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Bills Living the Improbable Dream

It’s pretty simple, really.

After Buffalo beat Cleveland 26-10 on Sunday, all the Bills need to assure themselves of snapping their 15-year spell of playoff avoidance is to beat the three best teams in the National Football League, while managing to not lose to the worst.

Their 7-5 record has the Bills on pace for the sixth and final playoff spot—along with five other teams. A closing sweep would almost certainly get them in at 11-5, while they would have a pretty decent shot at 10-6.

They don’t face any of their five competitors (Miami, Kansas City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland) during the season’s final month, but do travel to Denver this weekend, come home to face Green Bay and, after a quick trip to 1-11 Oakland, finish up in New England.

The Broncos, Packers and Patriots are tied for the league’s best record at 9-3, along with Arizona and Philadelphia, and Las Vegas oddsmakers have them as the three teams most likely to win Super Bowl XLIX in February. On most Sundays, they also play a different game than the Bills, or at least the same game at a markedly higher level.

In eight games since Kyle Orton replaced E.J. Manuel at quarterback, Buffalo has scored a shade over 23 points per contest. Against opponents other than the New York Jets, the average falls to 17.

Denver, meanwhile, has put up nearly 33 points per outing over the same time period, exceeding 40 three times and just missing with 39 against Miami (which allowed the Bills just nine the previous week).

Green Bay has been even more prolific, averaging 36 points while running off a 7-1 mark—including a 26-21 win over New England last week—during The Orton Era, topping 50 points twice and 40 once.

And the Patriots, also 7-1 since Week 5, lead the way with 38.5 points per game, exceeding 50 points once and 40 three times.

The most glaring difference is at the sport’s most important position. While Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have somehow gotten more productive as they age, Orton’s performance has been, to be kind, remarkably consistent with the first 10 years of his professional career.

Against the Browns, Orton’s first interception came in the Cleveland end zone, helping keep Buffalo scoreless at halftime. Orton failed to pick up former Bills safety Jim Leonhard floating across the end zone, the sort of oversight you would expect from, say, an inexperienced second-year quarterback, not a cagy veteran whose ability to avoid glaring, potentially game-turning errors is ostensibly the reason for his presence on the field.

The second, shortly after intermission, allowed Cleveland to start out already in field goal range, with an excellent opportunity to take a double-digit lead with a touchdown.

Buffalo’s defense bailed him out on that one, and he then made a pair of throws—one deep to Robert Woods on fourth down, the second short to Chris Hogan for the Bills’ lone offensive touchdown of the day—to put the Bills ahead.

A 41-yard catch-and-run hookup with tight end MarQueis Gray, who had picked up 30 yards on an earlier, similar connection, led to one of four fourth-quarter field goals by Dan Carpenter to seal the win.

The two short tosses to Gray and the fourth-down fling to Woods covered a total of 105 yards. Orton completed precisely half of his other 28 throws for all of 75 yards, which comes out to 2.67 yards—or about 8 feet—per attempt.

That Buffalo still won the game rather handily stands as a tribute to just how good the Bills defense is, and has been for most of the year. They have given up the second-least points in the league, while ranking No. 5 in total yards allowed, fourth in interceptions and at the top of the list in quarterback sacks.

Out of 12 games, the defense has played well enough to win 10, with the burden of overcoming the shortcomings of their offensive counterparts proving overwhelming against San Diego and the Patriots the first time around.

Those are also the only two games in which they have faced an elite quarterback operating with most of his normal supporting cast.

So there is not much reason, other than a fan’s blind faith, to think Buffalo has much of a chance to knock off even one of the NFL’s true heavyweights, much less three in four weeks. Based purely on recent performance by all teams involved, and their quarterbacks, 8-8 looks like a more realistic possibility than 11-5, or even 10-6.

Which is the beauty of the whole thing. The Bills, for all their well-documented flaws, have put themselves in a position to control their playoff fate for the first time since the final game of 2004 (which they managed to, of course, lose to a Pittsburgh team resting almost every important player for their own postseason run).

But it beats the alternative Buffalo has been offering its fan base since people were freaking out about the inevitable catastrophe looming at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. If the Bills do somehow get themselves into the NFL tournament, it would stand as one of the franchise’s most memorably unlikely achievements.

So enjoy the ride. While it lasts.

Dave Staba has been writing about the team, among other topics, for local and national publications since 1990. Follow him on and

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