Can the Buffalo Bills Contend in the AFC Wild Card Hunt?

Off to a quick start, the Bills hope to find themselves in the playoffs for the first time this century.

The Bills are currently sitting at 5-3 and are in second place in the AFC East. Already being only one win shy of the 6 they managed in 2013, there’s a lot to be excited about in Buffalo.

With 11 teams sitting above .500 in the AFC right now, the playoff picture is still very much up in the air, so what are Buffalo’s chances of making it to the post-season for the first time this century?

The Switch to Orton

The Bills offensive approach this season is a big change from 2013, when they were the most run-heavy team in the league. While they’re still in the bottom half of the league (18th) in terms of pass-to-run ratio, they actually rank 10th in the league since Kyle Orton took the helm in Week 5.

The switch to the 31-year old journeyman quarterback has worked out well for the Bills so far. When adjusted for schedule, Buffalo ranks 14th in the league in terms of Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per play, which measures how many points above or below expectation are generated on any given drop back.

While Orton hasn’t been exceptionally efficient, ranking only 21st out of 31 quarterbacks with 150 or more drop backs in terms of Passing NEP per drop back, he has managed games well and, more importantly, taken care of the football. He’s on pace for a career best in both completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio, which also rank seventh and ninth in the league, respectively.

Taking care of the ball will continue to be an important factor for the Bills all season, as their league high turnover differential (plus-seven) is a large part of their success, especially with injuries to their running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.

A Well-Rounded Defense

While the offense has protected the ball, their defense is really what is carrying this Bills team. They have been outstanding against both the pass and the run so far. Adjusted for schedule, they rank 7th in the league in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP per play, a number bolstered by a league-high 12 interceptions.

Maybe even better than their ability to stop the pass this year has been their run defense, which ranks sixth in the league in Adjusted Defensive Rush NEP per play, and didn’t allow a single score on the ground through the first seven weeks of the season.

Giving up the seventh-fewest points per game, recording the most takeaways in the league, and effectively stopping both the pass and run, the Bills should be able to continue to lean on their defense to carry them as the season progresses.

Can They Contend?

Despite their early success, our metrics have the Bills ranked only 18th in the league in nERD, and their nERD score of 0.44 indicates that they should beat a league-average opponent by just 0.44 points, the smallest positive margin in the league.

They are, however projected with a final record of 9-7 and a 35.8% chance at making the playoffs, which is tied for the 8th highest in the AFC, putting them solidly in Wild Card contention.

With their defense playing at an elite level, the Bills playoff chances look to be in good shape as long as their offense can continue to protect the football and operate with, at least, similar efficiency to what they have had with Orton under center. Bills fans can look forward to an exciting second half of the season, as they will likely be fighting for their first playoff berth since 1999.