Sputtering Bills resemble pretenders more than contenders at the midpoint of the season

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — The assurances everyone keeps hearing from Bills players and management about how things will get better in Buffalo simply aren’t sticking.

What was blamed as being a jet lag-related blip following a 25-20 loss to Jacksonville in London a month ago has grown into a full-blown crisis. Having lost three of five, the three-time defending AFC East champion Bills (5-4) resemble pretenders more than contenders at the midpoint of the season, when they've slipped out of the playoff picture.

And there are few indications things will get easier based on a schedule that still features games against Philadelphia (8-1), Kansas City (7-2), Dallas (5-3) and a season-ending finale at Miami (6-3).

The sense of urgency was evident in quarterback Josh Allen’s comments following a 24-18 loss at Cincinnati on Sunday night, when he projected it might take 10 or 11 wins to make the playoffs.

“The math’s there. It’s not pretty. It’s not going to be easy,” Allen said. “But if there’s a locker room that can handle this, it’s this locker room right here.”

It’s true that the Bills have overcome adversity in the past. It happened in 2021 when Buffalo rallied from a 3-5 stretch to win its final four games and claim the division title.

But the way things have looked recently, this group might have difficulty beating Denver (3-5) on Monday night, given how the Broncos are coming off two weeks of rest following their stunning win over the Chiefs.

Injuries are piling up on a defense missing three key regulars, and Buffalo’s offense continues showing signs of stagnation.

The Allen-led attack has been in a rut ever since a 48-20 victory over the Dolphins on Oct. 1, which capped a three-game run in which Buffalo outscored its opponents 123-33. Ever since, the Bills have combined to score 101 points, and they needed two goal-line stops from the defense to eke out a 14-9 win over the New York Giants.

Though the offense showed signs of regaining its rhythm in a 24-18 win over Tampa Bay two weeks ago, the familiar sputterings reemerged against Cincinnati.

The offense was late in adjusting its tempo on Sunday. Allen looked hesitant in the pocket. Plays took too long to materialize. And too much of the burden was placed on Allen in a first half in which the Bills ran the ball just five times, including the quarterback's 2-yard TD run.

The offensive struggles are too much for a patchwork defense to overcome, and they run counter to coach Sean McDermott’s message of the team having to play complementary football. Though the defense has been limited to forcing just three takeaways (all fumbles) in its past five outings, it’s much easier for defenders to remain on their toes when playing with a lead.

The focus falls on second-year offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, who suddenly is on the hot seat. Allen didn’t do Dorsey any favors following the loss to the Bengals by referencing the game plan as to why it took the Bills so long to change tempo.

McDermott on Monday reiterated his backing of Dorsey: “I understand everyone’s frustration. I absolutely do. And we’re working extremely hard to make the adjustments we have to make. And Ken is doing the same. So I remain confident in Ken and our offensive staff.”

A week ago, general manager Brandon Beane said what encourages him is how the Bills have kept the scores close.

“If we were getting run out of the gym, I’d be concerned,” he said of a team that's yet to lose by more than six points.

“This team is still forming its identity,” Beane added. “And while we know a lot more than we knew four or five weeks ago, I wouldn’t say we know exactly where this team’s going to be.”

A bigger concern might be what if the win-one, lose-one Bills are actually who they are?

WHAT’S WORKING

Not much. The Bills' third-down success — they converted 7 of 12 chances against Cincinnati — isn’t translating into points.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Forcing and preventing takeaways. The Bills coughed up the ball twice against the Bengals, marking the fourth time in five outings Buffalo has committed at least two turnovers (nine overall). The Bills are minus-6 in takeaways vs. giveaways over that stretch.

STOCK UP

WR Khalil Shakir. The second-year player is gaining rapport with Allen after finishing with four catches for 57 yards, a week after setting career bests with six catches and 92 yards.

STOCK DOWN

WR Gabe Davis. Buffalo’s No. 2 threat had no catches on two targets, including one that led to Allen throwing an interception.

INJURIES

McDermott would only say “we'll see,” when updating the status of MLB Terrel Bernard (concussion), S Micah Hyde (stinger) and CB Christian Benford (hamstring), who were unable to finish the game against Cincinnati.

KEY NUMBER

0-4 — Bills' record this season when failing to generate 100 yards rushing after finishing with 68 on Sunday.

NEXT STEPS

Play third consecutive prime-time outing when hosting the Broncos on Monday night.

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