By The Numbers: Bills' Season Turnaround
After a sluggish start to their campaign, the Buffalo Bills have turned things around as they head into Super Wild Card Weekend as AFC East champions for the fourth consecutive year and occupy the second seed in the conference.
In a season where the team has battled turnover problems on offence, survived injuries to key players on defence and rallied together after the firing of their offensive coordinator, the Bills have overcome their fair share of obstacles as they look to make their first run to the Super Bowl since 1994.
“They had us in the first half, I’m not gonna lie,” said quarterback Josh Allen, when describing the story of his team’s season ahead of their Week 13 game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“Backs against the wall, everybody counting us out, and somehow, we prevail.”
After starting the season on a tear, then struggling for almost two months, to taking down the Miami Dolphins on primetime to win the division, the Bills’ season can be adequately characterized as up-and-down.
Buffalo had an 18.7 per cent chance of making the playoffs back in late November, but after five straight wins coming off of their bye week, the Bills have seemingly reclaimed their status as juggernauts in the AFC, but how did all of this come to pass?
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR CHANGE
After a disappointing Week 10 loss to the Denver Broncos, the uncharacteristically stagnant offence looked to have doomed the Bills’ season for good, who sat at 5-5 after the lacklustre performance on Monday Night Football.
Allen threw two picks to take the league lead in interceptions (11), star receiver Stefon Diggs mustered a 3-34-0 receiving line, and No. 1 running back James Cook was benched after fumbling on the team’s first play from scrimmage.
Following the loss, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey was fired from his position in favour of Joe Brady.
Buffalo opened the season to a 3-1 record, with a +84 point differential through their first four games. In the six contests prior to Dorsey’s firing, the team went 2-4, finishing that stretch with a -6 differential to go along with just 20.5 points scored per game.
Under Brady and his new-look offence, the team's points per game total improved by over a full touchdown to 27.0 from Week 11 and on.
Buffalo put up 32 points against the New York Jets (ranked 12th in opponent’s points per game), 20 points against the Kansas City Chiefs (2nd OPPG), 31 points on the Dallas Cowboys (5th OPPG) and 27 points versus the New England Patriots (15th OPPG).
Brady’s changes to the Bills offence have taken some of the load off of Allen, who despite his game-breaking abilities, can at times be turnover prone, as he finished the 2023 regular season in second place among turnover leaders at the quarterback position (22).
Under Dorsey, Buffalo was averaging 1.8 turnovers per game, including two separate occasions in which they turned the ball over four times to the New York Jets and Denver Broncos.
After making the change to Brady, the Bills lowered that number to 1.43 turnovers per game, good for middle of the pack in terms of league rankings.
LET JAMES COOK
Brady’s biggest change at the helm of Buffalo’s offence was placing an emphasis on getting James Cook more involved in his schemes.
Cook was widely touted to be a breakout candidate for the 2023 season and the second-year pro has since delivered on those expectations, racking up the fourth-most rushing yards (1,122) and finishing inside the top 10 in yards per carry (4.7).
Cook’s value to the Bills isn’t limited to the run game, as his pass-catching ability is a large part of what makes him an effective back.
The former second-round pick finished eighth in receiving yards for running backs (445) while being only the 20th most-targeted rusher in the league (3.2 targets per game), speaking to his efficiency when getting the ball in space.
Cook has been an integral part of his team’s success during their late-season surge to a playoff spot.
Against two of the top defences in the league, Kansas City and Dallas, Cook combined for 237 yards on the ground, 125 yards receiving and three touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.
This Bills team would not be where they are now without Cook’s contributions down the stretch. Looking ahead, his skillset offers Buffalo a dimension as an elite pass-catching back that they have not had the luxury of in recent playoff runs.
DEFENCE STEPPING UP
The defensive side of the ball has dealt with injuries all season long.
All-Pro players Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano are on the shelf with season-ending injuries. Key defensive pieces such as Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Taylor Rapp have all missed time this year, as well.
The depth shown by the Bills defence has flown under the radar, but has been a huge reason for their success to end the regular season.
After a heartbreaking loss in overtime at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bills defence stepped up big time in their remaining games.
In matchups with the league’s two highest-scoring offences in the Cowboys and Dolphins (tied for first with 29.9 points per game), Buffalo’s defence answered the call and limited both teams to their lowest point totals all season long, with 10 and 14 respectively.
The Bills stifled Dak Prescott and company to the tune of just 195 yards of total offence, their lowest total of the season, and well below their average of 371.6 yards per game.
Tua Tagovailoa was held to just 173 passing yards, a far cry from his season average of 272.0, while throwing two interceptions, one of them sealing the deal for Buffalo late in the fourth quarter.
Shutting down the top offences in the league is not something that many teams have the ability to do whether healthy or not, and if the Bills are destined to make a run, the defence will undoubtedly play a big part in the weeks to come.
The Buffalo Bills host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT. Watch and stream the game LIVE on TSN3, TSN4, TSN.ca and the TSN App.