How Are the Buffalo Bills Undefeated?

The Bills might be the most surprising of undefeated teams left, but is their play sustainable?

Every year, there seems to be a team that shoots out of the gate unexpectedly in the NFL. It could be due to the draw of their first few opponents, or perhaps an immediate impact of highly-touted draft picks. Having great special teams play added to the mix never hurts a team either.

The Buffalo Bills are just one of the teams that appear to have it all together after the first two weeks of the season. But how did they get to the top of the AFC East? And can they sustain it the rest of the season? Let’s take a look at what the numbers say.

Special Teams Play

One of the most overlooked aspects of a team’s play is the special teams unit. Most of the time it’s just the backup’s backup out there trying to make a play, but one muffed punt return or a successful onside kick can dramatically change the course of a game.

In Week 2’s matchup against the Dolphins, two big plays gave the Bills a big boost. The play that garnered the biggest highlight was C.J. Spiller’s kickoff return for a touchdown that opened up the game for the Bills.

But perhaps even a bigger play for the Bills was a blocked punt. That gave E.J. Manuel and company a short field and led to a Dan Carpenter field goal. Carpenter not only hit that, but four other field goals for the Bills and had the game-winning field goal in Week 1 against the Bears. Carpenter and the rest of the “forgotten unit” have definitely been playing special.

Manuel Working Miracles

E.J. Manuel has transformed from a below-average quarterback last year to an above-average quarterback this season. After sustaining injuries throughout his rookie season, Manuel finished second-to-last in our Passing NEP metrics among quarterbacks that dropped back to pass at least 300 times. Even Eli Manning and Matt Schaub had a better Passing NEP than Manuel in 2013. But something seems different this year.

The Bill's play-calling is obviously key, as they hold the second-lowest pass to run ratio at 0.74. The Bills have run the second most rushing plays on the season so far and, in turn, don’t have to lean on Manuel very heavily.

Another aspect of Manuel's game is the location of his pass attempts. 72% of Manuel’s throws have been for 20 yards or less. Just six of Manuel’s pass attempts have gone over the middle as well, but that's due more to having receivers that are used to playing on the perimeter, like Sammy Watkins. The Bills also lack a receiver that can take a punishment going across the field.

But the Bills are playing it safe with Manuel and he's rewarding them. Take a look at his Passing metrics so far, in terms of Net Expected Points.

Passing NEPPassing NEP per Drop Back
Week 11.860.08
Week 28.930.34

Manuel’s Passing NEP does match up with his normal statistics, ranking as the 10th-best quarterback in our Passing NEP after just two weeks. I wouldn’t expect that to last all season, but at least for now, he has contributed more points to his team than guys such as Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers.

Defense Stepping Up

Despite all the scrutiny the Bills got last season, it was mainly an offensive problem, as the defensive unit finished the 2013 campaign as our eighth best overall defense. When looking at our Defensive NEP metrics that have been adjusted for schedule, the Bills defense accumulated -13.88 points over the course of last season. A negative number is good when referencing our defensive metrics as it shows the number of points the defense didn’t allow over the course of the season.

The defense has picked up where it left off from last season despite a change in defensive coordinators and a couple of big losses. They were a an average defense in Week 1, but after Week 2’s performance, the Bills have the seventh-best overall defense and rank in the top 10 against the pass and run when factoring in their schedule.

What to Expect

The Bills face the Chargers, Texans, Lions, Patriots and Vikings over the next five weeks. If the Bills want to stay undefeated – or at least on top of the AFC East – it won’t be easy.

The Bills top-10 pass defense will take on three of the current top-5 offenses in the league. Facing three top-five defenses against the pass themselves won't be a walk in the park, either.

Road games against Houston and Detroit may prove to be the toughest test of this five-week stretch, as they look good on both sides of the ball so far this season. The Patriots and Vikings currently don't have an offense that will scare anyone, but there are a lot of weapons the Bills will have to neutralize for each team.

When the Patriots visit Buffalo, it could go a long way in deciding the fate of the entire AFC East. If the Bills win most of their next five games, it will be because of Dan Carpenter's leg, key defensive stops and continued mistake-free football from E.J. Manuel. I don’t expect the Bills to be the last undefeated team left, but they shouldn’t be overlooked for the rest of the season either.

As it stands now, they have a solid 46.7% chance of making the playoffs, which is actually 10th-best in the NFL thanks to a rather weak division and conference. They really could be the surprise team of the year.