changes the Bills implemented over the bye week paid off, particularly when it comes to Taylor being more willing to use his legs. The Raiders rank 19th against the run, allowing 113.9 yards per game. Oakland is most susceptible right up the gut, giving up an average of 4.72 yards per carry on rushes up the middle. EDGE: Bills.
When the Raiders run: Old friend Marshawn Lynch (that might be a stretch) won’t play because of suspension, but that might not be such a bad thing. Backup Jalen Richard is averaging nearly a full yard more per carry (4.5 to 3.7) than Lynch. Richard and DeAndre Washington combined for 18 carries that produced 64 yards against the Chiefs in Week Seven. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson brings a big-play element to the Raiders’ rushing attack. He’s carried 10 times for 124 yards, with a long run of 47 yards that went for a touchdown. The Bills’ run defense has held teams to less than 3.0 yards per carry in back-to-back weeks. EDGE: Bills.
When the Raiders pass: Carr is coming off his best game of 2017 against the Chiefs. He went 29 of 52 for 417 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-30 win. Carr gets the ball out of his hands quickly. It takes him 2.18 seconds to throw on average, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, which is the fastest in the league. Wide receiver Amari Cooper awoke from his season-long slumber with a whopping 210 yards against Kansas City. The Raiders have three players – Cooper, Michael Crabtree and tight end Jared Cook – with more than 300 receiving yards. The Bills’ secondary is suddenly hurting, with cornerback E.J. Gaines and safety Jordan Poyer dealing with injuries. Buffalo has given up more than 700 passing yards the last two games. EDGE: Raiders.
Special teams: Patterson is a big threat as a return man, averaging 29.7 yards per kick return, so it will be imperative for Bills kicker Stephen Hauschka to record touchbacks. He was a perfect 7 for 7 in that against the Bucs last week. Punter Marquette Kings has placed 14 of 30 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line while averaging a whopping 47.1 net yards. He’s the best in the NFL at his position right now. Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio missed a pair of field goals for Oakland last week after starting 9 for 9. If Hauschka makes his next attempt from 50-plus yards, he’ll own the NFL record outright with 13 straight such conversions. Buffalo’s punt coverage has been outstanding, allowing just 5.5 yards per return. EDGE: Even.
Coaching: Oakland was a play away from slipping to 2-5 with a loss to Kansas City in Week Seven. A team that won nine games by eight or less points in 2016 is 1-2 so far this season in those situations. New offensive coordinator Todd Downing, a former quarterbacks coach for the Bills, has been under heavy criticism from the start of the year. Oakland ranked sixth in total offense last year, but is down to 19th this season. Sean McDermott was lucky the Bills won last week, because his time-management mistake at the end of the first half would have been a huge talking point this week in a loss. EDGE: Raiders.
Prediction: Raiders 30, Bills 23