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Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Thursday, October 13, 2016 at 3:34 PM

It wasn’t long ago that obituaries were being written for the Buffalo Bills’ season and the head coaching career of Rex Ryan. The Bills lost their first two games, both straight up and ATS. They lost a defensive game to Baltimore, 13-7 and an offensive shootout to the Jets, 37-31. The rumors were flying that Ryan would not survive the season—some speculated he would be gone after presumed losses to the Cardinals and Patriots sent Buffalo to 0-4.

Something happened on the way to oblivion though. The Bills rallied the troops and began winning. They knocked off Arizona 33-18 as a five-point dog. They visited New England and shut out the Patriots 16-0 while getting (+3.5). It might be easy to dismiss that as a game the Pats played with Jacoby Brisset at quarterback...but Brisset was coming off a strong Thursday Night performance against Houston and Bill Belichick had ten days of preparation for Buffalo. The Bills still turned in an outstanding game.

Buffalo assumed the role of modest road favorite last week in Los Angeles and continued to deliver, beating the Rams 30-19. The talk of Ryan not lasting to the end of the season has subsided and hope of the playoffs is alive and well. And the market has taken notice—Buffalo opened at (-7) for this week’s home game against San Francisco and has quickly been bet up to (-9.5).

Now the question shifts to how good the Bills really are and what their ceiling is. The change in the team’s fortunes coincided with a change at offensive coordinator, but it’s no surprise that the Ryan calling card of defense is the real reason for the recent winning.

Buffalo played un-Ryan like defense in 2015, ranking in the middle of the league in points allowed. The head coach has a more vintage unit this year, one that ranks fifth. The linebacking corps, with Preston Brown and Zach Brown is outstanding. Corey Graham is terrific at free safety and also has a championship pedigree, having played an important part of the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl run of 2012. That’s the kind of veteran presence a team like these Bills need as they strive for the next level.

Ryan has also gotten high-level performances from slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and defensive end Jerry Hughes. What’s more there are no obvious weaknesses in the lineup, so it’s reasonable to expect Buffalo to continue to play solid defense.

Offensively is where the challenges still lie. Tyrod Taylor has been good at staying away from mistakes at the quarterback position and on a defense-first team that’s no small thing. The problem is going to be generating big plays. Losing Sammy Watkins to a foot injury was a big blow to the passing game and while there are reports that Watkins may make it back by the end of the year, that does handicappers no good now when it comes to laying big points. The burden will fall on LeSean McCoy to create chunk plays, both running the football and catching it out of the backfield.

There’s good reasons to be optimistic about Buffalo going forward. This Sunday will provide an important test case for something even more important to NFL bettors—can they handle the role of being a big favorite?  

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