It will take a lot for the 8-7 Bills to snap the longest active playoff drought in America’s four major sports.
They need to win in Miami on Sunday, of course. But that’s not all! Even if they beat the Dolphins and finish 9-7, they can qualify for the playoffs only if the Ravens lose to finish 9-7, or if the Chargers and Titans, both of whom own tiebreakers over Buffalo, lose to finish 8-8. All three teams that the Bills want to lose in Week 17 are playing at home against opponents they’ve already beaten this season on the road. None of those opponents have anything left to play for: The Ravens and Chargers are facing teams that are eliminated from the playoff picture (the Bengals and Raiders, respectively); the Titans are taking on the Jaguars, who have already clinched the AFC South but cannot earn a first-round bye or move from their no. 3 seeding. According to Las Vegas, a Bills win is the least likely result from any of these four games: Buffalo is favored by 2.5 points, Tennessee by 3, Los Angeles by 7.5, and Baltimore by 9.5.
The most likely outcome is that the Bills miss the playoffs via tiebreaker, a scenario that would be crushing. Buffalo has missed the playoffs in all sorts of ways since its drought began with the 2000 season, but it’s always missed them by at least a full game. This happens to be a historically bad season for the AFC, though—NFC teams went 41-23 in head-to-head matchups against AFC squads, the most lopsided the league has ever been in the NFC’s favor—so a playoff spot seemed to be there for the Bills’ taking.
If Buffalo misses out on a playoff berth because of a tiebreaker to the Chargers, that’d be the most brutal development of all. The Bills played Los Angeles in Week 11 and lost 54-24 after inexplicably benching quarterback Tyrod Taylor and starting untested rookie Nathan Peterman.
When the team made this decision in mid-November, I wrote that there was no legitimate reason to believe that Peterman had a higher ceiling than Taylor, and that Peterman’s floor was “much, much, much lower.” After all, Peterman was taken in the fifth round of the 2017 draft for his long-term potential to develop rather than his immediate ability to start, and he had looked far less competent than Taylor in preseason play. But no one could have known how low that floor could be.
Without hyperbole, we can describe Peterman’s start against the Chargers as the worst in modern NFL history. He threw five interceptions in a half. Taylor has yet to throw five interceptions this season, in 14 games and 393 passing attempts. No quarterback had thrown five interceptions on fewer than 28 pass attempts since 1990; Peterman did it in 14, becoming the first passer in league history to throw five interceptions with no touchdowns on fewer than 15 attempts. Because every Peterman-led drive in Los Angeles was short (their longest was six plays and culminated in a pick-six) and five ended in interceptions, the Chargers perpetually had spectacular field position, and scored 37 points in the first half. In their 14 games against QBs other than Nathan Peterman, the Chargers have yet to score more than 30 points.
There’s a strong argument to be made that the Bills would have lost to L.A. even if they had started Taylor. They opened as four-point underdogs (the line swung heavily in the Chargers’ favor when the Bills announced Peterman as starter, because Vegas knew this was a bad idea). Their previous two results were an embarrassing loss to the Jets and a 47-10 blowout at the hands of the Saints. (It would have been 47-3 if not for the late Peterman touchdown drive that led to calls for Peterman to start.)
The point here is not that Buffalo certainly would have won with Taylor. It’s that it would have had a chance with Taylor, and instead chose to go with Peterman, who gave the Bills absolutely zero opportunity to win. They voluntarily conceded a winnable game in the midst of their first legitimate playoff chase in years. To argue that Buffalo, which could tie for its best record this millennium, had no chance to win a game in which it started Taylor, the team’s best quarterback since Drew Bledsoe, is essentially to argue that the Bills are pointless and should disband as an organization.
It is reasonable to argue that Taylor should not be the Bills’ quarterback of the future: He is not a top-level passer and is averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt. No one would mistake him for Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Carson Wentz. Yet it is completely unreasonable to argue that Taylor should have been benched in favor of Peterman in Week 11.
It’s good to question your team’s starter, to strive for better options. Many teams do get overly entrenched with a QB when better options exist. But there was no evidence that Peterman could be anywhere near as good as Taylor. If there’s a lesson to take from all of this, it’s that there is a massive difference between middle-of-the-road NFL quarterbacks like Taylor and replacement-level options like Peterman. Most of the time, NFL teams are aware of this. Players as unprepared as Peterman are typically forced into action only under dire circumstances—unless they play for the Bills, who chose this path intentionally. The decision to start Peterman seemed like one of the dumbest in recent memory at the time; in hindsight, it might be the worst single-game lineup decision in football history.
I very much want Buffalo to make the postseason and end its decades of sports misery, but I also firmly believe sports stupidity should be punished. So if the Bills miss the playoffs, remember: They did this to themselves.