ORCHARD PARK, NY -- If the Buffalo Bills are going to earn a spot in this year's AFC postseason, they will have to continue doing what they did in a 30-21 win over Houston. They'll need Tyrod Taylor's improvisational skills, LeSean McCoy's dynamic running ability and the breathtaking big plays of Sammy Watkins. The Bills have suffered because that trio hasn't spent nearly enough time on the field together. For this team to be where it hopes to be come January, they'll need that group to be as good as it's ever been.
Buffalo may have been inconsistent all season -- and they currently sit at 6-6 and in third place in the AFC East -- but they remain dangerous if things come together. They're still good enough to nab a wild-card spot if they can finish strong and capitalize on other teams falling. That much was apparent when they snapped Houston's four-game win streak. The Texans left with a loss because they couldn't find answers to the Bills' offensive stars.
Taylor continually demoralized the Houston defense with his arm and his quick feet in the open field. McCoy darted and danced, often making the Texans tacklers look like they were lunging at shadows. Watkins needed one play to announce his presence in the first half: A 53-yard catch between two Houston defensive backs who futilely tried to keep pace with him downfield.
As Watkins said after the game, "Ty is starting to trust in us. We're building chemistry with the wide outs, and ... and that's what we gotta do the rest of the season. Just be aggressive."
The Bills actually haven't had a problem being aggressive. After all, this has been one of the most penalized teams in the league this year and their head coach, Rex Ryan, always has been a believer in the blitz. Their major issue has revolved around having the right people available on offense in order to be consistently effective. If that had been the case all season, the Bills would be controlling their own destiny at this point of the playoff race.
Watkins has missed three games. McCoy has been sidelined twice while also being limited by a lingering hamstring injury early. A sprained knee knocked Taylor out of two contests as well, which defused the excitement that followed his quick success as a first-time starter. And let's not forget wide receiver Percy Harvin, who hasn't played since Oct. 11 because of a lingering hip injury. His situation has become so worrisome that it's made retirement a legitimate possibility for the seven-year veteran.
Few teams can overcome such losses when they're trying to establish their identity. The Bills were hurt even more by those setbacks because their once vaunted defense has underwhelmed this season. A unit that ranked fourth in the NFL in points allowed in 2014 now stands at 16th this year. That equates to more pressure on those offensive stars to raise their games and take this team to new heights.
The Bills displayed signs of what this offense can do in a 30-21 loss at Kansas City two weeks ago. Watkins had six receptions for 158 yards and two touchdowns in that contest (all inexplicably in the first half). McCoy added 70 yards on the ground while Taylor threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns. They were even more devastating against Houston.
Watkins (109 receiving yards), McCoy (112 rushing yards) and Taylor (three passing touchdowns and one rushing) each took turns making the big plays that have to be a staple of this team.
"It starts with the guys up front," said McCoy, who has rushed for 792 yards this season after gaining 2,926 yards over the previous two years. "Running the football hard. Making plays. (Getting a) 30-yard gash, (a) 20-yard gash, (a) 10-yard gash. As the defense steps up, you take a shot with one of the best receivers in this game, with Sammy. You get matchup problems with tight end (Charles) Clay. So it's so many different things. G-Row (Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman) does a good job at that. Some of the big plays that you see, it's not by mistake. He actually draws it up like that."
"This is what we talked about (in) building a team," added Ryan. "Where you know it is complementary football and that is what you want. You want to have a defense that can close out games. You want to have a defense that can keep you in games. And then you want an offense that can control the ball, go to a four-minute mode and still win games that way."
The Bills also need their stars to step up because the weight of expectations hangs heavy on this bunch. Buffalo didn't acquire McCoy in a trade with Philadelphia to watch him fight off lingering injuries. They picked him up because he was one of the league's best backs, a player whom Ryan said "made some runs yesterday against a good run defense that was, just leaves you scratching your head. (Those runs) left (the Texans) scratching their head, and picking something up off the ground."
The same holds true for Watkins. Of all the exciting receivers that came out of the 2014 draft class -- a group that included the New York Giants' Odell Beckham, Jr., Tampa Bay's Mike Evans and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin -- Watkins was the most celebrated. It's startling to see him with only 34 receptions this year, a level of production that has frustrated him to the point that he lashed out at Bills fans on social media in October (telling them to "get a life and go to work"). After all, Watkins arrived in Buffalo after the Bills agreed to a draft-day trade that cost them their first- and fourth-round pick this year.
Taylor is really Buffalo's only high-profile offensive player who has exceeded expectations this year. He signed as an unheralded free agent in March, beat out Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel in training camp and proved that he's come a long way since being a raw, sixth-round pick taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2011 draft. The question now is whether he has a few more surprises left in him as the season winds down. Against Houston, he certainly looked like a man who is ready to make some noise in this stretch run.
The Bills have to hope that Sunday was only a brief glimpse of what this team can become as the stretch run heats up. They're still fighting injuries (defensive tackle Kyle Williams is on injured reserve and cornerback Stephon Gilmore sustained a shoulder injury on Sunday) and they're in the unwanted position of chasing other teams with better records at this point (Kansas City, the New York Jets and Pittsburgh are all one game ahead of Buffalo in the wild-card race). But this also is the NFL. If this season has taught us anything, it's that life can change very quickly for teams that look impressive and those that also appear to be lost causes.
Buffalo happens to be one of those squads that could rapidly change its own fortunes in the season's last four weeks. After all, it was just three weeks ago that they nearly beat the then-undefeated New England Patriots. That game came down to how well their defense played against Tom Brady. Their hopes for the entire season revolve around whether their offensive stars can carry them to the finish.