The Bills must have felt relieved when they woke up Friday. It was as if they had been speeding down a winding road and rolled their car over six times before it burst into flames. But once they regained their feet and brushed off pants, they realized their injuries were limited to a bruised ego.
You never know for sure, but their 34-21 loss to the Jets in MetLife Stadium appeared to be little more than a clunker. Making matters worse, it came before a national TV audience. But it happens over the course of the season. The Patriots lost the season opener on a Thursday night at home, where they're 3-2.
Buffalo lost a football game.
Far more important than one bad loss to the Jets, who aren't so lowly after all, is how the Bills play over their final eight games. If they can repeat their first half, they would finish 10-6 for the first time since 1999, the last season they reached the playoffs. If they finished 9-7 and enough other variables fell their way, they could end the postseason drought.
No matter how gruesome their performance Thursday, it seems well within reach for this team. Still, certain flaws over the first eight games also shouldn't be dismissed. The Bills remain a work in progress under a new coach and an overhauled roster. Kelvin Benjamin will climb aboard for the final eight games and should help.
Here's a list of eight things to keep in mind, one for each remaining game, as the Bills enter the second half of the season:
- It starts up front. The offensive line struggled at various points over the first eight games and was brutalized this week by the Jets. The coaching staff has an affinity for Vlad Ducasse at right guard, but many would argue John Miller is better. Richie Incognito has been compromised by a sprained ankle. Cordy Glenn's health issues merely added to problems on the left side.
People would blame Tyrod Taylor for raising health-care costs if they could, but the loss to the Jets was hardly his fault. As usual, it would be wise to look past the numbers when it comes to Taylor. He was sacked seven times, remarkable only because it wasn't 17 with him under so much pressure.
How about giving Ryan Groy a shot at right guard? The Bills had him lined up at tight end for several plays against the Jets. If he's mobile enough to play there, he's has the athleticism to play guard. The guy is 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds. The Bills signed him to a two-year deal worth $5 million, matching the Rams' offer to keep him.
Regardless, it needs to be fixed – and soon.
- Establish the running game. The offensive line needs to protect Taylor, but they also need to start opening holes for LeSean McCoy. Opposing defenses are still adhering to an old blueprint: Stop McCoy and force Taylor to win with his arm.
The Bills appeared to have their rushing issues resolved before McCoy gained 25 yards on 12 carries Thursday. Buffalo is still a run-oriented team, and McCoy remains one of the better backs in the NFL. There were times against the Jets in which he bounced outside when there was a hole inside.
Buffalo finished first in rushing the previous two years out of necessity. It was 14th in rushing yards per game on Friday. It remains a top priority.
- Hang in there, D. Defenses tend to have an advantage in the first half of the season, particularly in the first few weeks. Offenses usually catch up in the second half after adjusting to what they see on video and playing teams inside their division the second time around.
The Jets were committed to the running game and ultimately exploited the Bills' run defense Thursday. It wasn't a fluke. New York was caught off guard in the season opener against the Buffalo's 4-3 alignment under McDermott, but the Jets clearly were more prepared in the rematch.
Still, the defense mostly carried the Bills to their 5-3 record. Their old-school approach, running the ball and playing sound D, can work. But you worry about the defense getting worn down like it did last year, when the Bills allowed the most rushing yards in the NFL over the final six weeks.
- Don't overreact to debacle against the Jets. It was one game, during a short week, on the road, in the middle of the season. You take the game for what it's worth, crumple it into a ball, chuck it into the garbage can and start the can on fire.
People reacted like the Bills lost to the Browns or 49ers, two hapless teams that started thinking about next year before this year began. New York is better than most expected and proved as much Thursday with a convincing victory, their fourth win of the season. There hasn't been a winless team since the 2008 Lions.
- Don't underreact, either. There's no denying the Bills missed an opportunity Thursday. They need to address their shortcomings against the Jets and see what they could have done better before tossing it aside. They earned a fair amount of equity in the first seven weeks, but it could disappear in a flash.
Why did the Jets run freely through the teeth of the Bills' defense? Why were the Bills so loose in their pass blocking? Why was 38-year-old geezer Josh McCown not stopped on a 10-yard rushing TD in the first quarter? Why did McDermott insist on the playing Taylor and McCoy, and risking injury, when the game was out of reach?
- Play with discipline. The Bills won five of their first seven under McDermott partly because he restored order after Rex Ryan ran a loose ship. It wasn't just the penalties that could have been avoided, starting with Jerry Hughes costing them 15 yards for barking at an official.
The Bills lost control of their emotions after losing control of the game, and their frustration worked against them as it often does. Buffalo also lacked discipline in the way they approached their roles. They have 10 days to hit reset button for the second half of the season. They would be wise to get back to the basics.
It led them to five wins in the first place.
- Refurbish the passing game. Benjamin has enough time to familiarize himself with the Bills' playbook, but they also should expand their attack to include a player who can help Taylor. General Manager Brandon Beane made a point to say Benjamin is the type of receiver who is open even when he's covered.
Taylor was reluctant to throw in those situations even when it came to Sammy Watkins, a receiver he trusted. The Bills have been limited this year given the lack of talent and depth at receiver. There will be times in which Taylor must throw the ball into tight coverage and believe Benjamin will win the battle.
Zay Jones had his best game and has gradually made progress, particularly in recent weeks. He should give them another option. Taylor has a 2-12 record in his career when he throws 30 or more passes. He still needs to show he can beat teams with his arm over the final eight weeks.
- Maintain success at home. The Bills had a 4-0 record at New Era Field for the first time since 1995, when it was Rich Stadium. The Saints come to town next with road wins over Miami, Green Bay and Chicago.
Buffalo also plays New England, Miami and Indianapolis at home. They'll need to win at least two, maybe three, of the four remaining home games. If they fall short, they'll wake up after the season wondering what hit them.