ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills returned to work Monday to find themselves sitting in a playoff position through six weeks of the NFL season. Thanks to a bevy of surprising results around the league Sunday, the Bills are sitting in fifth place overall in the AFC with a 3-2 record.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott said Monday of the bye week, it was "good to get home and reconnect with the family," but he also admitted that he was paying attention to what was happening around the league.
"You always keep an eye on scores," he said. "I take notes on my phone if I do get a chance to watch some games. There's always situations you can learn from."
Not many NFL observers gave the Bills much of a chance to compete for a playoff berth this season, and the joke around western New York, and perhaps beyond, was that their playoff drought would officially be old enough to vote by season's end, a full 18 years.
However, given all the mediocrity around the league, and a tough defense that has kept the Bills competitive in each of the first five games, they are firmly in the hunt.
Staying there, however, could be tricky. While the defense has played well all season, the offense has been unwatchable at times, with neither the running game nor the passing game able to establish much consistency. The two go hand in hand, and in the Bills' case, their complete lack of explosiveness through the air has directly affected their once strong ability to run.
"We can do a lot of things better, me included," said offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. "We took a look at each and every aspect that we need to do (over the break). We know we can make some plays, we've just got to make more and keep our mistakes to a minimum. We can correct them."
Perhaps, but the Bills simply don't have enough talent on that side of the ball, particularly without wide receiver Jordan Matthews (thumb) and tight end Charles Clay (knee) sidelined. The Bills' wide receivers may be the weakest group in the NFL, and that's even with Matthews on the field. Without him, the unit is almost completely devoid of playmakers, as Zay Jones, Andre Holmes, Kaelin Clay and Brandon Tate can't get open.
The reason the Bills are still in the mix is their defense. McDermott's 4-3 has been a natural fit for the players left over from the Rex Ryan era, and McDermott tailored his drafting and free-agent acquisitions to fit the scheme. The Bills have given every team they've played a tough time.
Buffalo ranks second in the NFL in takeaway/giveaway ratio at plus-8, with its 10 takeaways tied for sixth-best. Also, the Bills rank second in the NFL in red-zone touchdown percentage as opponents have scored a touchdown on only five of 15 trips.
The Bills' offensive line is in a state of flux due to injuries and poor play, and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison admitted it's still "a work in progress."
Left tackle Cordy Glenn has missed most of the last three games with foot and ankle injuries, and the Bills have used rookie Dion Dawkins in his place at left tackle. Also, right tackle Jordan Mills continues to be the weak link up front, and right guard John Miller -- a two-year starter -- was benched for Buffalo's last game in Cincinnati and was replaced by journeyman Vlad Ducasse.
Dawkins has acquitted himself well, and it's possible that he'll remain in that position, even if Glenn returns to action this week. What is unclear is what will happen to Glenn. Will he be the backup, or will he take over at right tackle for Jordan Mills, who has long been the weak link up front?
"Cordy hasn't played in a number of weeks, so getting him the right conditioning, and acclimating him to not only the mental part but the physical part," said head coach Sean McDermott. "Right now, we'll take a look at that today and we'll know more as the week progresses and that obviously does affect Dion."
Also back with the team is Seantrel Henderson, who had been serving a 10-game suspension. Depending on his conditioning, he might be able to play in Sunday's game. To make room for Henderson, cornerback Greg Mabin was waived.
Dennison has a big task on his hands trying to solidify the tight end position with Charles Clay on the shelf, possibly for numerous weeks. Nick O'Leary will have to become the every-down player, something he has never done since entering the league as a sixth-round pick in 2015. And newcomer Logan Thomas will get increased playing time at a position he has played less than a year after converting from quarterback.
"The players that we have, Nick has done a good job and Logan has put some time in in the spots he has played," said Dennison. "We're not going to change what we do, we're just going to have to move some guys around. Charles is a great player and while he's down we'll supplement and do what we can. We just have to go out there and play. Nobody is quite Charles, so we'll play off their strengths and somebody will make those plays."
Sometimes it's not easy to fly into a city like Buffalo because it's not a hub for any major airline. When you have flight problems, the options are often slim.
Cornerback Shareece Wright found this out last spring and he was forced to take an Uber ride all the way from Chicago at a cost of about $900.
On Sunday, another Bill was in that predicament and used Uber to get from Chicago to Buffalo to get back in time for practice Monday.
Practice-squad wide receiver Brandon Reilly was back home in Nebraska to visit family and attend the Cornhuskers' game against Ohio State. Sunday, he was connecting through O'Hare Airport and after several delays, he knew he had a problem. He said he had two Uber drivers cancel on him when they realized where he wanted to go.
