The Bills are the (proud?) owners of a 6-2 record, and the strength of their competition gets appreciably stronger than what was faced during the first eight games.
Although the Bills are only one game behind the Patriots in the race for the AFC East crown, they are more realistically aiming for one of the two wildcard spots to ensure their season continues beyond week 17.
What four teams in the AFC currently pose the biggest threat to the Bills’ chances of earning their second playoff appearance in the last three years? The below “threats” are based on the current assumption that the Patriots, Ravens, Texans, and Chiefs will win their respective divisions.
1st Down: Mild Threat, Jacksonville Jaguars (4-5)
The Jaguars are coming off an embarrassing loss in London at the hands of the Houston Texans. There is no doubt that Gardner Minshew has injected some life into the Jags passing attack, but this team is too inconsistent from week to week to be anything more than a mild threat at the moment. Working in the Jags favor, they have amassed all four of their wins thus far within the conference. This point becomes important, as the Bills do not play the Jags this year, meaning the conference record of each team would likely be the first tiebreaker (assuming the Bills and Jags are the only two teams vying for the final WC spot).
The Bills and Jags also have several games played against common opponents. Through week nine, the Jags have already beaten the Broncos, Titans, Bengals, and Jets. Fortunately for the Bills, the Jags do have some tough games remaining on their schedule, so I would expect them to fade out of playoff contention as the season progresses. Still having to play the Colts twice, the Chargers, at the Falcons, and at the Raiders, the Jags will likely be looking up at a number of teams in the AFC by the time the season ends.
2nd Down: Medium Threat, Oakland Raiders (4-4)
In 2018, the Raiders finished the season with a 4-12 record. In their first year under new (again) head coach Jon Gruden, the Raiders essentially admitted through their personnel moves that they were completely rebuilding for the future. Fast forward to 2019, and Jon Gruden has the Raiders playing some really solid football through the first half of the season. The Raiders rebuild is not by any means a mirror image of what the Bills are doing, but there are some parallels between the two teams. It is my opinion that both the Bills and the Raiders are exceeding early-season expectations in 2019, but are doing so in different ways.
The Raiders have been led by their offense, with the likes of quarterback Derek Carr, OROY candidate Josh Jacobs, and late breakout tight end Darren Waller. Meanwhile, the Bills have been achieving early season success in large part to their stingy defense and tissue soft first-half schedule. In what would be an extremely entertaining matchup of two up and coming teams, it’s a shame that the Bills and Raiders don’t play each other this year. The Raiders aren’t yet a major threat to the Bills wild card hopes, but they are looming.
Inconsistency from week to week has made the Raiders performances difficult to predict. Three of their four losses were by at least 18 points, but they have also beaten teams like the Bears, Colts, and Lions. The Raiders still have several division games left on their schedule, including two matchups with the Chargers, a visit to Arrowhead to play the Chiefs, and a visit to Denver to play the Broncos. Additionally, the Raiders are only 2-2 against the AFC, so they will need to stack several more conference wins to leapfrog the Bills in this tiebreaker.
3rd Down: Spicy Threat, Indianapolis Colts (5-3)
The reason the Colts are not the single biggest threat to the Bills wildcard chances is that I believe the Colts will be a wildcard team, regardless, when the dust has settled on the regular season. Whether or not the Colts earn the first or second wildcard spot is to be determined, but they are simply a very solid football team on both sides of the ball. Between their coaching staff and personnel, the Colts simply do not have many weaknesses.
Barring the health situations of players like T.Y. Hilton and Jacoby Brissett, the Colts should be in the mix come playoff time. The schedule ahead is a bit of a mixed bag for the Colts, but I would consider it more difficult than first meets the eye. Road trips to Houston and New Orleans highlight a few of the daunting games ahead for the Colts. Coupled with tough matchups at Jacksonville and home against Carolina, the Colts will need to continue their solid play to remain in the driver’s seat for a wildcard berth.
In my mind, Frank Reich is one of the best head coaches in the NFL right now, and the Colts have proven they will not be intimidated, regardless of their opponent. This point was no more evident than when they traveled to Arrowhead Stadium in week five and beat the vaunted Chiefs. The Colts may lose some close games, but they have proven they will be competitive in every game they play. In fact, every game the Colts have played this year has been decided by seven points or fewer.
4th Down: Hot Threat, Pittsburgh Steelers (4-4)
With truly no pun intended…the Steelers are the ultimate wild card for the rest of the regular season. Say what you want about Mike Tomlin, but the Steelers are by no means mailing in this season (as evidenced by their trade with the Dolphins to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick). The defense is littered with first-round picks and is ranked 11th overall in yards allowed through nine weeks. With Mason Rudolph getting incrementally more comfortable each week, the Steelers are going to be a tough team to beat down the stretch.
Even without the likes of Antonio Brown and LeVeon Bell, the Steelers still boast a nice array of talent at the skill positions (James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Dionte Johnson, Vance McDonald), and they still have a very solid offensive line. After starting the season 1-3, the Steelers have reeled off three straight wins. Sandwiching a Monday Night Football win against the Dolphins were two quality wins against the Chargers and the Colts. The Steelers have been in every game they’ve played this year with the exception of week one against the Pats. Close losses against the 49ers, Ravens, and the Seahawks tell me that this team has the potential to make a second-half run.
The Steelers still play the Browns twice, the Bengals, Jets, and Cardinals, and currently, boast a solid 4-2 record against AFC opponents. Notably, the Bills travel to Heinz Field in week 15 for a game that could have massive implications for playoff positioning. Of the four teams I’m currently projecting to pose a threat to the Bills, the Steelers are the only team the Bills actually play this season.