Through the first eight weeks of the NFL season, the Buffalo Bills looked like a team destined to reach the playoffs for the first time since the Music City Miracle. Three weeks later, they looked like a sinking ship.
Now? Who knows.
The Bills’ 16-10 win over the free-falling Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday snapped a three-game losing streak during which they were outscored by a whopping 80 points (135-55). But given the mediocrity that has consumed every AFC team outside of New England and Pittsburgh this season, Buffalo, at 6-5, currently sits just a tiebreaker out of the playoff field.
Sean McDermott’s squad will have a chance to prove whether it’s for real this Sunday when it hosts the Patriots at New Era Field — the first of two games it will play against the perennial AFC East champs over the next four weeks.
Here’s a look at what to expect from the Bills, who have beaten the Patriots in Buffalo just once since 2003:
— Tyrod Taylor is back under center for Buffalo after McDermott’s Nathan Peterman experiment ended horribly two weeks ago.
Taylor’s passing stats aren’t anything special (22nd in passing yards, 12th in completion percentage, 26th in yards per attempt, 16th in passer rating, tied for 22nd in touchdown passes), but he’s thrown just three interceptions this season and is a skilled runner, ranking second on the Bills and third among NFL quarterbacks with 302 rushing yards on 66 carries.
The Patriots struggled earlier this season to contain Cam Newton and Deshaun Watson, frequently applying pressure against those mobile QBs but failing to corral them. Taylor will present a similar challenge for a New England defense that racked up a season-high seven sacks this past Sunday.
— Regardless of who’s starting at quarterback for the Bills, their offense runs through LeSean McCoy. The two-time All-Pro ranks eighth in the NFL with 758 rushing yards and seventh among running backs (not to mention first among all Bills players) in receptions with 46.
McCoy’s 1,053 yards from scrimmage this season are good for eighth in the league and are nearly double that of his next-most productive teammate. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin ranks second on the Bills with 537 yards from scrimmage, and all but 62 of those came before his trade from the Carolina Panthers.
— It’s unclear if Benjamin will play in this game. The Bills confirmed Monday the wideout tore his meniscus against the Los Angeles Chargers, which caused him to miss Sunday’s win over the Chiefs. He’s still considered day to day, though, so who knows if we’ll see him on the field this weekend.
Benjamin hasn’t done much since joining the Bills at the trade deadline (four catches, 62 yards, no touchdowns in two games), but he torched the Patriots back in Week 4, catching four passes for 104 yards in a last-second Panthers win at Gillette Stadium.
Buffalo’s receiving corps as a whole has lacked consistency this season. Jordan Matthews has battled injury and failed to crack 20 receiving yards in either of his last two games. Second-round draft pick Zay Jones has come on strong of late but has just 23 catches on 61 targets this season. On Sunday, he caught just three of the 10 passes thrown his way for 33 yards, though he did score the Bills’ lone touchdown.
Jones also might have magical powers.
— Tight end Charles Clay has been Buffalo’s top receiver this season, catching 29 passes for a team-high 358 yards and two touchdowns.
— When Buffalo is forcing turnovers, good things tend to happen. The Bills have won the turnover battle in all six of their victories this season — and won it by a wide margin, with 15 takeaways and just two giveaways in those games.
Conversely, they lost the turnover battle badly in two of their last three losses, turning it over six times against the New York Jets and six times against the Chargers in the Peterman debacle.
The Bills are tied for fifth in the NFL in interceptions, tied for eighth in fumble recoveries, tied for fifth in total takeaways and tied for sixth in turnover ratio.
— Safety Micah Hyde and rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White have been two of the best in the NFL at their respective positions this season, especially in coverage.
Hyde has five interceptions (tied for second-most in the league behind Tennessee’s Kevin Byard) and nine pass breakups, while White has two picks, 14 PBUs (tied for third-most), one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a touchdown. He’s a prime candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Safety Jordan Poyer also has filled up the stat sheet this season, tallying 65 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, nine pass breakups and one forced fumble.
— Buffalo has a talented linebacking corps with Lorenzo Alexander on the strong side, Preston Brown in the middle and Ramon Humber on the weak side. Humber spent summer 2016 with the Patriots but was cut before last season.
— The Bills’ pass rush has been weak this season, ranking second-to-last in the NFL with 17 sacks. That’s good news for the Patriots, who could be entering this game with a seriously shorthanded offensive line.