After another tough loss on Sunday, we are all in need of some good news. Don't give up hope just yet because the Buffalo Bills can still control their own destiny for the postseason if they win the next four games. It all starts with earning a win against the Panthers.
The division title is still there for the taking and playoff hopes are very much alive. A lot is a stake beginning this week so here are six storylines to follow as the Bills head into Week 15.
1. Two teams desperate for wins
Sunday's game will feature two teams who are in search of a much-needed win. Buffalo has lost two games in a row for the first time this season and the first time since Weeks 5 and 6 in 2020. The Panthers have lost their last three games, including one coming out of their Week 13 bye. Carolina has also lost eight of their last 10 games after beginning the season with three-straight wins.
Right now the Panthers are 5-8 and in last place in the NFC South. Don't count them out yet though because there's a chance they can make it into the postseason as the NFC is loaded with 6-win teams. Unfortunately, the Panthers still have to play the Buccaneers twice before the end of the regular season.
The Bills are 7-6 and in second place in the AFC East with the division title and playoffs still on the table. They are currently the seventh seed in the AFC, which means they're the last team in the Wild Card spot. If they win the next four, a division title is within reach. If they drop one of the next four, they may need some help from other teams to make it to the playoffs.
Buffalo is 3-1 against teams with a losing record going into that week and 2-1 against NFC teams this season. When asked about their belief in the road to the playoffs, head coach Sean McDermott said they can't afford to look past Sunday's game.
"Carolina has had some momentum of late in different ways, and they got this to quarterback thing so it will be a challenge for us to prepare that way," McDermott added. "I think our guys are more focused on this week than anything, and I think that's where their focus needs to be to play our best game at home against Carolina Panthers."
2. What makes Carolina's defense so tough?
The Carolina Panthers defense ranks second in the NFL allowing only 293 total yards per game, that's about four more yards than what the Bills allow per game. Carolina gives up only 177.7 passing yards per game, which is the lowest amount in the league. They rank middle of the pack in several other defensive categories so their expertise is how they limit teams in the air.
They've allowed just 37 plays of at least 20 yards (4th lowest) and only 121 passing first downs (2nd fewest). This makes for an interesting matchup against the Bills because their strength is in their passing game. Buffalo is averaging 261.9 passing yards per game (8th most) and has 57 plays of at least 20 yards (ties for 4th most). It will be strength against strength as the Bills will try to find the holes in one of the best passing defenses in the league.
One of the reasons why Buffalo did not use their running backs as much against Tampa Bay was because the Bucs were the second-best run defense and allowed just under 85 rushing yards per game. It will be intriguing to see Buffalo's plan of attack against the Panthers because offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said part of their weekly scheme is based on the defense they play.
"I think you look at, one, the team you're playing and how good they are against the run and how good they are against the pass, whatever that may be," Daboll said. "And then, again, ultimately it comes down to you and what you think you can do or what we can do as a team. And again, it might not happen in the first series or the second series. We try to do a good job of communicating throughout the game, looking at matchups and what we can attack."
3. Will the Bills defense get back to forcing turnovers?
The Bills take the ball away at one of the highest rates in the NFL ranking third with 26 takeaways. Unfortunately, this hasn't happened as of late because the Bills only have two takeaways in the last four games, which ties for second fewest over that span. In the first four games, they had more than five times that with 11 takeaways over the first four weeks.
The Panthers may be the perfect team to play in terms of forcing multiple takeaways in a game because their turnover margin is minus 8 (28th). Carolina has 23 turnovers this season (tied for 29th) and has been rotating through quarterbacks, which could mean more opportunities for Buffalo's defense.
"We need to get back to taking it away," Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. "It would have made a big difference yesterday (against Tampa Bay), and we've got to find ways to get it done. We'll continue to work on it in practice. We'll continue to talk about it and sometimes they come in bunches. Once you get a couple or get one, they kind of snowball from there.
"So, we're hoping this coming weekend we can get back on track with taking the football away."
4. Could the Bills see two quarterbacks on Sunday?
The Carolina Panthers have played two different quarterbacks in three out of the last four games. After Sam Darnold was put on IR, Panthers head coach Matt Rhule has rotated between quarterbacks Cam Newton and P.J. Walker. In four games, Newton has completed 58.7% of his passes for 467 yards. Newton has totaled seven touchdowns and three interceptions. In six games, Walker has completed 54.6% of his passes for 362 yards and has thrown for one touchdown and three interceptions.
Rhule spoke with media on Monday and said he sees value in using both quarterbacks.
"In terms of the strategy moving forward this week, I'm not going to say too much," Rhule explained. "It's Monday and Buffalo has to prepare for both guys. I'm sure that Cam will continue to play better and better and PJ is someone we have confidence in, so we'll continue to work both guys."
Leslie Frazier said the defense is familiar with Newton but will have to learn how they use him in Carolina. Frazier explained they'll have to dive into the tape of Walker as he's someone the defense isn't familiar with playing against.
5. Carolina Bills connections
At this point I think a book could be written on the connections between the Bills and the Panthers that began once Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane moved from Carolina to Buffalo. Five years later, there are still many connections that are still alive. For starters, McDermott will play against Cam Newton who the Panthers drafted in 2011 when he was their defensive coordinator and Beane was the Director of Football Operations.
Several players on the Bills roster will play against their former team and some of their former teammates. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was drafted by the Carolina Panthers and spent the first five years of his career with them. Defensive end Mario Addison played for the Panthers for eight seasons before coming to Buffalo in 2020. Linebacker A.J. Klein, offensive lineman Daryl Williams, defensive tackle Vernon Butler, defensive end Efe Obada and linebacker Andre Smith also spent time in Carolina Panthers before playing for the Bills.
The Bills will also get to play against a familiar face in defensive end Daryl Johnson who was traded to Carolina just before the 2021 season began. In September, Beane said it wasn't easy watching Johnson go.
"It was tough," Beane said after they traded Johnson. "I'm a big fan of Darryl, and was real proud of his progress from a seventh round pick North Carolina A&T."
Johnson was well-liked by the team, so I'm sure his former teammates will be excited to welcome him back to Buffalo.