With only 16 games on the NFL regular-season schedule, a lot can change in a short amount of time in terms of the public perception of football teams. The Buffalo Bills are the perfect example. Three weeks ago, the Bills were trending among the top teams in the AFC at 5-2. Fast-forward to Week 12 and Buffalo is 5-5 and on the outside of an AFC postseason position after getting outscored a combined 135-55 over three straight losses. With the Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens holding down the two Wild Card spots at 6-4 and 5-5 respectively, the Bills are still in the thick of the AFC playoff race with six weeks to go. However, there are obvious question marks surrounding a Buffalo team that has some major concerns heading in to the final stretch of the season.
If it’s difficult to remember a situation similar to what happened in Buffalo in Week 11, when they decided to bench veteran Tyrod Taylor in favour of rookie Nathan Peterman, it’s because it’s never happened before. Only once in the last 10 seasons has a team with a winning record in November benched a starting quarterback in favour of a rookie and that was the Cleveland Browns when they made the switch from Brian Hoyer to first-round pick Johnny Manziel in 2014. Cleveland was 7-6 when it made the switch. The Browns lost their final three games with Manziel to finish 7-9.
Peterman isn’t a first-round pick. While it is only one start, it’s important to understand what happened with Peterman from the perspective of the organization putting him in a difficult position to succeed. Buffalo was coming off back-to-back blowout losses in which its defence allowed a combined 81 points. The Bills had to travel across the country to face a desperate West Coast team that owns one of the best pass rushes in the NFL for a matchup with major AFC playoff implications.
What happened to the rookie fifth-round pick with zero career starts and limited practice reps with the first-team offence was an indictment against those making the decisions in Buffalo.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Peterman became the first quarterback since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to throw at least five interceptions in the first half of a game. While the first of the five picks came on a tipped ball by his receiver and clearly wasn’t his fault, there was nothing about Peterman’s performance that suggested he was ready for the moment. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram entered the game with 18.0 combined sacks, which was the most by any tandem in the NFL this season. Peterman wasn’t sacked in the 54-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers but he didn’t complete a single pass attempt on his five plays under pressure, which included four interceptions. Peterman was benched for the second half in favour of Taylor.
Despite some hesitation after Sunday’s disaster, head coach Sean McDermott confirmed Taylor will be the starting quarterback for Week 12. The numbers don’t always tell the entire story when it comes to evaluating the quarterback position. However, the contrast between Taylor and Peterman is impossible to overlook when it comes to Buffalo’s quarterback situation. Taylor has three interceptions this season. Two of them came off deflected balls that weren’t even his fault. The veteran quarterback has completed 63.8 per cent of his passes for 1,842 yards and 11 touchdowns while rushing for another 275 yards and three scores. McDermott said on Wednesday morning that starting Taylor is “the right thing for our team.” The reality is that was always the case.
If the Bills want to contend for an AFC Wild Card spot over the final six weeks then Taylor is the obvious choice at quarterback. If they want to evaluate Peterman’s stock as a potential franchise quarterback, then they might as well take the film from Week 11 against the Chargers and realize he is nowhere near ready for the spotlight just yet. The writing is on the wall for Taylor’s departure at the end of the season regardless of what happens from here on out. There are some tough decisions that need to be made in Buffalo regarding the future of the quarterback position at season’s end. However, those decisions don’t need to be made in Week 12.
The Bills travel for the third time in four weeks to face a Kansas City Chiefs team that will also approach this Sunday with an increased sense of urgency after dropping four of their last five. There is no question that Taylor should be under centre for Buffalo when the team takes the field for what amounts to a must-win versus Kansas City this weekend. For as bad as things have looked during the course of a three-game slide, the Bills aren’t out of the playoff mix in the AFC just yet. However, with the first of two remaining games against the New England Patriots looming in Week 13 there is no margin for error. Starting Taylor doesn’t guarantee Buffalo will end its losing streak on Sunday. However, it does at least give them a fighting chance against another tough opponent in Kansas City.
