The quirkiest of NFL seasons has provided yet another twist as the Buffalo Bills head into the stretch drive with an eye toward securing an AFC East title.
The Bills, who are seeking their first division title since 1995, are coming off their bye week and will enter a home matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday with a one-game division lead over the Miami Dolphins with six to play. That includes a meeting with those Dolphins in the final scheduled game of the regular season.
The Chargers, meanwhile, simply are trying to plug a leaky boat, though the vessel does have a captain they can believe in with rookie sensation quarterback Justin Herbert.
The Bills (7-3) enter off a 32-30, heartbreaking defeat at Arizona on Nov. 15, while the Chargers (3-7) take the field after a 34-28 victory Sunday over the hapless New York Jets that ended a three-game losing streak.
Yet it is the Bills who can find plenty of positives in the defeat, while the Chargers' concerns actually mounted in the victory.
As they have done all season, the Bills moved the ball well against the Cardinals, and quarterback Josh Allen engineered a late go-ahead drive. But the work was derailed when Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray found receiver DeAndre Hopkins on a 43-yard Hail Mary pass among three Buffalo defenders in the closing seconds.
Allen threw for 284 yards and two touchdowns against the Cardinals, and is seventh in the NFL with 2,871 yards passing and eighth with a 68.4 completion percentage.
While a rare late bye prevented the Bills from purging the loss from their system last weekend, it offered them time to heal some mounting bumps and bruises.
"It almost feels like it's a new season, a new beginning," Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley said. "... You grind, grind, grind and then you get a bye week late. Now we have six games to go and you have time to refresh and get your legs back up underneath you."
Despite the disappointing team results this season, Herbert continues to roll along. He was 37-of-49 passing against the Jets for a personal-best 366 yards on Sunday with three touchdowns. He now has rookie records with five games of three TD passes or more and seven consecutive games where he has at least two scores.
Herbert had 277 yards passing in the first half alone Sunday, but as the Chargers' defense has been known to do, it struggled in the second half. Los Angeles led by as many as 18 points Sunday and 15 in the fourth quarter but needed to make a play deep in their own territory to seal the victory.
Already this season, the Chargers have blown leads of at least 16 points in four consecutive games and had the Kansas City Chiefs down 11 before losing.
Staff changes have begun as Chargers coach Anthony Lynn demoted special teams coach George Stewart and replaced him with assistant Keith Burns and coaching assistant Chris Caminiti.
"It's never one person's fault," Lynn said Wednesday. "As coaches, this is what we sign up for. We sign up to work with these young men. If they don't execute the way we need them to execute, then we lose our jobs. That's just the way it is."
Three Chargers defensive players did not practice Wednesday: cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. (groin), and defensive ends Melvin Ingram III (knee) and Uchenna Nwosu (shoulder/chest). Nwosu is expected to miss multiple games.
Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (hamstring) returned to practice Wednesday, but it is unknown if he will play Sunday. He has been out since carrying the ball twice in an Oct. 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Bills were without defensive end Mario Addison (knee) and wide receiver John Brown at Wednesday's practice.
--Field Level Media