The Bills pulled off an upset of sorts yesterday at home, beating the 10-win Packers, 21-13. Buffalo now has its first eight-win season since 2004; the defense should be largely thanked for that.
In their last two games, the Bills have made Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers look awful. Though Buffalo didn't beat Denver, the defense harried Manning into two interceptions on 20 pass attempts, and ended his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 51. Yesterday, Rodgers had two picks, a horrid completion percentage (40.5), and the lowest passer rating of his career. It's no easy task to contain two quarterbacks of that caliber in two weeks.
With defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, Buffalo's put together a tough defensive front, along with a secondary to back it up. Through Week 14, the Bills have the second-best overall defensive DVOA (-14.9 percent) and the best pass defense DVOA (-13.3 percent), according to Football Outsiders. They've been the second-best team at taking away the deep pass. The run defense is a bit weaker, but the line of Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, and Mario Williams has allowed 3.26 adjusted yards and stuffed 25 percent of run plays through Week 14. The most impressive part is that Buffalo's playing this well without injured star linebacker Kiko Alonso, who had the third-most tackles in the league last season, along with four interceptions. When Alonso comes back from his ACL injury next season, this defense could somehow get even better.
Buffalo had hits to the secondary depth chart with injuries to safeties Duke Williams and Da'Norris Searcy—that opened up the door for Washington castoff Bacarri Rambo and his two interceptions yesterday—but Stephon Gilmore, who'd be better if he wasn't flagged so damn much, played well yesterday. The cornerback saw time covering Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams, and only allowed one catch for six yards to Nelson, per Pro Football Focus. Gilmore was reading Rodgers's face all day, and nearly had a pick-six on an inaccurate pass to Nelson in the flat. Look how Gilmore keeps his eyes on the ball before the snap:
(Gilmore couldn't hold on for the touchdown, though.)
Buffalo's biggest problem is that when the defense forces punts or turnovers, their other side can't capitalize. The offense couldn't score a touchdown yesterday; their only six points came on a Marcus Thigpen punt return. The quality of the most important position has something to do with it. Back at the end of September, when the Bills were 2-2, head coach Doug Marrone replaced E.J. Manuel with Kyle Orton. Everyone knew that he was more of a temporary fix than a solution. The pass-catching duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson turned into Jackson and Boobie Dixon after Spiller suffered a collarbone injury in Week 7 that landed him on the designated-to-return IR. These replacements can't keep a drive going. Through 14 weeks, the Bills ranked close to the bottom in yards per drive, points per drive, and three-and-outs per drive. They rank 29th at scoring touchdowns in the red zone, too. In ideal opportunities, the Bills settle for field goals, or nothing at all.
Outside of a decent 63.7 completion percentage, Orton's been exactly what you'd expect—unimpressive, but not disastrous—at the quarterback position, with 14 touchdown passes and eight interceptions. After the season's over, the team needs a replacement, whether it's Manuel, again, or someone new. Jackson's a free agent after the season, (Correction: Jackson signed a one-year extension) and Spiller has a player option, so Buffalo could refresh its stable of running backs as well.
Despite the Bills' dominating defense and 8-6 record, they're still a long shot to get into the playoffs. Buffalo's unimpressive 4-6 conference record gives it no tiebreakers over any other AFC contenders. The Bills could conceivably win 10 games and still miss out. However, this season's effort would most likely let head coach Doug Marrone keep his job for one more year, and give him the chance to build the offense as well as the defense.