In the NFL, every game is important. In the matter of one game, a win, or loss, can dramatically impact a team’s season. The importance of installing game-plans on a weekly basis happens as a direct result to help a specific team prepare for their opponent.
For the Bills, a common trend that has reappeared throughout the 16 year playoff drought has been their inability to win in the clutch. Reflecting back on recent history, the 2015 season specifically, produced two meltdowns against Jacksonville and Kansas City. The losses to the Jaguars and Chiefs were crucial because the Bills maintained control of their own destiny at the time. What is also crushing is the times when it appears the Bills have victory firmly in its grasp—That is until those costly, and timely, mistakes came back and haunted the Bills.
In other words, along the lines of every game containing equal importance, oftentimes generates the contradicting thoughts of what games will be the most vital to a team’s success.
Analyzing the Buffalo Bills 2016 schedule, the previous experiences of critical losses and shortcomings forcefully make you look for those prime matchups.
Here at Building the Herd, we’ll identify five key games that will be paramount to the team’s success in 2016:
NEW YORK JETS @ BUFFALO: Week 2
How can this not be labeled a “key game”? It’s the Bills home opener, it’s a prime-time matchup, they’re going up against a divisional rival, and most notably Rex will be squaring off against the team that fired him after the 2014 season.
The expectation is the Jets will be more motivated then ever to roll into Ralph Wilson Stadium and steal a big game on the road following a heart-breaking week 17 defeat at the hands of the Bills in Orchard Park that ended the Jets playoff aspirations.
The Jets are no pushover. The Jets boast a top-flight defense featuring all-pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, along with a loaded defensive line presenting Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams. On offense, former Bills’ quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, enjoyed a breakout season in 2015 with 3,905 passing yards and 31 touchdown passes. The Bills pass defense, specifically Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, will be tested with the two-headed monster via Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker at receiver. The addition of the versatile running back in Matt Forte will also be a threat out of the backfield they’ll have to account for as well.
With the expected absence of the Bills’ top two draft picks in Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, the defense will definitely be tested by the Jets spread attack. Look for the Jets to utilize a lot of Posse 11 personnel (3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB) to keep the Bills off-balance. Offensively, the Bills will have to rely on their top-ranked rushing attack to enable the functionality of the passing game. A big matchup to watch for is Sammy Watkins against Darrelle Revis. In the season finale, Watkins was able to gain separation on multiple occasions that led to a stat-line of 11 receptions for 136 yards. In week 10, Watkins produced a game-sealing play like this:
On the first drive, he had a step on Revis going down the field, but it appears with a mixture of an overthrown ball and a little hesitation by Watkins causes this to be an incompletion:
Sammy Watkins will be the centerpiece of the passing attack in 2016. It’ll be critical for him to win one-on-one matchups to keep the Bills offense respectable and opposing defenses off-balance.
In all seriousness, beating the Jets and jumping a game ahead of them early on will be imperative. Looking at the Bills schedule, the road to the playoffs gets a lot tougher in the second-half of their season. They play New England home week eight, in Seattle week nine, at Cincinnati week 10, and they play the Steelers at home week 14. So it will be crucial for the Bills to pile-up some early wins to gain momentum and confidence.
ARIZONA @ BUFFALO: Week 3
The following week features another key game. Although they’re an out-of-conference opponent, the Arizona Cardinals will present the Bills’ first huge test of the season. A border-line super bowl team last season, the Cardinals have one of the more talented rosters in the league.
From Carson Palmer to Patrick Peterson, the Cardinals have a ton of weapons on both sides of the ball that’ll present integral matchups for the Bills.
In Bruce Arians vertical offense, Palmer reaped the benefits of a 4,671 passing-yard season to go along with 35 touchdown passes. His breakout campaign was no fluke, as he is accompanied by big-time playmakers via David Johnson in the backfield and receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown.
Last season, the Bills finished 19th in pass defense. However, the return of safety Aaron Williams, together with a fully healthy secondary, and another year in Rex’s defensive system, the pass defense will go toe-to-toe with the Cardinals second-ranked passing offense. Once again, Stephon Gilmore, Ronald Darby, and whomever the starting nickel corner may that be Nickell Robey-Coleman, or perhaps Kevon Seymour, will have to be on top of their games covering the three-headed monster.
Additionally, the Cardinals eighth-ranked rushing attack will cause more confusion. The Cardinals present an offensive line that concluded the 2015 season as the 4th best in run-blocking—featuring the mauling, pro-bowl guard in Mike Lupati, and the newly acquired Evan Mathis. The Bills, unfortunately, finished 16th in run defense after finishing 11th the previous year. The drop-off in rushing defense is concerning, but as with the pass defense, another year of experience in Rex’s defense should improve the unit. You can also count the absence of Kyle Williams as a detriment to the team’s failure last season, too. It’ll be absolutely necessary for the defense to stay healthy to maximize its chances against one of the league’s best offenses.
