After the first month of the season, the Buccaneers and Bills were both sitting at 3-1, atop their respective divisions. Since then, both teams have hit the skids a bit.
Following their Week 5 bye, the Bucs have dropped back-to-back games at home, to the Lions and Falcons. Although Tampa Bay’s defense came to play both games, the offense combined to score only 19 points.
The Bills were riding a high following their 48-20 thrashing of the Dolphins in Week 4, but things have been far tougher since. They lost in London to the Jaguars, struggled to beat the one-win Giants and then lost at Foxborough to a struggling Patriots team they’d dominated in recent meetings.
Now the Bucs are a half-game out of first in the NFC South, and the Bills are a game back of the Dolphins in the AFC East. Which team is set to break out of its slump?
The Bucs have never won in Buffalo. In a strange scheduling quirk, the non-conference opponents have met just 12 times, but the first eight meetings between 1976 and 2005 all happened in Tampa. They last made the trip to Buffalo in 2017 -- Sean McDermott’s first year as Bills head coach -- and lost, 30-27.
The Bills are 3-0 at Highmark Stadium this season, with their one “home” loss happening in London. The Bucs are 2-0 away from home, but their road mettle will be tested. Thursday’s game kicks off a wicked stretch of six away games in eight weeks, with most of those teams still thickly in contention.
This game pits two quarterbacks who were selected in the first seven picks of the 2018 NFL Draft, Baker Mayfield and Josh Allen. The well-traveled Mayfield started out this season well but has leveled off in recent games. Allen also has been alternately hot and cold this season, accounting for 19 touchdowns but also throwing interceptions in three straight games.
Both Mayfield (knee) and Allen (right shoulder) are dealing with injuries, Mayfield having drawn a questionable designation but expected to suit up against his fellow 2018 draftee.
Here are four things to watch for when the Buccaneers visit the Bills on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Bills must avoid a slow offensive start again. Since the 3-1 start, the Bills have followed a familiar pattern: The offense has taken a while to get going, and it has put a shorthanded defense in tough spots. The Bills punted four straight times to the Jaguars, falling behind, 11-0. Buffalo trailed the Giants, 6-0, (it should have been more) and didn’t score until the fourth quarter. At New England, Josh Allen’s first pass was picked and they trailed, 13-3, at half. A shorthanded defense missing four starters and ramping Von Miller back into form can’t be asked to play from behind every week. There have been common denominators in the slow starts -- Allen has been indecisive at times, Buffalo’s offensive line has allowed too much pressure and receivers not named Stefon Diggs are struggling to separate. Tampa Bay hasn’t faced too many elite offenses, but against the Eagles -- a team with a mobile QB and big-play receivers -- the Bucs showed some man-defense looks on early downs but often defaulted to using safe pressures and keeping safeties high to prevent deep shots. They struggled to contain the Eagles but did have success in the red zone (1 of 5 TD conversions). The Bucs have been slightly better in second halves defensively this season, but have allowed only 10 first-half points in each of the past two losses.
- Big game for Baker Mayfield. In the loss to the Lions, Mayfield started slowly, getting picked on his fourth throw of the game, and never really found his stride. Last week against the Falcons, Mayfield got in rhythm early, throwing for 171 yards and a TD in the first half, but he struggled after halftime, throwing an ugly late pick to doom the Bucs. What started as a strong season for Mayfield has leveled off. A stronger run game would help -- the Bucs are next to last in rushing average (3.1 yards) -- and yet it’s hard to picture it suddenly flourishing. Offensive coordinator Dave Canales has used the short passing game to offset that a bit, and he might want to consider expanding that versus Buffalo. Mayfield’s offensive line has protected him well, and the Bills’ pass rush has been inconsistent. But Mayfield also tends to hang onto the ball as long as any QB in the league, and New England might have provided a blueprint last week with a flurry of quick passes. Mac Jones thrived on passes thrown in under 2.5 seconds last week (17 of 20 passing, 170 yards, two TDs). This is a big game for Mayfield as the Bucs enter a tough stretch. He must show that this Bucs passing game can be more consistently explosive, and a lot of that falls on Mayfield, even if the lack of a rushing attack makes this a flawed operation.
- Dalton Kincaid might be due for more work. The news that TE Dawson Knox (wrist) is out indefinitely was a big blow for the Bills’ offense, even if Knox wasn’t off to a hot start in the passing game. The plan all along had been to make 12-personnel sort of their new base offense, with Knox the in-line threat and Kincaid flexed out into the slot as a receiving threat. That’s likely out the window for now, but Kincaid was able to break out last week with a sterling performance at New England (8-75-0 receiving on eight targets). Kincaid took a little more of a backseat in the second half, as the Bills predominantly went 11 personnel (three receivers, one back, one tight end). Allen has force-fed the ball into Diggs at times, and for good reason. Diggs still will be the Bucs’ toughest cover on Thursday. They’ve done a good job on tight ends this season, not allowing any to catch a TD pass against them. But Kincaid showed a knack for finding soft spots when the Patriots went zone, and he deserves a chance to reprise that role against a Bucs D that is running zone 79.5% of the time this season, via Next Gen Stats. They’re a tough team to run consistently against, so whether it’s Kincaid, running back James Cook or wide receiver Gabe Davis, the Bills must find other receiving sources outside of Diggs.
- Bucs' wideouts have to win vs. Bills secondary. Chris Godwin (neck) is questionable, but signs point to him playing Thursday. He hasn’t caught a TD pass this season, but Godwin has heated up the past three games, catching 20 passes for 257 yards and doing so versus three respectable defenses. Mike Evans' week-to-week production has been a little hot and cold, but he’s had a fine season overall, on pace for more than 1,300 yards and 10 TDs. They’re clearly the Bucs' two best offensive playmakers, and yet last week was the first time this season both went over the 60-yard mark in the same game. Buffalo’s shorthanded defense has suffered major injuries on all three levels. With Tre'Davious White out, the thinned secondary has been playing a lot of zone. What they need are more big plays. Cornerbacks Christian Benford and Dane Jackson have been solid outside, but the Bills have gone three-plus games without an INT. Godwin and Evans both spend time in the slot but are primarily outside receivers. Trey Palmer and Deven Thompkins are the primary inside targets. Last week, the Patriots repeatedly picked on nickel CB Taron Johnson, so it would behoove the Bucs to test him again. Look for the exciting Palmer to be reintroduced to the offense after a quiet game Sunday.