A month ago Steve Johnson's string of production in the receiving game may have appeared to outside observers as little more than padded stats in games that were already losses for the Bills long before the fourth quarter. Entering the final six games of the season Buffalo's third-year wideout has firmly established himself as a legitimate AFC Pro Bowl candidate.
With his most recent eight-catch outing for 137 yards and three touchdowns, Johnson has vaulted himself into the top tier of offensive point producers in the AFC. With nine touchdown receptions Johnson is tied for fourth in scoring (among non-kickers) in the AFC overall and second in the AFC among wide receivers point production.
While Johnson's numbers may come as a shock to some, his Bills teammates saw the potential all along.
"I think because he had never done it before, the fact that he's gotten it so fast, I think it shocks a lot of people," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "But the talent that the guy has (is something) a lot of people in here have seen all along. We knew that he was a guy that could do some amazing things and it's nice to see that translate on the field once he got his opportunity."
Johnson is just two touchdown receptions away from tying the Bills franchise record for touchdown catches in a season, held by WR Bill Brooks (11 in 1995).
A part of a receiving corps that includes Lee Evans, Johnson was envisioned as a complementary element to the perennial deep threat in Buffalo's passing game at the outset of the season. Johnson however, has emerged as t he go-to guy for Ryan Fitzpatrick.
"We found a nice niche for Steve in the offense for what he's been able to do and how he's been able to produce," Fitzpatrick said.
Johnson leads the team in receptions and receiving yards, and ranks second in the AFC in third down receptions and second in the NFL in third down touchdowns (3).
"He's made a big step in a short amount of time," said head coach Chan Gailey. "If you're not careful it it will go to your head and you have to guard against that, but he's handled it all in stride thus far and I don't expect anything different from a young man of his character."
The former seventh-round pick has almost half of the team's plays of 25 yards or more in the passing game this season (8 of 17) and is responsible for almost a third of Buffalo's yards after the catch. Johnson points to his signal caller and the Bills' offensive staff as the reason for all of his success this season.
"I've always expected to play big in big games, but it definitely wasn't all me," Johnson said. "It's the coaches first of all for calling those plays. They've called the right plays at the right times. And it comes down to Fitzpatrick once again putting the ball wherever he wants to. We know he's going to throw it around so we don't want to make him look bad, so we've got to make those plays."
The third-year wideout just eclipsed the 50-catch plateau this past Sunday with his eight-catch 137-yard and three touchdown performance as he had his way with a Bengals secondary in the team's 49-31 comeback victory outshining the likes of former Pro Bowl receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.
Even his quarterback marvels as how effective he is at getting open and extending plays.
"I don't know how he does it," said Fitzpatrick. "There are a couple of times I throw him a five-yard route and all of a sudden he just takes off. It's just that ability that he has and nobody can really put a finger on, but that's what makes him such a special player."
Johnson admits he's has thought about the Pro Bowl, but realizes he likely has an uphill climb to qualify for the AFC squad that will play in Hawaii come February. With far more recognizable names like Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, Terrell Owens and Wes Welker among the statistical leaders ahead of him.
"I still there's a lot more work to be done because I'm not number one," said Johnson. "I don't think I will go to the Pro Bowl unless I am number one so I feel like there's more work."
He's also playing for a team that's in a rebuilding phase and won't factor into the postseason, unlike another upstart receiver in Dwayne Bowe who's fighting with his Kansas City teammates to win the AFC West.
None of it however, leaves Johnson discouraged. His production is finally helping his team win, and while the Pro Bowl would be a welcomed honor Johnson is more committed to lifting his team's play than getting personal recognition.