Remember when, in the middle of training camp, the Bills traded two of their best players — wideout Sammy Watkins and cornerback Ronald Darby — and the immediate reaction was that the team, a month before the very first game of 2017, already had designs on tanking the season.
Comments like this didn’t help things.
“Everybody is forgetting we signed Anquan (Boldin) last week,” new general manager Brandon Beane said at the time, trying to assuage concerns. “This is not a throw-in-the-towel at all. That’s annoying to me. You don’t know me if you think I’m throwing in the towel. If I was throwing in the towel, I wouldn’t have tried to get a starting receiver back.”
Boldin, who signed with the team days before the Watkins and Darby trades, retired less than two weeks later, perhaps because he too thought the Bills were tanking.
Funny story: Midway through the season, the Bills are one of the NFL’s best teams. At 5-2 they’re a half-game behind the division-leading Patriots, and if we’re willing to have the “if the playoffs were today” conversation, the Bills would qualify for the first time since 1999.
So what happened to the “THEY’RE TANKING!” storylines? Winning got in the way. The Bills beat the Jets in the opener, lost a 9-3 defensive struggle against the Panthers, then beat the Broncos and Falcons before losing another close game to the resurgent Bengals. Fresh off victories over the Buccaneers and Raiders, the Jets’ rematch is next on the schedule.
The last time the Bills started 5-2: 2011, when they lost eight of nine and finished 6-10. Before that: 1996, back when first-year coach Sean McDermott was still in college, and Marv Levy, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas were nearing the end of Hall of Fame careers.
The difference this season, McDermott’s first, and last season, Rex Ryan’s last, is as simple as this: In 2017, the team ranks 10th in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric (18th in offense, 10th in defense, 7th in special teams), and a year ago they finished 17th (10th in offense, 27th in defense and 22nd in special teams). Put another way: Buffalo has gone from decidedly mediocre to one of the league’s best teams.
And that 18th-ranked offense just got a big boost: Minutes before Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Bills made a deal for for Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the big-bodied former first-rounder who had 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie in 2014, 941 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016, and currently has 475 yards and two touchdowns this season. He’s a good, not great receiver who sometimes struggles to get open, but has been productive throughout his career.
Benjamin, who immediately becomes the Bills’ best pass catcher, ranked 14th in total value among all wideouts, according to Football Outsiders, just behind Jordy Nelson. Meanwhile, Pro Football Focus ranked Benjamin 24th, which is 24 spots about the highest-rated Bills receiver, Andre Holmes. The next Bills receiver on the list, Jordan Matthews, ranks 83rd.
So while the offense got a huge boost, the defense has been playing well all season. The secondary, which includes offseason signing Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, rookie first-rounder Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines — the “other guy” in the Watkins trade — has been tremendous.
And the run defense, which held the Raiders’ to 54 yards last week, ranks eight in the league.
The Jets also made a trade just before the deadline
OK, it wasn’t nearly as glamorous as the Benjamin deal. In fact, Jets coach Todd Bowles sounded surprised when reporters mentioned it to him.
Did we?” Bowles asked, when informed of the trade for 49ers cornerback Rashard Robinson moments after the coach said he didn’t anticipate any moves. “I wasn’t aware of that, but I’ll go upstairs and check on it.”
As ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini points out, Robinson won’t magically fix the Jets’ secondary, which ranks 24th, according to Football Outsiders; he’s been one of the NFL’s most penalized players over the last two seasons — 23 times overall, 16 times on defense. Perhaps it’s fitting that he now joins the NFL’s most penalized team.
This season, Robinson has been flagged 10 times, second in the league. He joins a secondary that includes cornerbacks Morris Claiborne (seven penalties) and Buster Skrine (six). The trio ranks among the league’s penalty leaders on defense.
It’s not all bad, however. Robinson was the 49ers’ best cornerback and sports a passer rating of 79.2 on throws in his direction.
The last time we met, Color Blind Bowl edition
Technically, the Jets and Bills have met four times since their Week 10 showdown during the 2015 season. We mention it here, though, because the uniforms for that Color Rush game proved to be complete torture for colorblind viewers. Thirteen million Americans are colorblind, many of them red-green colorblind. Which meant that watching the Jets — decked out in all green — battle the Bills — decked out in all red — was exactly like watching 22 guys dressed in all gray play football.
The Color Rush uniforms for Thursday’s get-together feature the Jets wearing all green and the Bills wearing all white.
“We did test the jerseys this summer on field and on television,” the NFL said after that first, fateful Jets-Bills Color Rush matchup. “The standard television test did not account for color blindness for fans at home that became apparent last night. We will enhance our testing to include a color blindness analysis to better address this issue in the future.”
Dispatches from Fantasy Island
CBSSports.com fantasy expert Heath Cummings:
Tyrod Taylor was a borderline No. 1 quarterback without Benjamin. This is a boon for his Fantasy value and I would view him as a guy you’re going to start more often than not moving forward.
And potential losers include:
Zay Jones, Andre Holmes and Jordan Matthews would technically be losers as well, but from a Fantasy perspective they’ve been losers all season. It’s just piling on to talk anymore about how bad they’ve been. Matthews could be a boom-or-bust flex on Thursday night if Benjamin is inactive but for the most part you can cut these guys.
This could be the year the Bills break their playoff drought:
The biggest caveat: They still have to face the Patriots twice.
They said it
“This is a must-win, period, point blank. We have to win this game [vs. the Bills] if we want to turn this around.” — cornerback Morris Claiborne last Sunday, shortly after the Jets wilted down the stretch and lost to the Falcons, 25-20, to fall to 3-5 on the season after starting 3-2.
Who ya got?
“The Bills are one of the surprise teams so far at 5-2, but this is a division rival on a short week. That can be a problem. I think the Jets are playing feisty football and will do so here. In fact, I think the defense leads them to an upset victory.” — Prisco, who has the Jets winning, 21-20