Sullivan: Gray leading Niagara through tumultuous 2020

Jerry Sullivan

As Josh Allen said a week ago, this was a tough time for a bye, two long weeks for the Bills to stew over that disheartening last-second loss to the Cardinals.

But at least it gave fans a one-week breather. One benefit of the bye week is that it gives you a chance to kick back and analyze the current state of the NFL season, without a deep emotional investment.

Of course, the more fatalistic Buffalo fans might have examined the standings with a growing sense of unease. The fact is, this is shaping up as one of the most competitive AFC playoff races in years.

At the start of play on Sunday, there were nine AFC teams with three or fewer losses. For the first time in NFL history, there were nine AFC teams with six or more wins through Week 10. Seven teams — including the Bills — had exactly three defeats.

It’s never too early for scoreboard-watching, especially in a year where so many teams could win 10 games. Pittsburgh got to 10-0 for the first time on Sunday. At some point, people will have to at least contemplate the Steelers’ chances of a perfect season. 

Nothing is guaranteed with six weeks to go. Even with the addition of a seventh playoff team, it might take 11 wins to be sure of a spot. It might take until the final week to break the logjam, and there could be a tie for the final spot (or spots) at 10 victories.

While Bills fans were exulting in the demise of the Patriots and making room for an AFC East banner, the Dolphins won five in a row to get to 6-3. The Dolphins came back to Earth in Denver, losing 20-13, to fall a full game back of the Bills. Still, the Dolphins have a soft schedule in the coming weeks, and it might come down to the season finale in Buffalo on Jan. 3.

Miami head coach Brian Flores made a gutsy call when he inserted rookie Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback for Ryan Fitzpatrick when the Dolphins were 3-3. They won three in a row with Tagovailoa, but Tua struggled Sunday and was replaced by Fitzpatrick, who rallied the Dolphins in the fourth quarter before throwing a late interception.

I still say Fitz gives them the best chance to win right now. Flores was looking to the future, but in this wild year of the coronavirus, who knows what might happen? Every team has flaws, including the Steelers and Chiefs. A team could get hot in January and make a run, the way the Titans did last season.

Speaking of the Titans, they beat the Ravens in overtime, 30-24, winning in their first trip to Baltimore since last year’s wild-card stunner. Ryan Tannehill, who used to be a punchline in Buffalo, made big plays in the clutch and is now 14-6 since replacing Marcus Mariota as Tennessee’s starting QB last year — 16-7 counting the postseason.

The Ravens don’t look like the team that went 14-2 a year ago. The offense seems predictable. Lamar Jackson hasn’t improved as a passer. Still, Baltimore has games left against the Cowboys, Giants, Bengals and Jaguars, so 10 wins seems well within range.

There’s a chance the AFC North could get three teams in the playoffs. They can thank their crossover against the NFC East, the worst division in the league. Entering Sunday’s games, the Steelers, Ravens and Browns were 7-0 against the NFC East.

Cleveland added to that record with a wet, sloppy 22-17 win over the Eagles. The Browns are somehow 7-3, tied with the Bills in the conference, despite being outscored by 23 points over their 10 games.

Baker Mayfield has gone three consecutive games without throwing a touchdown pass. The Browns won again with a strong running game (Nick Chubb went over 100 yards for the second week in a row) and a relentless defense that had three takeaways.

The Browns are winning despite Mayfield, not because of him. But they have the Jets, Giants and Jaguars left on the schedule. They close with the Steelers, who might have nothing to play for in the finale. So Cleveland is a threat for 10-11 wins.

The same goes for Frank Reich’s Colts, who overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Packers, 34-31, in overtime. So both AFC South leaders got to 7-3 with OT victories that were on TV in Buffalo. I guess Bills fans got their money’s worth on the bye week. Indy, which came in having allowed the fewest yards in the NFL, found itself defensively and held Aaron Rodgers to three points after halftime.

It’s been fashionable to write off Philip Rivers as an elite quarterback, but he has been very good over the last month or so. During Indy’s 4-1 run, Rivers has completed 67% of his passes for 1,456 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. He doesn’t look washed-up to me.

Let’s see, who does that leave? Oh, the Raiders, who gave the Chiefs their only loss early this season, hosted KC on Sunday night with a defense ravaged by COVID19. Bills fans had to be rooting hard for KC to get revenge against Las Vegas, which lost to the Bills earlier this year.

Maybe the best thing about a bye week is that you’re reminded that every team in the league has flaws nowadays, not just the Bills. There are no great teams, no quarterbacks who don’t make dubious decisions or bad throws now and then.

Actually, the more I watch Mayfield and Jackson, the more convinced I am that Josh Allen was the best of the 2018 quarterback class. I’ve never believed in Mayfield as a top NFL quarterback. Jackson was the MVP last year, but Allen is developing more quickly as a passer and is a comparable runner.

The more immediate question is whether he’s better than Chargers rookie Justin Herbert, who torched the Jets for 366 yards on Sunday and comes to Buffalo next Sunday. Coming two weeks after the Hail Mary, it shapes up as a pivotal game.

Allen and the Bills need to put that Arizona disaster behind them once and for all. If they lose again and fall to 7-4 in a highly competitive AFC race, we’ll be on the verge of a mini-crisis in Bills Nation.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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