On paper, the Buffalo Bills are a playoff team at the moment. If the season ended today, they would be the second wild card in the AFC, and no one chasing them even has a winning record. So why is first-year head coach Sean McDermott benching quarterback Tyrod Taylor in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman? Sure, the Bills have lost two in a row, but it’s not Taylor’s fault the defense has given up nearly 500 rushing yards in those games.
But the fact is that the Bills' offense hasn’t clicked under Taylor all season. Buffalo ranks 28th in the NFL in yards per game, 30th in yards per play and 26th in three-and-out percentage. The Bills have scored only nine first-quarter points all season. It was easy to overlook these issues when the Buffalo defense was forcing turnovers (17 during a 5–2 start), but it has just one takeaway in the last two weeks. Forced to play from behind without the benefit of short fields after turnovers, Taylor’s limitations were again exposed.
Still, why make the change while in playoff position? Facing a schedule that includes the Chiefs and Patriots (twice) after this game in Los Angeles, McDermott decided he had to do something to try to get more out of the offense. Peterman is a better fit for the passing game the Bills want to run under offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Can he do it effectively as a rookie? That remains to be seen.
Buffalo at Los Angeles
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 19 at 4:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Chargers -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Peterman must help himself by getting the ball out fast
Throwing a rookie fifth-round pick to the wolves on the road against one of the NFL’s top pass rushes may seem counter-intuitive, but there may be a method to McDermott’s madness. The Bills' offensive line has struggled to protect Taylor, who also tends to hold the ball too long. He was sacked a league-high 42 times last season and was on pace for more than that this season. That’s a recipe for disaster against Joey Bosa (9.5 sacks), Melvin Ingram (8.5) and a Chargers defense that is tied for third in the NFL with 29 sacks. While Taylor was more likely to make some plays with his legs while running for his life, Peterman is much more likely to get the ball out on time in the short passing game, which could negate much of the Chargers' pass rush.
2. Melvin Gordon could have a big day
Gordon has managed to stay healthy this season after battling injuries at times in his first two seasons, but it’s still been a roller-coaster ride for the back from Wisconsin. He exploded for 132 yards at New England two weeks ago, but the week before that he had just 38 yards against Denver and last week had just 27 yards against Jacksonville. But he must be licking his chops watching film of the Bills get run over by the Jets and Saints the last two weeks. New York had 194 rushing yards rushing, while New Orleans had 298 with both Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram putting up 100-yard days. The Bills may be able to change a few things schematically to slow down opposing backs, but for the most part they have just been overpowered. Gordon and the Chargers should at least be able to keep quarterback Philip Rivers in favorable down-and-distance situations.
3. Don’t sleep on Shady
It stands to reason that Buffalo will also try to rely on its running game to make things easier for its rookie passer. LeSean McCoy has had an inconsistent season, finding a lot less room to run that he did in 2016. But this may be a good week for him to get going as well. As bad as the Bills have been against the run the last two weeks, Los Angeles has been bad all season. The Chargers rank dead last in rushing yards allowed per game (135.1) and 29th in yards per carry allowed (4.7). If the Bills can get McCoy going and stay out of second- and third-and-long situations, the Chargers’ pass rush won’t be as much of a factor.
Despite a streaky 3–6 record (lose four, win three, lose two), the Chargers may be the more consistent team. They’ve lost four games by three points or less and haven’t allowed more than 26 points in any game. Granted, they haven’t scored more than 27 either; but they have a chance to win every week. The Bills, on the other hand, have scored 30 points or more twice, thanks in part to forcing seven turnovers in those two games. They’ve also given up 81 points in the last two weeks and looked incapable of rallying once they fell behind. Maybe Nathan Peterman is the answer, but it’s tough to bet on the rookie — in his first start, against this pass rush, and on the road.