What started as a reasonable — but far from certain — possibility has become quite likely: After beating the New England Patriots at home in Week 8, the Buffalo Bills now have an 85 percent chance of winning the AFC East. If it ends up happening, it would mark the first time the Bills took first place in their division since 1995, a 25-year gap that trails only the Browns and Lions1 among active droughts. After making the playoffs for the first time in 18 years in 2017, a division-title bid is the next logical step for a franchise that had the NFL’s second-best record during the 1990s but fell on hard times over most of the next two decades — before rising again.
To bump that 85 percent up to 100 percent, Buffalo still has some work to do. According to our Elo ratings, the Bills have the league’s fifth-toughest set of remaining opponents over the rest of the season, with Sunday’s contest versus Seattle (1626 Elo) and Week 14’s game against the Steelers (1635) standing out as the most difficult matchups left. Those games are not necessarily the most consequential for Buffalo’s division chances, however. In our simulations, the games that swing Buffalo’s division odds the most come in Week 16 against the Patriots and (especially) Week 17 against the Miami Dolphins, who might be the biggest real obstacle left to the Bills’ division-title hopes.
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It makes sense: The Patriots and Dolphins are the only divisional opponents left on Buffalo’s schedule after it faced either Miami, New England or the New York Jets in four of its first eight contests. But both New England and Miami have concerns at quarterback, and in simulations where the Bills sweep those games, they win the division 98.5 percent of the time.
If Buffalo does end up finishing the job, it would be the culmination of a very long journey back to the NFL’s upper echelon after decades in exile. The Bills’ near-dynasty (which produced four consecutive AFC championships from 1990 through 1993)2 started gaining steam in the 1987 and ’88 seasons, with coach Marv Levy, DE Bruce Smith, QB Jim Kelly and WR Andre Reed settling in as franchise cornerstones, eventually joined by Hall of Fame RB Thurman Thomas. That group first reached an Elo level as high as the current Bills’ 1554 mark in the middle of 1988, peaking at 1642 that season and then rising as high as 1705 — a bit below the current Kansas City Chiefs,3 for context — a few years later, after blowing out the Raiders in the 1990 AFC title game.
From there, the Bills’ Elo stayed above 1550 every week until the middle of 1994, a season in which Buffalo slipped to 7-9 after suffering a big regression on defense without several key starters. The team rallied to finish first in the AFC East once more in 1995, cracking a 1550 Elo again before the end of the 1996 season (Kelly’s last year in the NFL). Buffalo even eclipsed that mark again in 1999 and 2000, with a QB carousel that swung between veteran fan favorite Doug Flutie and the younger Rob Johnson. But in retrospect, the Music City Miracle — which ended the Bills’ 1999 season — represented the beginning of the end for Buffalo’s time as a contender, as the team fell into a deep slump over the many seasons that followed.
After going 8-8 and missing the playoffs with Johnson and Flutie at QB in 2000, Buffalo moved on from coach Wade Phillips — embarking on a 17-season stretch that would see the Bills go through six different general managers, nine head coaches and nine primary quarterbacks. The relationship between such upheaval and a lack of team success is a bit of a chicken-or-egg dilemma: How much does the tumult cause the team to play worse, and how much is simply the byproduct of a team already playing poorly? But our research shows that there is some disadvantage to constant shakeups, even after controlling for how bad a team was to begin with. And it was no coincidence that our CHAOS (Cumulative High-Activity Organizational Strife) Score found the Bills to be the NFL’s third-least-stable franchise from 2000 through 2017, “trailing” only the Browns and Dolphins in that span.
As the Bills burned through personnel, they became mired in a cycle of sub-.500 seasons all too familiar for fans of perennial bottom-feeders. Buffalo’s Elo dipped below 1400 by the end of 2001, and while the Drew Bledsoe era (from 2002 to 2004) offered a few glimpses of decent play, the Bills finished with a losing record every season from 2005 through 2013. Over that span, Buffalo’s Elo would reach 1500 — i.e., the league average — for just 34 out of a possible 144 weeks (24 percent) and hit the 1550 mark in just four weeks (3 percent). What had been a consistently good — sometimes great — franchise for much of the late 1980s and 1990s turned into one of the worst teams of the 2000s.
Things started to turn around for the Bills in 2014, when journeyman passer Kyle Orton led a late-season run that powered a surprising 9-7 finish. Then a few years spent hovering around .500 with Tyrod Taylor under center — the last of which ended Buffalo’s long playoff drought — led to the team’s current era, with coach Sean McDermott and the enticing, perplexing Josh Allen at QB (who wasn’t even born the last time Buffalo won the division).
Those current Bills are not going to be confused with the Levy/Thomas/Kelly/Smith powerhouse, at least not yet. An Elo of 1554 would qualify as a below-average week for the 1990s Bills; that team was also consistently a staple at or near the top of the league’s offensive Simple Rating System rankings in the early ’90s (while Buffalo ranks just 16th on offense this year). The Bills’ title odds of 3 percent mean they’re not especially likely to do what their predecessors couldn’t — especially in the same conference as many other top contenders, including the Chiefs (24 percent), Steelers (14 percent) and Ravens (5 percent). But their likely AFC East crown is yet another signpost along Buffalo’s long, winding path back toward the top of the league.
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Looking ahead: Buffalo-Seattle is just one of several intriguing games in Week 9, but the best and most meaningful might be Thursday night’s contest between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers. Yes, Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo (and TE George Kittle) are out with injuries (among a number of absences for San Francisco), but backup Nick Mullens isn’t rated too much lower than Jimmy G. in our QB Elo metric — meaning S.F. should still play relatively close to its usual Elo level. Meanwhile, the Packers are coming off a surprise loss to the Vikings, but they still rank as one of the better teams in the league in our ratings, tied with the Ravens for the league’s sixth-best Super Bowl odds. In our simulations, this game swings the playoff odds for its teams more than any other in Week 9; Green Bay’s playoff odds (currently 83 percent) would either rise to 94 percent with a win or fall to 73 percent with a loss, while San Francisco (31 percent) could either play itself back into the picture (46 percent with a win) or fall almost completely out (16 percent with a loss). Although the 49ers are playing host, our odds have the Packers as the slimmest of favorites, with a 52 percent chance of avenging last year’s NFC title game defeat. Elo’s spread: Green Bay -½
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