Do you believe in momentum when it comes to the NFL? If you do, this week's Bills matchup with the Raiders presents an opportunity for Buffalo to build up a full head of steam: a second straight home game this time against an AFC rival. The Bills and Oakland have the look of possible wild card playoff contenders as the season approaches the midway point.
Here are the top seven storylines as the Bills get ready for the Raiders this week:
1. KEEPING UP WITH THE HAVES IN THE AFC
It's early. It's not even midseason yet. But it's all right there for the Bills, as far as playoff contention. At 4-2, with a 2-1 record in the conference, and currently holding the fifth seed in the AFC, it's not about making a move for the playoffs. It's more about staying in contention at this point in the season. And you'd have to figure when you put the standings board up in about six weeks, the Bills and Raiders figure to be vying for one of the wild card playoff spots. It's a critical mid-season game, more important than last week's win over an NFC opponent.
2. WHO WILL BE THE NEW "NO NAME" PLAYMAKERS ON THE BILLS OFFENSE?**
Buffalo got big contributions last week from players who may not have been on the radar for most fans this year. Deonte Thompson, with four days of practice, caught all four passes sent his way last week, including a critical 44-yarder on the drive that tied the game.
Taiwan Jones, added to the roster August 2, picked up a critical first down on a shovel pass from Tyrod Taylor that led to the game-winning field goal. TE Logan Thomas' first ever NFL touchdown pass gave the Bills an 11-point third quarter lead against the Bucs.
The Bills have been starved for playmakers. Maybe they've found some. Just not the ones anyone expected.
3. CAN THE RUNNING GAME KEEP ROLLING ALONG?
Shady McCoy's been making big plays in the Bills running game for the last two years, but he had to wait until game six last week to finally hit the end zone. And he wound up with his second-best rushing output of the year (91 yards on 23 carries).
It was the real McCoy for sure. But it also was a rejuvenated offensive line, a group that spent some time during the bye that preceded the Tampa game in a conversation with the offensive coaching staff about what type of blocking scheme they feel most comfortable in.
What they came up with produced 173 yards on the ground and 5.2 yards per carry.
"Whether it was zone gap, or the quarterback stuff—what we tried to do was narrow it down to exactly what we thought was best for our guys and our team," said Offensive Coordinator Rick Dennison. "We had some discussions," Dennison said about input from the offensive line. "I think everybody being on the same page—that's the key."
There should be some room to run this weekend against an Oakland team that is 19th overall in NFL defense.
4. MAYBE ROOM TO RUN, WHAT ABOUT TIME TO PASS?
The Bills had some success in the passing game against Tampa last week and no doubt they'll want to keep that going this week.
But Oakland has one of the league's best pass rushers—maybe the best. UB product Khalil Mack is on pace for double-digit sacks again. And he's got the Bills attention during this practice week.
"An elite player, first and foremost," QB Tyrod Taylor says of Mack. "A guy who can definitely wreck a game plan. We have to be cautious with him at times and have a specific game plan. He's definitely one of the elite pass rushers, and one of the elite defenders in today's game"
5. HANDSHAKES ALL AROUND (AFTER THE GAME)
They're on opposite coasts, but there's been plenty of NFL traffic between Buffalo and Oakland in recent years. Besides Mack coming back to play his second football game in Orchard Park (UB vs Bowling Green November 2013), there are some former Buffalo Bills wearing the Silver and Black these days.
RB Marshawn Lynch, Buffalo's 1st draft pick 10 years ago, is out as he serves his one-game suspension. But another former Bills first round pick QB E.J. Manuel returns to New Era Field on the visitors' sideline Sunday. TE Lee Smith logged four solid years as a blocking specialist for the Bills, and he fills the same role for Oakland these days.
The Bills have three former Raiders on their roster: LB Lorenzo Alexander, WR Andre Holmes, and RB Taiwan Jones.
6. AN OLD RIVALRY WITH SOME RECENT JUICE
The Bills-Raiders rivalry goes all the way back to the origins of the AFL in 1960, when Wayne Valley founded the Raiders and Ralph Wilson ran the Bills. The Raiders have won 21 of the 38 previous matchups.
The Bills can always point to their 51-3 demolition of the Raiders in the 1990 AFC Championship game as one of the signature wins in franchise history.
The Raiders can look at the last couple of years, when they've handed the Bills crushing defeats in Oakland.
Last year, Buffalo had a 15-point lead in the third quarter and it got away as the Raiders beat the Bills 38-24. Coming off two consecutive wins, the loss dropped the Bills to 6-6 and started the tailspin that ended their 2016 season.
In 2014, the Raiders buried Buffalo's playoff hopes with a 26-24 win in the "Black Hole." Two tough losses in Oakland in a three-year span.
7. * *KEEP DEFENDING THE DIRT
So far, so good, for Sean McDermott's focus on cashing in on Buffalo's home field advantage during this midseason stretch. Sunday will be game two of a three-game-in-four-weeks stretch at home for the Bills.
Only four NFL teams remain unbeaten in their home stadiums so far this year: Buffalo, the Rams, the Eagles and the Dolphins (lost a 'home' game in London).