ORCHARD PARK (AP) — Dion Dawkins interjected before the question regarding the Bills’ two-month stretch of inconsistencies could be completed.
Well aware of the team’s Jekyll-and-Hyde nature in losing five of its past eight in a slide that has dropped Buffalo from leading the AFC East to seventh in the conference standings, the starting left tackle emphasized the urgency the Bills (7-6) face in preparing to host Carolina on Sunday.
“The time is now,” Dawkins said Thursday, a day before being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list leaving his status uncertain for Sunday. “We understand that it’s time to punch that ticket. And we have our game faces on.”
What took them so long, might be an apt question.
Dawkins is encouraged by the glimpses of dominance Buffalo has shown, starting with its most recent outing, a 33-27 overtime loss at Tampa Bay. He pointed to a second-half surge in which the Bills overcame a 21-point deficit by generating 302 yards offense and limiting the Buccaneers to 110 before falling short in overtime.
“It’s an up and down battle for us to stay right there, which is hard,” Dawkins said. “But we have the vision for it, and we feel it. And we’re hungry for it to stay at that ‘It’ factor.”
The Bills have four weeks left to prove they can be a contender in their bid to qualify for the playoffs for a third consecutive year.
The Panthers (5-8), by comparison, are still searching for a semblance of identity — and health — in their second season under coach Matt Ruhle.
Carolina has won just twice in its past 10, and minus its top offensive threat, running back Christian McCaffrey (season-ending ankle injury), has a revolving door on an offensive line which has featured nine starting combinations, and a carousel at quarterback.
And on the occasions the Panthers find their offensive rhythm, they’ve been let down by a defense which has otherwise been the team’s strength in a mostly what-else-can-go-wrong-type of season.
“Either we turned the ball over too much, or we miss someone’s production, like Christian, or defensively, we haven’t had our best game,” Ruhle said. “So we’re trying to correct everything.”
The Bills are attempting to overcome challenges of their own.
Already missing its top defensive player in cornerback Tre’Davious White (season-ending knee injury), Buffalo caught a break with coach Sean McDermott announcing quarterback Josh Allen will start after spraining his left foot last weekend.
Allen was already leaning that way by saying: “If I can go, I’m going to go.”
The injury still has the potential of limiting Allen’s mobility in a season during which his 531 yards rushing represent more than a third of the team’s total.
Rhule is expected to stick to his plan of using both quarterbacks Cam Newton and P.J. Walker.
Newton will start, but look for Walker in situations where the Panthers have to go to hurry-up offense situations. Rhule is doing so because Walker is more familiar with the offense when the tempo of the game speeds up, as compared to Newton, who joined the team a month ago.
Bills coach Sean McDermott faces his former team. He was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator from 2011-16 before taking over in Buffalo.
“Very appreciative of that opportunity down there and the relationships that we made,” McDermott said.
Ruhle fondly recalled his time in Buffalo, where he attended college to earn his master’s degree, and also spent two years as an assistant at the University of Buffalo. He listed off where he lived, his favorite restaurants and noted where he and his wife, Julie, were married.
Ruhle also recalled the times he attended Bills training camp, where he gained tips from former defensive line coach John Levra.
Newton has turned the ball over five times in the team’s last two losses, much to Rhule’s chagrin.
Rhule railed against Newton’s “catastrophic” turnovers after he threw a pick-6 and then fumbled while reaching to make a handoff after getting tripped up by his center. Rhule said Newton should have simply eaten the ball and taken the loss.
“I’m just so disappointed in myself,” said Newton, who is 0-3 as the team’s starter this year and has lost his 11 starts with Carolina dating to 2018. “For me to not perform or to jeopardize the game the way I did today, it’s just inexcusable.”
Haason Reddick got off to a fast start this season with 9½ sacks through the first 10 games. But the NFC leader in Pro Bowl votes at outside linebacker has just one over the past three weeks with teams doing more to neutralize Reddick and defensive end Brian Burns.
They’ve used a combination of play-action fakes, getting the ball out faster and keeping in extra blockers to protect the quarterback.
“It’s part of the game,” Reddick said. “If I allow myself to get frustrated based on what’s happening in the game, it could linger, I could start having bad plays, it could negatively affect my game, and I try to make sure that doesn’t happen. So I try to keep myself as calm as I can.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed contributed.