Going into 2012, the Buffalo Bills are a very mysterious entity.
They started out 2011 by rattling off three straight wins, including comebacks of 18 and 21 points (the latter of which broke a 7-and-a-half year losing streak against the New England Patriots), and had fans thinking playoffs for the first time since their ill-fated 1999 postseason.
They fell off a bit over the next month, going 2-2, but optimism increased after quarterback and catalyst Ryan Fitzpatrick signed a six-year extension with the team.
After a 23-0 win against Washington in Toronto, however, the wheels fell off. For the remainder of the season, the Bills only managed one win and finished the year in last place in the AFC East, which was amazing considering they were at 5-2 when Miami was at 0-7.
The offseason, however, was an unmitigated success for the Bills. They landed one of the hottest commodities on the open market in Mario Williams and also brought in Mark Anderson to bookend the defensive line with him.
They also used the draft to shore up perceived weaknesses at offensive tackle (Cordy Glenn) and cornerback (Stephon Gilmore).
Now, the Bills are on everybody’s short list for this year’s worst-to-first hot commodity. That could happen…or it could not.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO - TEAM
Buffalo has had a great deal of trouble doing two things over the past decade: winning away from home and winning divisional matchups. Week One offers a chance to do both by sending the Bills to New York to face the Jets.
They win that game, which goes a long way towards exorcizing the ghosts of the 2000’s. They also win their next two games before their Week Four showdown with the Pats at home.
They won that matchup in dramatic fashion, but this matchup is won with ease. The non-existent pass rush comes through big and forces Brady into several mistakes and prevents him from hitting his receivers for big plays.
The next game, at San Francisco, brings their first loss of the season, but the rebound by winning their next two and going into the bye 6-1. They stumble on the road against Houston and New England, but Miami allows them to right the ship.
The next month brings very winnable games against the Dolphins, Colts, Jaguars, Rams, and Seahawks, sending them into the finale at home against the Jets with a 12-3 record. They falter in that game, but 12-4 is enough to take the division crown and a first-round bye.
Their playoff ticket is punched, and the divisional round sends the Patriots back to town, where the Bills take care of business before falling on the road to the (insert AFC North champion here), which is disappointing but still leaps and bounds from where they had been in years past.
BEST-CASE SCENARIO – PERSONNEL
Ryan Fitzpatrick, free of injury, puts together a solid 16-game season. He equals or betters his 2011 marks of 3,832 yards and 24 touchdowns while throwing 15 or fewer interceptions.
Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller split carries efficiently, and Jackson (free of injury) rushes for over 1,300 yards and tops the 2,000 mark in yards from scrimmage.
Stevie Johnson continues his maturity and sets career highs in receptions and yards (82 and 1,073, respectively), while (insert T.J. Graham, Marcus Easley, Donald Jones, or Derek Hagan here) finally settles the No. 2 receiver spot with 900+ yards and 7-9 touchdowns.
The offensive line continues to jell, and Eric Wood finally plays a full season without getting hurt, while Glenn establishes himself as the left tackle for the next decade.
Mario Williams is worth every penny the Bills paid him. Not only does he manage 16+ sacks by himself, the other three defensive line starters (Anderson, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams) all top 5 sacks themselves. This is enough to garner Williams heavy consideration for Defensive Player of the Year and possibly a win in the category.
Gilmore is the answer to the Bills’ cornerback woes, and he teams with Aaron Williams to become one of the better tandems in the NFL. Leodis McKelvin is not the player the Bills thought he was when they picked him 11th
overall in 2009, but he is a very dependable nickel corner.
Free safety Jairus Byrd, one of the NFL’s best, sees enough from the team to sign a long-term extension in the offseason, setting them up for several more playoff runs.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO – TEAM
The Bills fall to the Jets in New York, which gets the media crowing about how these “new-look” Bills aren’t really new at all. A loss to a revitalized Chiefs team continues those cries before they manage a win at Cleveland.
The Patriots follow that up by dominating the Bills in Buffalo, which sets off a three-game losing streak before they beat Tennessee and go into the bye at 2-5.
They come into the second half by losing at Houston and New England before putting together a small win streak against the Dolphins and Colts before falling at home to Jacksonville, St. Louis, and Seattle (at Toronto) and finishing the season with losses at Miami and at home against the Jets, leaving the team at 4-12 and the fans wondering how soon someone can send the team to Los Angeles.
Even worse, the bad record isn’t high enough to land either Matt Barkley or Landry Jones, and the team is lost going into the future at quarterback.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO – PERSONNEL
Fitzpatrick makes the Kevin Kolb contract look like a bargain, becoming the first player since 1988 to throw 30 interceptions in a season while barely topping 2,200 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Jackson re-injures his knee early on, and Spiller proves that his solid finish in 2011 was a fluke and he really is a bust in the NFL.
Johnson earns personal fouls for celebrations in each of the first two games and the team, finally fed up, ships him off for a third-round pick. The No. 2 receiver spot is filled by a rotating cast, none of whom prove they even deserve a roster spot.
Glenn is constantly overpowered at left tackle and Chris Hairston gets beat off the end time after time. Wood is injured again, and the team is forced to use a rotating cast at center with disastrous results.
Williams is not the answer to their defensive woes, and is marginally effective before missing a significant portion of the season again. Kyle Williams also goes down, which allows teams to double- or triple-team Dareus.
The linebacker position is largely ineffective, and the secondary is in shambles after Aaron Williams is hurt again and Gilmore goes the McKelvin route and proves that he isn’t capable of matching up at the next level.
Byrd, fed up with losing, bolts for greener pastures in free agency, and the franchise returns to their self-destructing spiral of losing.
WHICH IS MORE LIKELY?
Things will obviously fall somewhere in the middle, but signs point closer to the best-case scenario. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Mario Williams should take pressure off of the rest of the defense, allowing them to make the plays they did in the early part of 2011.
Fitzpatrick has topped 3,000 yards in each of his two seasons as a starter with the team, and if someone can emerge as a decent flanker option he should easily do so again. The running back situation will be tricky, but they have two talented players to run the ball or come out and catch it.
A playoff trip would not be surprising, but another January at home wouldn’t be too shocking, either.