Defensively, the Cardinals are no slouch, either. They finished the 2015 season as a top five defense that included top 10 finishes in defending both the pass (8th) and run (6th).
The Cardinals, even with the loss of Darnell Dockett’s retirement, still possess a stout front-seven led by defensive end Calais Campbell. Also, they flipped offensive guard Jonathan Cooper and a second round pick to the Patriots for star pass-rusher, Chandler Jones. The addition of Jones adds another weapon to the Cardinals versatile front, and will give the Bills fits in pass protection. First round pick, Robert Nkemdiche, has a lot of upside in this defense, as well—If he can stay out of trouble. The Cardinals line-backing core is in good hands with the addition of Donald Butler, along with possessing the athletic Daryl Washington. Overall, this front will be difficult to pass or run against.
Moving to the Cardinals secondary, the two heralded stars are cornerback Patrick Peterson and the versatile cornerback, safety hybrid Tyrann Mathieu. Both Peterson and Mathieu finished in PFF’s top 20 overall players from 2015, with Mathieu coming in at 10th, and Peterson in 19th. A major individual matchup to watch for is Sammy Watkins versus Patrick Peterson. Peterson will be tasked to follow Sammy wherever he goes. It’ll be critical for Watkins to beat Peterson one-on-one to open up the entire passing game. The secondary also features the underrated safety Tony Jefferson and linebacker, safety hybrid Deone Bucannon. All together, the Cardinals defense is strong from top-to-bottom.
This may not be an AFC foe, but the Arizona Cardinals will be a huge test to gauge if the Bills are the real deal or not.
BUFFALO @ NEW ENGLAND: Week 4
With Tom Brady’s suspension upheld, the Patriots will be without their future Hall of fame quarterback in week four against the Buffalo Bills. Instead, it’ll be third-year player, Jimmy Garoppolo, making the start. Without Tom Brady at the helm, this game is of the utmost importance to steal, especially on the road at New England, against a divisional opponent. A win here could go a long way to deciding if the Bills will be a playoff team, or not.
Even with the absence of Brady, the Patriots still own a very talented roster.
The Patriots still hold the league’s best tight-end, and perhaps the best tight-end duo, in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. The two will prove to be nightmares for whoever may be covering them. Containing their production is essential towards a ‘W’ in the win column.
Apart of the Patriots receiving core holds the crafty duo of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Belichick’s quick passing offense fits their game’s perfectly. The multiple pre-snap motions and shifts usually set-up mismatches with the defense. Numerous, “rubs”, or “picks” are created in this offense with the various types of west-coast elements.
To stop, or at least disrupt, the flow of the offense is to throw confusing, exotic looks. With Garoppolo only being a third-year player, Rex Ryan will have a lot up his sleeve to stun him and the offense as a whole. Also, playing press-man coverage will disrupt their flow by not allowing the Patriots receiver’s a free release off the line-of-scrimmage. Fortunately, Rex Ryan owns two strong, press-man corners in Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. The play of the corners will allow Ryan to send more pressure, and be more flexible with his play-calling. These two keys will be pivotal beating New England.
Defensively, even with the loss of Chandler Jones, the Patriots still possess one of the best linebacker duo in the league via Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. Collins finished as the fourth-best at his position with a grade of (91.3), while Luke Kuechly’s (99.9) grade was the best. Collins also posted a (86.5) grade in coverage, proving to be a great all-around talent. Dont’a Hightower finished an injury-plagued season as the 12th-best overall linebacker at (82.2) and the second-best pass-rushing linebacker at (92.8). Elsewhere among the defense front, linebacker and defensive-end, Jabaal Sheard, finished 8th among “edge defenders” at (88.1), emerging as a viable threat for the Patriots.
Transitioning to the Patriots secondary, the combination of Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan played an integral part in why the Patriots defense has held opposing quarterbacks to a 60-percent completion rate with 240 yards per contest and 24 touchdowns through the air. Both corners were rated in the top-25 by Pro Football Focus as Ryan tied for the 11th spot while Butler checked in 22nd. Putting this in perspective, Darrelle Revis landed 26th.
The safety duo of Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung is among the best in the league. Since moving from corner, McCourty has become one of the league’s solid, and most dependable safeties. McCourty finished the season with the eighth-highest coverage grade for safeties at (+8.0). Patrick Chung was PFF’s 5th highest rated safety last season, and excelled as a run-stopper and as a temporary slot corner. Both safeties finished in the top 10 at their respective positions, with Chung being rated the higher of the two. Nevertheless, the Patriots secondary caps off a solid defense all-around.
