The Bills' 4-7 record as Thanksgiving approaches looks fairly familiar. We are used to Bills seasons that reside in this purgatory: too low for serious playoff talk, too high to consider the top pick in the next draft. It is not the place to be.
This year though, a few things conspire to make that mark seem less depressing. The Bills appear to be a young team on the rise, spirited and competitive. They also have three consecutive opponents coming up that have a combined five wins this year.
And most of all, that 4-7 record hasn't eliminated them from anything.
While fans are generally optimistic for the Bills' future, what are the chances that the 13-year playoff drought ends this season? Their odds may be better than you think.
Finishing at 8-8 would be a great job by the Bills. To finish 5-1, especially considering that there's a trip to Foxboro in there, would give fans a lot to look forward to. It doesn't seem good enough for a playoff spot though. It usually isn't. But this year it might be.
Let's take a peek at the other eight teams with a chance -- eight! -- at the AFC's last playoff spot.
Jets (5-5, 2-5 AFC, 2-2 AFCE). Only Jacksonville has a worse point-differential in the entire NFL than the Jets. The only likely playoff-bound opponent they face down the stretch though is Carolina. Two games left with Miami. I think the Jets will finish below .500.
Dolphins (5-5, 4-3, 0-2). Miami's conference tiebreaker is good, and their two games with the Jets may go a long way in determining their fate. Nothing the Dolphins do would surprise me. The other teams here could really use Carolina to take Miami down Sunday.
Ravens (4-6, 4-4, 2-2). Baltimore was overlooked last year at this time and they won the whole thing. Their next three games are at home and they'll likely be favored in all of them (Jets, Steelers, Vikings). After that it's at Detroit, New England and at Cincinnati. Bills fans may want Baltimore to stay in it because of the head-to-head win, and I think that'll happen.
Steelers (4-6, 3-4, 1-1). Pittsburgh and Cleveland are still to play twice, and if one sweeps that's a big boost for one and likely a fatal blow to the other. The Steelers have won four of six and with a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback they're tough to count out. Keep their December 22 game with Green Bay in mind; if the Packers' hopes have been dashed by then that game will look a lot easier for Pittsburgh.
Browns (4-6, 3-4, 2-2). The best I can see the Browns doing is 8-8, but I'm not ruling that out. Their defense is good. They have a visit to New England left and two games with Pittsburgh. Home to Chicago may be a swing game for them. Bills fans should want Cleveland to top out at 7-9.
Titans (4-6, 3-4, 0-3). Tennessee's next three are on the road -- Oakland, Indianapolis and Denver. Then it's a decent Arizona team. 2-2 in that stretch is good, so they likely top out at 8-8. If they get there, with a 6-6 conference record and wins over the Steelers and Chargers, they could be OK.
Chargers (4-6, 2-5, 0-2). San Diego, much like the Bills, could be beating itself up over a couple of losses that had they been wins would put the Chargers in control of this race. They have the Broncos in Denver and the Chiefs twice. I think it's over for them.
Raiders (4-6, 4-3, 1-2). Oakland is a stick of dynamite in this pile. They in no way look worthy of that 6-seed, but do you want to assume they won't beat teams like Dallas, Tennessee, San Diego and the Jets? They close with Denver, which maybe will have clinched the top seed by then. I don't think they're a good team at all but they have a shot.
So that's everybody. Which of these teams goes 9-7, if any? I'd give the Steelers, Dolphins and Ravens some shot at it, and that's it. I don't think the others are good enough.
That leaves the Bills. While I think 8-8 could qualify for the playoffs I don't think the Bills would win tiebreakers with that record and get in. I think they'll have to run the table. If they do I like their chances of ending the drought.