Bills returning to playoffs is not-so-impossible (but slim) dream

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Last New Year's Eve, the Buffalo Bills captured the imagination of their city by earning the franchise's first playoff berth in 18 seasons.

Almost 11 months later, the Bills are back to being an afterthought. At 2-7, the team entered Week 10 with one of the worst offenses since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger and microscopic playoff chances of less than 0.1 percent, according to ESPN's Football Power Index.

Back-to-back wins -- fill-in quarterback Matt Barkley led Buffalo to a 41-10 win Nov. 11 over the New York Jets, and returning rookie Josh Allen ran over the Jacksonville Jaguars for a 24-21 win Sunday -- have restored a degree of intrigue into the Bills.

It will take magic of a much higher order this December for the Bills to make a repeat trip to the playoffs, but the possibility exists. They entered Monday with a 0.4 percent chance of returning to the postseason, according to ESPN's FPI.

The one factor that continues to work in Buffalo's favor is their schedule. For the fifth consecutive week, FPI ranks the Bills' remaining slate as the NFL's easiest. Their first 11 games have been the NFL's hardest.

FPI favors the Bills in three of their remaining five games. They have a 42 percent chance of winning next Sunday at the Miami Dolphins and only a 14 percent chance of beating the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 23. Otherwise, the Bills are projected to win their remaining three home games against the Jets (Dec. 9), the Detroit Lions (Dec. 16) and the Dolphins (Dec. 30).

Laying out the Bills' exact path to the playoffs is still a monumental task with five weeks to play. With 81 games remaining, the New York Times' playoff simulator produces about two septillion different outcomes to the NFL's season. The Bills have a 1 percent chance of making the playoffs in the Times' roughly 30,000 simulations, using weighted rankings of teams.

It is clear that almost every playoff scenario would require Buffalo to win its final five games to finish the season on a seven-game winning streak and with a 9-7 record. That accomplishment, separate from the outcome of any other games, would give the Bills a 38 percent chance at the playoffs, according to the Times' simulator. Simply losing their game at New England but winning the other four would reduce the Bills' chances to 1 percent. Beating New England but losing once to Miami, the Jets or the Lions would, at best, leave Buffalo with a 3 percent chance.

If the Bills win out -- an outcome ESPN's FPI gives a 0.1 percent chance of happening -- their biggest obstacles to earning an AFC wild-card spot would be the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts, both 6-5. The Bills have lost to both teams this season, meaning they would lose a head-to-head tiebreaker against either team or a three-way tiebreaker with both.

Assuming the Bills could win out, their chances to make the playoffs would surpass 50 percent if the Ravens lose both games of their upcoming road swing at Atlanta and Kansas City, as well as the Colts losing on the road in Week 14 at Houston. Add in a Chargers home win over the Ravens in Week 16, a Titans home win over the Colts in Week 17 and a combination of other losses by AFC contenders such as the Bengals, Titans and Broncos, and the Bills' playoff odds vault to better than 75 percent in the Times' simulation.