Winning this matchup will propel the Bills a game ahead of the Patriots by the time Brady comes back.
BUFFALO @ CINCINNATI: Week 11
In their last two matchups, the Cincinnati Bengals have got the best of Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Heading to Cincinnati, whatever the circumstances may be, this game will be key. The Bills will have to probably steal one on the road in a tough environment to ensure a playoff spot. With the AFC North looking like a tight race, one of those teams will be on the outside looking in—which may consequently push the Bills out of contention depending on their record. A win, or loss, here could dramatically turn the Bills season for the good, or bad.
The Bengals possess one of the best all-around rosters in the league. Andy Dalton is coming off great 2015 campaign. Despite missing three games, he threw 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, and earned an NFL QB rating of (106.3)—almost 20 points higher than his previous best output of (87.0) in 2013. He is surrounded with a talented skills position core including AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard, and Jeremy Hill, which attributed to his breakout season.
The Bengals are equipped defensively as much as they’re offensively. They re-signed stud corner Adam Jones, and drafted William Jackson (24th overall) in the first round. Jackson earned the second-highest coverage grade among the 2016 draft class. The resigning of George Iloka was critical, as they lost their starting free safety,Reggie Nelson, in free agency.
Adding Karlos Dansby brings a veteran presence who is still playing at a high level and has a strong ability in coverage. The linebacking core also possesses Vontaze Burfict, who finished first in run-stop percentage at (13.3) for 4-3 outside linebackers.
Although the Bengals possess an above average defensive line, two stars who really stand out are defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Atkins finished with a (93.0) rating (4th among interior defenders) and Dunlap was first among 4-3 DE’s with 15 sacks.
This Bengal team will be a test for sure.
PITTSBURGH @ BUFFALO: Week 14
Just like the Bengals, the Bills will have another tough slate against an AFC North squad who’ll be prime contenders in the race for the AFC crown. This game is the fourth in a pivotal four-game stretch against AFC playoff hopefuls in the Bengals, Jaguars, Raiders, and Steelers. If the Bills happen to lose their key game against the Bengals, this matchup with the Steelers could be sink or swim.
The Steelers bread and butter will be their offense. The featured trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell will be a handful for the Bills defense. Ben Roethlisberger, despite missing four games, finished 2015 with the second-best grade according to Pro Football Focus with a (97.9). His grade of (+22.8) on deep passes (20-plus yards in the air) was the best in the league. Big Ben is clearly an elite quarterback who’ll give the Bills secondary trouble.
Antonio Brown edged out Julio Jones as the top graded wide receiver with a (96.5)—Brown and Jones ended up tying each other with for the lead league in receptions with 136, while Jones edged Brown in receiving yards with (1,871) to (1,834). Stephon Gilmore and/or Ronald Darby will have a tall task going up against one of the best receivers in football. With the suspension of Martavis Bryant, don’t count out Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton, and newly signed tight end, Ladarius Green. Even Le’Veon Bell is a great pass-catcher out of the backfield and can lineup as a receiver.
The two-headed monster of Bell and DeAngelo Williams compliment the Steelers amazing arsenal at receiver. Bell is one of the best, most versatile ‘backs in the NFL at the age of 24. DeAngelo, despite being 33 years old and his best years behind him, filled in nicely for Bell’s injury last season with 907 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns. Overall, the Steelers hold one of the most prolific offenses in the league.
Although the Steelers defense is far from the “Steel Curtain” it was back in the day, they still possess a solid group of players. Specifically on the defensive front with players such as Steve McLendon at nose tackle, Stephon Tuitt, James Harrison, and Lawrence Timmons are all phenomenal players. As a result, the Steelers finished with the fifth-ranked run defense. Running the ball on this group will be tough, but vital for the Bills flow on offense.
However, the Steelers finished with the 30th passing defense. So if the Bills can find any success running the ball, then passing against the Steelers young, and weak, secondary may be their best way to attack their defense.
With home field advantage, it will certainly help the Bills this time around, as the Bills got crushed in Pittsburgh in 2013. They’re going to need all of the help they can get going up against an elite team heading down the home stretch of the season. A win here could go a long ways for the Bills to reach the playoffs for the first time in 16 years.
Other Possible Key Games:
NEW ENGLAND @ BUFFALO: Week 8
BUFFALO @ SEATTLE: Week 9
BUFFALO @ OAKLAND: Week 13
BUFFALO @ NEW YORK JETS: Week 17
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