Pollock: A tough test for Bills over last 5 games

Josh Allen holds on to the ball after picking up a first down as Denver’s Alexander Johnson brings him down at the 10-yard line.

Now it gets interesting.

The Bills, following Sunday’s 20-3 win over the Broncos at New Era Field, are 8-3, the franchise’s best start since the 1996 team opened with a 9-3 mark.

Of course, that won’t stop you from hearing that Buffalo’s record has been bolstered by an almost unprecedented weak schedule through the first 11 games.

To be sure, those eight wins came against opposition that would hardly be viewed as exceptionally challenging.

You know the numbers: Miami (2-9) twice, the Jets (4-7), the Giants (2-9), Cincinnati (0-11), Tennessee (6-5), Washington (2-9) and Denver (3-8). That’s a collective record of 21-67 or a winning percentage of .239.

But, because of the Titans, whom the Bills dropped to 2-3 with their win at Nashville, no longer can it be said that Buffalo hasn’t beaten a team winning over half of its games. Since the loss to the Bills, Tennessee has won four of five and at 6-5 has worked itself into playoff contention.

And the Jets, after a stumbling start, have won two straight while scoring 34 points in each.

So here’s how the playoff chase shapes up heading into the season’s final five games.

Division leaders New England (10-1), Baltimore (9-2), Kansas City and Houston, both 7-4, are seeds 1-4 in the AFC. Buffalo, the wild-card leader, is the No. 5 seed while Pittsburgh (6-5) is No. 6 ahead of seventh seed Oakland (6-5) due to a better conference record, and eighth-seeded Indianapolis (6-5) thanks to a head-to-head win.

Still in the hunt are No. 9 seed Tennessee (also 6-5) and even 10th-seeded Cleveland (5-6).

BUT WHILE Buffalo’s two-game lead over its four closest contenders (actually 2½ on Tennessee with the head-to-head win) might seem secure, the Bills’ schedule says otherwise.

Buffalo’s slate, ninth easiest when the season began based on 2018 records, now faces the NFL’s third-toughest schedule over the last five games.

First come the Cowboys (6-5) in Dallas, Thanksgiving Day, home with Baltimore, at Pittsburgh, at New England and home with the Jets. That’s an opponent winning percentage of .636.

So what do the Bills have to do during that critical stretch?

In a down year for the AFC, it’s still likely going to take a 10-6 record to earn a wild-card berth as 9-7 would seemingly put Buffalo squarely in the tiebreaker mix.

You’d like to think that beating the Jets in the season finale, even with their improved play, projects as a win. But where does the other one come from?

The Cowboys have an even shorter week than Buffalo, having played the late game Sunday at New England, then flying back to Dallas. The Bills played early Sunday, but travel to Texas on Wednesday, burning valuable practice time in a short week.

That’s one reason why the Cowboys, playing at home, are favored by a touchdown.

The Ravens dominated the Patriots (their only loss) and Texans, both at home, before traveling to L.A. last night and will host San Francisco (10-1) Sunday before venturing to Orchard Park. A Buffalo win would be an upset.

The Bills visit to Pittsburgh could be only a 3-point spread, but the Steelers have regrouped as losing their Big Three – quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder injury), running back Le’Veon Bell (free agency) and wide receiver Antonio Brown (trade) – and are on a hot streak.

After starting 1-4 and seemingly out of the playoff chase, they’ve won five of six and if the post-season started today Pittsburgh would be the second wild-card.

That visit to Foxboro?

The Patriots have beaten Buffalo in 16 of their last 18 meetings at Gillette Stadium.

In short, assuming a second win over the Jets, to get to 10 wins, the Bills must still upset one of its other four foes – Dallas, Pittsburgh or New England on the road – or the Ravens, easily leading the NFL in scoring, at New Era Field.

After Sunday’s victory against Denver, veteran Buffalo running back Frank Gore maintained, “We’ve put ourselves in a great position at 8-3.”

And he’s right … through 11 games.

But it’s that though stretch over the final five that will decide whether Buffalo is still playing in January.

(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@oleanbtimesherald.com)