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Bills Bound for Streak, or Swoon?

Bills Bound For streak, or swoon?
Rex's Homecoming Key to Ending Buffalo's Long Playoff Exile

Heading into Rex Ryan’s first season in Buffalo, the big question was whether he would instill a new culture in the Bills, one that would finally end a 15-year run of watching the playoffs on television, or if he is little more than a blowhard who talks a great game, but rarely produces one.

As Ryan’s new team opens the second half of its schedule with a Thursday-night visit to his old one, the answer is no clearer than it was two months ago.

The first eight games produced three victories that lived up to all the Rex hype—the opener against Indianapolis and the sweep of Miami, completed with last weekend’s 33-17 trouncing.

In all three, Ryan’s Bills performed largely as advertised, with his trademark stifling defense augmented by an offense performing better than the most optimistic could have expected, highlighted by Tyrod Taylor’s revelatory playmaking.

The most recent thumping of the Dolphins, whose new-coach muscles have clearly worn off since winning big in their first two outings following Gentle Joe Philbin’s replacement with uber-bro Dan Campbell, snapped a three-game losing streak at Ralph Wilson Stadium that exposed every one of Buffalo’s weaknesses.

New England, the New York Giants and Cincinnati each blunted Ryan’s renowned pass-rush schemes with quick throws delivered by veteran quarterbacks, while Taylor struggled in the manner to be expected of someone who spent the previous four seasons holding a clipboard.

In the other win, Taylor floundered against Tennessee before producing a comeback win made possible by the defense limiting the Titans to 13 points.

As for the other defeat, well, the less said, the better about the meltdowns by E.J. Manuel early and the defense and officials late that combined for the mystifying debacle in London.

A 4-4 record reflects the season to date pretty accurately. And thanks to the extremely stratified AFC, which includes the unbeaten Patriots and Bengals and recently undefeated Denver at the top, Jaguars, Titans, Cleveland, Baltimore and San Diego at the bottom, that .500 record had Buffalo in the midst of the wild-card race heading into Thursday night’s game in New Jersey.

The matchup with Rex’s old team, the 5-3 Jets should be a pretty good indicator whether his new one stays in the postseason derby for long.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who got yet another starting opportunity (the sixth of his NFL career and third since being dumped by the Bills following the 2012 season) when current Bills backup defensive end and temporary coin-toss caller I.K. Enemkpali busted Geno Smith’s jaw with a training-camp punch, has been a big reason for the Jets’ surprising start. He is also exactly the kind of quarterback Ryan’s defenses traditionally feast upon, his propensity for key mistakes heightened by a damaged thumb that has him scheduled for surgery Friday morning.

The Jets defense has been markedly better than Buffalo’s to date, allowing the fewest rushing yards in the league and ranking ahead of Rex’s trademark in just about every major category under his replacement, Todd Bowles. But New York’s secondary has shown cracks the last few weeks. It broke down late against Tom Brady, just like every other defensive backfield in football, but also yielded more big plays than you would expect from Oakland’s Derek Carr and Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, who gave E.J. Manuel a pretty good run for the title of Worst Quarterback On the Field until the closing moments in London.

A win over the Jets would put the Bills in at least a tie for a wild-card spot with seven games remaining, with a tiebreaker edge and a home game against New York remaining.

After a 10-day break, Buffalo travels to New England, where things don’t figure to be very pretty. From there, though, the Bills travel to Kansas City (3-5), host the Texans (2-6), travel to face wildly erratic Philadelphia (4-4) and increasingly feeble Washington (3-5) before closing with the disintegrating Cowboys (2-6) and the Jets again, both at home.

Other than the Patriots, who are again performing in a fashion that makes any suggestion that air pressure had anything to do with last year’s championship run look pretty silly, every remaining contest presents a highly beatable opponent, with only the Cowboys possessing a better-than-average quarterback (if Tony Romo is healthy and playing what figures to be a meaningless game for Dallas).

Of course, that scenario presumes a team that has yet to win consecutive games stringing together consistently strong performances, something no Ryan-coached team has managed since his first two seasons with the Jets. With their defensive array of talent seeming to settle into Rex’s system against Miami and Taylor returning from a knee injury with the most statistically efficient passing performance in franchise history, such a run is far more plausible than it was a week ago.

Rex’s Bills have also shown themselves capable of losing to any or all of their remaining opponents. If the Jaguars can beat you, anyone can—no matter who is throwing your interceptions.

Beating the Jets in what promises to be the most headache-inducing telecast in modern football history, with the visitors wearing all-red uniforms for the first time ever and the home team clad in all green, would give these Bills two straight wins to build on the rest of the way, even if—OK, when—that modest streak ends in New England.

Dropping to 4-5 with Patriots waiting in Foxboro, though, raises the prospect of the sort of long, ugly slog to the end of yet another lost season to which we’ve all become accustomed. And another winter, spring and summer trying to answer the same old questions.

The author has written about the Buffalo Bills, among other topics, since 1990, and publishes We Want Marangi at You can also follow him on the Twitter at @DavidStaba.

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