"I was thinking I could rent a car, but I didn't trust myself driving all the way through the night," Reilly said. "I was tired. I remember Shareece did it, so I was like, 'I'll give it a try.'"
It took about 8 1/2 hours, but Reilly was back in Buffalo by 7:15, about $900 poorer.
NOTES: RT Seantrel Henderson was activated to the 53-man roster as his 10-game suspension, which began last season, has run its course. ... LT Cordy Glenn will continue to work his way back into practice, but his availability for the Tampa Bay game remains a mystery. ... RG John Miller was benched against Cincinnati and was inactive, but he will rejoin the competition with Vlad Ducasse. ... WR Jordan Matthews said he's pleased with his progress recovering from thumb surgery, but he isn't ready to proclaim himself ready to play. ... DT Marcell Dareus was not at the team facility Monday as he was attending to a personal matter. He is expected back Wednesday. ... TE Charles Clay has begun his rehab following knee surgery, but he's expected to be sidelined several weeks. ... LB Ramon Humber will be week-to-week as he recovers from thumb surgery. ... SS Micah Hyde leads the NFL with four interceptions. ... RB LeSean McCoy is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry, which would be a career-low over a full season.
REPORT CARD AFTER FIVE GAMES
--PASSING OFFENSE: D-minus -- The Bills have been dreadful when they try to throw the ball, and the reasons are plentiful. You start with QB Tyrod Taylor, who, as usual, struggles with ball placement and his unwillingness to take chances down the field, thereby costing the Bills potential positive plays. Then, you get to the wide receiving corps, which is very possibly the worst group in the league. The Bills wideouts have caught 24 passes for 316 yards and four touchdowns -- as a group. And now, things will likely get even worse as Jordan Matthews remained sidelined by thumb surgery, and top target, TE Charles Clay, will be out several weeks following knee surgery.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus -- The league's No. 1 rushing attack the previous two seasons is finding the going much more difficult. LeSean McCoy doesn't have nearly the same running lanes he had during his first two seasons with the team and he has a mere 279 rushing yards with an average of just 3.2 yards per rush. The two biggest issues are the lack of a passing game, which allows opposing defenses to gear up against the run, and the upheaval on the offensive line. Rookie Dion Dawkins has been playing for injured LT Cordy Glenn, RG John Miller was benched for the last game, and RT Jordan Mills is not starter caliber.
--PASS DEFENSE: B-minus -- The Bills were doing great until their loss in Cincinnati when A.J. Green and Andy Dalton shredded them. Rookie CB Tre'Davious White suffered through a rough day, but overall, he's been solid in his first five NFL games. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have been tremendous additions, and they have combined for seven takeaways, with Hyde's four interceptions tops in the league. At the other corner, E.J. Gaines performed well, but he missed the Bengals game with a groin injury. Shareece Wright had to step in, and that's a small downgrade. The pass rush has been average with 12 sacks, three by Jerry Hughes, though Hughes has had an excellent start without piling up sacks as he has put continual heat on quarterbacks.
--RUSH DEFENSE: B -- Despite uneven play from DT Marcell Dareus, who has become nothing more than a rotational piece, the Bills have fared well against the run. They rank seventh in both yards per game and rush per attempt. The most any individual back has gained on the Bills was Tevin Coleman's 77 yards in Week 4. DT Kyle Williams remains a force in the middle, and DE Shaq Lawson has been surprisingly efficient against the run. At linebacker, Preston Brown and Ramon Humber (before his injury) have been stout, and the longest run against Buffalo has been 32 yards.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus -- Stephen Hauschka has been one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL as he has made 11 of 12 field goals, including all four from 53 yards and beyond. He is also a perfect 8 for 8 on extra points. Colton Schmidt ranks only 24th in net punting average at 39.9 yards and is tied for the second-most touchbacks with four. In the return game, the Bills have generated next to nothing with Brandon Tate the primary handler. He does have one punt return of 40 yards that pushes his average to 12 yards per return. The kickoff coverage team ranks 29th, mainly because it allowed a 61-yard return.
--COACHING: B-minus -- First-year head coach Sean McDermott has gotten just about all he can out of this thin roster that still lacks top-end talent in several areas. He's a defensive coach and not surprisingly, the Bills have been vastly improved over the previous two years under Rex Ryan. The defense has kept Buffalo in every game, and it is doing so with an entirely revamped secondary and ordinary linebackers. On offense, coordinator Rick Dennison has to find a way to get the Buffalo running game in gear because the passing game may be a lost cause.