We are finally approaching the final days of what has felt like a marathon of a training camp and pre-season for the past month-plus. By now, some fans and pundits probably feel as though they have a pretty good grasp on what the 2014 edition of the Buffalo Bills is going to look like when the leaves start to turn and the games become meaningful. Some are worried about inconsistent quarterback play and the shuffling of the offensive line, causing them to predict some dark days ahead. Others remain confident in the defense and hopeful in E.J. Manuel, maintaining that better times are just around the corner for the team. Regardless, everyone is on the same page in that nothing short of a winning season and a team that is squarely in playoff contention come December will be acceptable.
Since September 7th is less than two short weeks away and we are entering regular season mode, I thought it would be an appropriate time to take a peak at what lies ahead for the Bills. The schedule is daunting at times, particularly in the final quarter of the season, but it also provides some very winnable stretches of games. There are certain games that are going to be extremely important in their effort to achieve the ever-elusive winning record and become a serious playoff contender. I’d like to highlight the 5 biggest games on the 2014 Buffalo Bills schedule that I believe will be the most pivotal to doing so. Weeks that I believe will go a long way in determining whether or not this team turns the corner and produces a winning season.
Week 2: Home vs. Miami, Sunday, September 14
The Bills begin the season on the road one week from this Sunday in Chicago. The Bears are going to be one of the top-5 teams in the NFC this season in my opinion. Their offense is one of the most talented in all of football, and they addressed a defense that struggled mightily last year with additions like Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Kyle Fuller. This will be a huge test for the Bills right off the bat. It is tough to see them going into Chicago and coming out with a W in the season opener, but regardless, I think that the following week is the more important of the two.
Home openers are always important games to show well and win, but being that it is a division game makes it all the more important. Buffalo is still a very young team, and putting a strong, winning effort together in front of the home crowd in the first game in Orchard Park would go a very long way in terms of improving their psyche. If the Bills do start the year with a loss in Chicago, this becomes even more important. The Bills swept Miami last season under the direction of Thad Lewis and I believe they have an even better roster coming into 2014, one that is superior to the Dolphins’ at almost every position. This is not only a game they should win, it is one that they need to win to start off the season on a good note at either 2-0 or 1-1. An 0-2 record for a young team with a talented San Diego team coming to town in Week 3 is an extremely undesirable position to be in.
Week 4: @ Houston, Sunday, September 28
Opening the season in Chicago against a Bears team that I believe will be in the playoffs qualifies for a truly difficult road game. The Bills come home for two after that, but they then go back on the road for a game against the Houston Texans. My apologies to our former pal Ryan Fitzpatrick, but due in large part to him not being a very good quarterback, this does not qualify as an uber-difficult matchup away from home. Houston’s defense should be improved, but I will never be all that scared of any Fitzpatrick-led team.
The Texans were the worst team in football last season, and outside of earning Jadeveon Clowney with that title, they really didn’t do all that much to improve their roster at all. Their offense is old at some spots and unproven in others, and they have serious question marks at linebacker and defensive back on the defense. They are an average team, and Buffalo needs to start consistently winning games against average teams on the road if they are going to make any kind of sizable jump this season. Should they go into Houston and lose against an average team with a below-average quarterback, it would be very concerning. This game is much more important than it may initially appear.
Week 8: @ New York Jets, Sunday, October 26
This is a very important game for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is the Bills’ first division game on the road of the season, eight long weeks into the year. Secondly, it is against a team that I believe is in a very similar position to Buffalo in a multitude of ways. It is also a week before the Bills’ bye week, and it is always important to go into that important week of rest on a positive note, particularly since it represents the mid-point of the season this year.
The Jets are a team that is built around a very stout defense, relying on a commitment to running the football on the other side of the ball. They are also continuing to break in a 2nd-year quarterback. The Jets have all of these things in common with the Bills. I believe that these teams will be neck-and-neck all season long for a wild card spot behind the New England Patriots, so whoever wins this first matchup will have an upper-hand in deciding who is left standing at the end. The first half of the Bills’ schedule seems like it will be an easier task than the second half, so finishing that first half with a win is extremely important. If the Bills struggle in the first eight games of the season to the tune of a losing record, it could set up a very long winter in Western New York. Circle Week 8 on your calendars.
Week 12: Home vs New York Jets, Sunday, November 23
Here come those Jets again. Do you think that I believe that these matchups may end up being a bit important for the Bills? This time New York comes into Orchard Park in Week 12, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, and this time it represents the final Bills home division game of the season. I feel I don’t need to talk about this one all that much. As I said earlier, I believe these two teams are very evenly matched and will be fighting for positioning in the AFC playoff picture all season long. As we get deeper into the year, taking advantage of an opportunity at home in a potential situation like that becomes imperative. If the Bills are indeed still in the AFC playoff picture after eleven weeks, as I believe they will be, a division game against a team that is likely one of your main competitors in that picture becomes a near must win.
Week 13: Home vs Cleveland Browns, Sunday, November 30
Just one week after that last home division game, the Bills remain in Orchard Park for a game that I feel may be the biggest ‘must win’ game of the season against the Cleveland Browns. Why is this such an important game to win? Because the last quarter of the Bills’ schedule is downright daunting. After this game against the Browns, it reads as follows: @ Denver, home vs Green Bay, @ Oakland and @ New England. You really will not see too many teams with stretches that difficult to close out a season. That is why taking care of business in Week 13 will prove to be very, very important.
I loved Mike Pettine as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator in 2013, and I like the talent that they have assembled on his new team in Cleveland, but that offense has a good shot to be the worst in football this season. There is uncertainty at the quarterback position, star wide receiver Josh Gordon suspended, Ben Tate often unable to stay healthy and on the field, and unproven, young players at virtually every other skill-position roster spot. Tight end Jordan Cameron has very little help out there. I think the Browns are a 5-6 win team at best this season, and the Bills had better take advantage of this game at home before that brutal four-game stretch to end this season where nothing is going to come easy. If they drop a game to Cleveland at home, they will leave zero margin for error in those following games, and that could spell big time trouble for any hopes of a winning record and/or a post-season berth. Such an important game. Plus, we can’t let Donte Whitner come into our house and leave with a W, can we?
So there you have the five games that I believe will be the most important in deciding the Bills’ fate in 2014. What games do you feel are pivotal for Buffalo to win this season? How do you think those games will play out? Let us know, and as always, go Bills!