For the Buffalo Bills, everything comes down to a late afternoon game in south Florida.

Well, almost everything.

Though they need some help, the Bills are in position to erase nearly two decades of frustration on Sunday. Combined with some favorable results elsewhere, a win against the Miami Dolphins will clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 1999.

In so doing, it will spell an end to one of the more dubious runs of ineptitude in NFL history. Only the New Orleans Saints (1967-1986) own a longer playoff drought among NFL teams during the Super Bowl era. And they’re currently one of eight major North American professional sports teams whose drought is now more than a decade old. The following graphic provides a pretty clear illustration.

  • Bills drought will end at 17 seasons if they qualify for the playoffs this year.

The NFL decided to flex Sunday’s game to 4:25, along with the other games which include teams whose playoff fate have yet to be determined. It’s somewhat similar to what soccer’s World Cup does in scheduling the last games in each first round group simultaneously. Games that Bills fans need to pay attention to are Cincinnati BengalsBaltimore Ravens, Jacksonville JaguarsTennessee Titans and Oakland RaidersLos Angeles Chargers.

Reinvigorate the Perimeter Pass Rush

When looking at the entirety of the Bills defense this season, inconsistent is a word that comes to mind. Yes, the secondary boasts a plethora of playmakers including Pro Bowler Micah Hyde and two snubs in Jordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White. Poyer certainly showed how dangerous he is nabbing a pick six against Tom Brady last week. But a maddening inability to stop the run combined with very little pressure on opposing quarterbacks held this unit back big time in 2017.

Forcing an interception or two along with solid coverage on the part of the secondary is a given for Sunday’s game. Defending the run has been a dead horse that’s taken a precipitous beating in these Bills keys to victory columns all season. But one component of the defense that’s been under-discussed with regard to underperformance is the pass rush. It shows in the fact that the team’s 26 sacks puts them in a tie for the fourth worst mark in the league.

In comparison to recent Bills seasons, the ability to get to the quarterback this year has been downright nonexistent. Consider that they have just one game where they registered at least four sacks. That’s tied with seven other teams for lowest in the NFL. It’s a glaringly stark contrast to the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Buffalo finished no worse than second in the league in sacks both years. Not only that, they tallied four or more sacks in a a league best 17 games during that span.

Even in 2016, the Bills’ mounted some formidable perimeter pressure with veteran edge rusher Lorenzo Alexander. Last year’s Pro Bowl MVP notched 12.5 sacks, tied for third best in the NFL. But he’s been much less effective harassing opposing quarterbacks this season as evidenced by his minuscule three sack total. Against the Dolphins, him and players such as Jerry Hughes and Eddie Yarbrough among others need to step up. It may provide the X-factor their team needs in making one final playoff push.

Let Shady Eat

When these two teams last met in Week 15, LeSean McCoy reached a notable career milestone. The nine-year veteran became just the 30th running back in NFL history to rush for 10,000 total yards. Couple that with 2017 being his sixth 1000+ yard season as a pro and it’s no wonder he’s considered one of this era’s best backs. Still, in that first matchup with the Fins, Shady didn’t exactly light the field on fire. He managed a mere 50 yards on 20 carries with his 2.5 yards per carry the fifth worst of the year.

Though McCoy added 46 receiving yards and a touchdown catch in that contest, the Bills could use more out of him in the run game on Sunday to ensure success. Since he entered the league, his ability to gash opposing defenses and churn out chunk plays on the ground generally lead to a favorable result for his teams. The following stats make that abundantly clear. In games where McCoy’s rushed for at least 75 yards, the Bills and Philadelphia Eagles have a 45-20 record. In games where his rushing total fell below 75 yards, they’re a combined 26-44.

It’s not just McCoy’s patience, vision and athleticism that needs to be at its level best Sunday. The Bills’ offensive line needs to execute in all phases if they want to dominate at the line of scrimmage. Whether it’s combo blocking up front, plowing through linebackers on runs between the tackles, or flaring laterally on outside zone runs, McCoy’s effectiveness will emanate in part from the big boys up front dictating things at the point of attack.

Get Some Help

Capping a season sweep against the Dolphins isn’t the only way the Bills can get a W on Sunday. They can also do so by qualifying for the postseason. That latter key to victory is relevant here. But it’s not completely in the Bills’ hands. It necessitates a confluence of other positive results. If not, it would mark the third time over the course of the drought (2004 and 2014 being the others) that a winning record wasn’t good enough for Buffalo to make the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the three other wild card aspirants out of the AFC are at home. The Ravens, Titans and Chargers all host the Bengals, Jaguars and Raiders respectively. But here’s what should give Bills fans hope. Last week, Baltimore looked sluggish, the Bengals decisively ended the Detroit Lions‘ playoff hopes, Tennessee lost at home and the Raiders gave the team with the NFL’s best record all it could handle. It’s hard to be an optimist given all that’s transpired in the time since Buffalo last contested a playoff game. But that, my friends, is a full-hearted attempt.

The simplest scenario is a Bills win coupled with the Ravens falling to Cincy. It locks Buffalo into the six-seed due to superior strength of victory. That tiebreaker essentially takes into account the won-loss-tied percentage of teams you beat. The Bills currently own a .392-.296 edge. That obviously won’t change if Baltimore loses. Another scenario that paves the way for a Bills playoff game entails both the Titans and Chargers dropping their home games. The outcome via that permutation is pretty simple. Buffalo would simply have a better record than those two teams. The rosiest scenario is all three teams losing. That would move the Bills into the five seed via the aforementioned strength of victory tiebreaker over Baltimore.

Playoffs or Not, Process on Schedule

Not many expected the Bills to be in this position at the beginning of the year. After new general manager Brandon Beane began unloading high profile players for draft picks, it appeared this team was building for the future. It makes the Bills being in the playoff hunt all year that much more impressive. Though there’ve been a multitude of speed bumps along the way (starting Nathan Peterman certainly qualifies), year one of the Sean McDermott era came with its fair share of positives. If it ends with a fanbase finally having a chance to enjoy playoff football after all these years, all the better. With a talented young core and a plethora of picks in next year’s draft, this particular process feels like one worth trusting.

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