While the Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have pulled ahead of the pack at 8-2, the rest of the AFC is wide open behind them. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Chiefs, Titans, Ravens and Bills are all 5-5 or better. The Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Chargers and Oakland Raiders are all still alive at 4-6. One of the most interesting underlying factors when it comes to the absence of capable contenders in the AFC is the lack of efficient offences. Seven of the nine teams currently in the AFC Wild Card mix rank in the bottom-third of the NFL in terms of total offence. The Texans likely would fall in to that category as well if it wasn’t for Deshaun Watson’s contributions before suffering a torn ACL. That leaves the Chargers as the only AFC Wild Card contender with better than average offensive numbers this season. Offence and the schedule will be two key factors in determining how the AFC playoff picture plays out over the final six weeks.
In terms of offensive performance and schedule, it’s difficult to overlook the Chargers as a legitimate playoff contender despite a 4-6 record. Los Angeles is currently one game back of the final AFC Wild Card spot. They are the only team in the Wild Card mix with a top-15 offence and a healthy starting quarterback in Phillip Rivers. They also have a manageable schedule the rest of the way. The Chargers will host the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins and Raiders while travelling to face the Dallas Cowboys, Chiefs and Jets. After winning four of its last six, Los Angeles can’t be overlooked as a team that has the potential to pull off an impressive turnaround after opening the year 0-4. Next up for the Chargers is a tough test on the road versus Dallas on Thanksgiving. If they beat the Cowboys on Thursday, it will become that much more difficult to overlook Los Angeles as a legitimate Wild Card contender in the AFC.
One of the AFC’s biggest surprises so far this season is Jacksonville. The Jaguars have climbed to the top of the AFC South thanks in large part to the top-ranked scoring defence in the NFL. The #Sacksonville moniker that the franchise has adopted is fitting considering they lead the NFL with 40.0 sacks, which is six more than the second-best total in the league through 11 weeks. The Jaguars are the only team with four different players that have recorded at least five sacks as Calais Campbell (11.5), Yannick Ngakoue (9.0), Dante Fowler Jr. (6.5) and Malik Jackson (5.0) have led the way on that side of the football this season. Factor in the addition of defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and Jacksonville’s defensive line could be the best in the NFL.
The obvious question with the Jaguars is whether or not the offence can do enough to contend with the top teams in the AFC. Jacksonville ranks eighth in the NFL in scoring with an average of 24.5 points per game this season. A big part of that has been the NFL’s most productive rushing attack led by rookie running back Leonard Fournette. The Jaguars have averaged 160.6 rushing yards per game this season. Jacksonville has committed to running the football relentlessly and performing at an elite level on defence to get to 7-3. The Jaguars have limited quarterback Blake Bortles’ exposure by asking him to manage the game rather than forcing him to try to win the game with his arm and it has worked so far. A dominant defence and elite rushing attack combined with a manageable schedule could pave the way for Jacksonville to win the AFC South. It will be very interesting to see if the Jaguars can capitalize on the opportunity and win a division title.
With the Patriots and Steelers opening up three-game leads atop their respective divisions, the AFC West remains the only other question mark heading in to the final stretch of the regular season. Kansas City remains two games up on the Chargers in the division, but has dropped four of its last five including a 12-9 overtime loss to the New York Giants last week. An offence that looked unstoppable early in the year hasn’t been nearly as effective while the Chiefs defence ranks among the worst in the NFL.
The biggest difference for the Kansas City offence has been the lack of big plays. Head coach Andy Reid called a very conservative game in Week 11 and the Giants defence did an excellent job of tackling and keeping the Chiefs from breaking off big gains. Twenty-seven of quarterback Alex Smith’s 40 pass attempts travelled less than 10 yards, including a number of screens and quick throws underneath that the defenders were able to sit on. Eleven of Smith’s 27 completions were thrown behind the line of scrimmage. He also tripled his interception total with his second and third picks of the season.
A strong start combined with a manageable schedule the rest of the way could be enough for Kansas City to hang on and win the AFC West. However, the lack of explosive plays on offence has to be a concern for a team that has slowed down significantly after ranking among the best in the NFL throughout the first five weeks of the regular season. The Chiefs will attempt to get back on track in Week 12 against the Bills in a matchup that suddenly has significant playoff implications. It will be interesting to see whether it’s Kansas City or Buffalo that bounces back with a big win this Sunday afternoon at Arrowhead Stadium.