It's been a while since the Bills have played a division game — eight weeks to be exact. And after stacking back-to-back wins at home, the Bills hit the road for a Thursday night game against the Jets. Here are the top seven story lines for the primetime matchup with New York:
1. AFC EAST PICTURE ABOUT TO SHARPEN UP AS MIDSEASON APPROACHES
Thursday's game marks the midway point of the season and it sets the Bills up for the second half of the campaign, including four AFC East games in the final five weeks. If they should beat the Jets, the Bills would vault to the top of the division standings at 6-2, with a 2-0 division record and a 4-1 record in the conference. The Patriots, 6-2, have their bye this weekend.
As far as the conference, a Buffalo win would put the Bills up with the Steelers, the Chiefs and the Patriots at the top of the AFC.
2. QUICK TURNAROUND – RAPID RECOVERY
The Bills, and the Jets for that matter, have to hope they recover quickly. Now in its' sixth season of full time Thursday Night Football, the TV package has survived early grousing about the quick turnaround and the impact it has on player health.
In the Buffalo locker room, the veterans know Thursday Night Football is no picnic, and they have to spend the short work week recovering from the normal bumps and bruises of the season.
"You gotta get your body back—quick recovery," center Eric Wood says. "Everything has to speed up as far as preparation goes. A lot of time spent at home studying as well as at the building. It's tough on players and coaches."
3. SLOW OUT OF THE GATE
As the Bills move into the meat of their schedule, they are eager to get off to better starts in their games. Buffalo is dead last in the NFL in first quarter scoring, with just two field goals, a total of six points, put on the scoreboard in the first quarter of their seven games.
That's an average of .9 points per first quarter. Last year, the Bills ranked 13th in the league averaging five points in the first quarter.
Like most teams, the Bills put up most of their points in the second and fourth quarters.
4. HAS TYROD ESTABLISHED A NEW STANDARD?
After 36 starts over two-and-a-half years with the Bills, we know what to expect from Tyrod Taylor. But he may be taking the next step forward in his development based on the last two games.
It's progress not measured as much from stats as it is from observation. Taylor is not likely to throw for big yardage, but he's engineered a Buffalo offense that put up an average of 28 points in the last two games (wins over Tampa Bay and Oakland).
Taylor has averaged 7.1 yards per attempt in those two games, with two touchdown passes and no interceptions. His passer rating the last two games averages out to 98.8.
But he seems more in command of the offense than ever before and more comfortable in his decisions on when to run and when to pass.
"I think he's being more comfortable, more confident in what he's doing," says offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. "I think he's trusting his eyes, and he's doing a good job with that. It helps to have the run game work, so when that's working and he feels comfortable with that and putting the ball where it needs to go, he's hitting the open guys, going through his progressions. That's what I see. He's trusting his feet, trusting his eyes, going through his progressions."
5. SOME NEW NO-NAMES**
In last week's storylines, we wondered who might be the next Bills playmakers to step up and contribute as the team battles through some midseason injuries.
We have our answers—safety Trae Elston, linebacker Matt Milano, wide receiver Andre Holmes, and others.
All were big contributors in the win over Oakland. And of particular note were the contributions from first-year players like Elston and Milano. Veteran cornerback Leonard Johnson says that was predictable, based on what he's seen from the young players.
"I'm going to tell you the truth—it doesn't surprise me at all," Johnson says. "I truly believe that if you buy into the system and you really trust the process, some things you may be used to doing one way—but if you do it the way they want it done here, plays will come to you. Every one that has made plays on this defense has really bought into the system."
Makes you excited to find out which "next man up" will step up.
6. THEY LIKE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS
The Bills don't get the primetime spotlight often. But lately, when they do, it's the New York Jets on the stage with them.
For the fourth consecutive season, the Bills and the Jets will play in primetime. Last year, it was the home opener in Orchard Park, a 37-31 Bills loss. In 2015, the Bills handled the Jets at Met Life on Thursday night by a 22-17 score. And in 2014, the two teams got matched up on Monday Night Football in Detroit when the November snow storm forced a change of venue. Buffalo won that one 38-3.
7. IS THIS FOR REAL? SHOULD WE BILL-IEVE?
It's not even midseason yet. And after Thursday, there will be no meaningful awards for the first half of the Bills season. They may have exceeded the expectations of some fans and skeptical media with their first seven games. But what's most important is the foundation that's being laid for the future.
Head Coach Sean McDermott, who usually does his best to dampen expectations around his team, admitted Monday that there are tangible signs that his team is "getting it."
"To watch these guys come together, you watch the sideline yesterday after Brandon Tate's catch and run, and what a neat thing," McDermott said Monday. "It gives me chills just going back and thinking about that. We shared that in the team meeting a few minutes ago and in 20 years or so around the NFL, I don't know that I've ever seen that type of deal on the sideline."
The trick is keeping "that type of deal" going for another nine weeks.