Since the 2011 season ended, the Buffalo Bills have been a team on the rise. 

After losing eight of their final nine games, the Bills decided to finally let loose and start shelling out money to make a good football team.

Gone are the days when they would let stars like Antoine Winfield and Pat Williams move on because they either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay them what they were worth.

And here are the days where they will give $50 million guaranteed to a player coming off of a season-ending injury. 

In addition, they’ve started taking care of their own, signing Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson to extensions (among others), like they said they would.

GM Buddy Nix has stuck to his word, and as a result the Bills are right in the thick of the playoff discussion.

However, in the eyes of most experts the foregone conclusion is that the Patriots are going to run away with the division, given their history of dominance over the last decade and the fact that they seem to be improved on paper after going 13-3 last season. 

The idea of the Bills taking the throne is casually dismissed, but should it be? There are a few factors that, if they swing the right way, could propel the Bills to the top of the division for the first time since 1995.

In order for the Bills to win the AFC East in 2012:

The Patriots need to regress, the Jets need to stay down, and the Dolphins need to do exactly what everybody expects of them

Tom Brady threw for 5,235 yards in 2011, which would have been an NFL record if Drew Brees weren’t around.  However, their running game, which thrived on the limited talents of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, is now in the hands of a committee that replaced Green-Ellis with Colts' retread Joseph Addai and several other young runners who have yet to distinguish themselves. 

They lost stalwart left tackle Matt Light to retirement, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien to Penn State, and co-sack leader Mark Anderson to the Bills in free agency. They do have some solid rookies coming in, notably middle linebacker Don’t’a Hightower and defensive end Chandler Jones, but in order for the team to remain on top they need to develop fast.

As for the other two teams, the Jets are an enigma and the Dolphins are rebuilding. The Jets have been up-and-down so much over the last ten years that Fireman Ed might be able to sue for whiplash. After going to the AFC Championship in 2009 and 2010, poor quarterback play and locker room turmoil caused the team to fall to 8-8. 

Star cornerback Darrelle Revis is in the midst of his annual contract dispute and Tim Tebow has given the fans a whole new reason to dump on Sanchez at the first sign of trouble. Meanwhile, the Dolphins, who finished the season on a high note after starting off 0-8, are breaking in a rookie head coach and possibly a new starting quarterback. 

Matt Moore played much better than anybody gives him credit for last season, but David Garrard and possibly Ryan Tannehill (at some point) will be in competition for his job this year.  Whoever does win the job will have a receiving corps that no longer includes star wideout Brandon Marshall and instead relies on Davone Bess and Brian Hartline to catch the ball. 

They could surprise, but for the most part they should spend 2012 setting up the foundation for Tannehill to take over.

Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to put together 16 solid games

Last season, Fitzpatrick started off playing as good as any quarterback in the league. His ability to read the field, quick release, and bravado throwing into coverage led the Bills to a 5-2 start and had him pegged for the Pro Bowl. 

However, an injury against the Redskins sent him reeling, and he played a big part in their 1-8 finish, finishing the season with a league-high 23 interceptions. He did throw for 3,832 yards and 24 touchdowns, which are the highest numbers for a Bills passer since Drew Bledsoe, but in order for the team to progress he will need to take fewer chances and stay healthy for a full season. 

New backup Vince Young could possibly spell him for a game or two, a chore they were reluctant to give to Tyler Thigpen.

Fred Jackson needs to return to form, and C.J. Spiller must continue to improve

For the first nine games of 2011, Fred Jackson was near the top of the MVP conversation. He was leading the NFL in rushing and proving himself as a more-than-capable receiver, which is a recipe for a top-tier NFL running back. 

Unfortunately, that recipe wasn’t fully baked before he was injured in a loss to the Dolphins in Week 11, ending his season. While it was a huge loss, it did open the door for former No. 9 overall pick C.J. Spiller to show what he could do. 

After contributing little during his rookie campaign, Spiller put together a solid season filling in, rushing for 561 yards in 2011 (with 5.2 yards-per-carry). Coach Chan Gailey has stated his intent to get Spiller more involved in 2012, which is a necessity to both add his talents while spelling the workhorse Jackson. 

The running back position might have the most talent on the team (outside of the defensive line), and it needs to shine through for the Bills to take the division.

Stevie Johnson needs to mature and gather his nerves

Johnson is a very talented receiver who can run routes about as well as anybody in the NFL. In two games against the standout Revis, he caught 11 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. Unfortunately, he also has a penchant for flair, taking three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties relating to touchdown celebrations. 

It gets him a lot of attention from the entertainment crowd, but it also earned him a three-quarter benching in the season finale at New England. In addition, he dropped a key pass in the second Jets game that likely would have been a touchdown, or at least given the team a much better chance at the end zone.

It’s not troubling in and of itself, but when one recalls the famous drop in overtime against Pittsburgh in 2010, it seems it might be a trend. A team’s top receiver needs to be reliable in the crunch, and Johnson needs to improve on that to take them to the next level.

They need to settle on a left tackle

After losing Demetress Bell to free agency (without any real effort to sign him), the team drafted Cordy Glenn in the second round to compete with Chris Hairston, who filled in the spot for most of 2011 while Bell was hurt. The experts like Glenn more than Hairston, but one of them needs to win the job cleanly and give Fitzpatrick time to make the reads that he excels at. 

Both players offer some versatility, with Hairston being able to play at right tackle and Glenn being a high-level guard. Whoever loses the job should still be able to play a key role as a backup.

Mario Williams needs to be worth the contract he received (as does Mark Anderson)

The Bills were tied for third-worst in the NFL with 29 sacks in 2011. If you take out the 10 they recorded against Washington in Week 8, that number would be an NFL-worst 19. The team leader was Marcell Dareus with 5.5, which is a very low number for the team’s top sack-master. 

Because of this, the Bills give former No. 1 overall pick Williams a nine-figure contract after seeing that even though he only played five games he played in 2011, he still would have finished second on the team in sacks.  Williams will be moving back to his natural position of 4-3 defensive end, and at least 10 sacks is rightfully expected of him this season. 

On the other side of the line, Anderson did record 10 sacks last season, doing so with limited playing time. With Williams receiving much of the attention, and defensive tackles Dareus and Kyle Williams also being able to get to the quarterback, Anderson should be free to handle single-teams for most of the time. As a full-time player, he should be able to match his total from last season at the very least.

Somebody needs to step up at cornerback

While the team’s safeties were standouts last season, the cornerback position was a mess for the Bills.  Long-time top corner Terrence McGee missed several games with injuries and no longer seems to be the player he was five years ago. 

Former first-rounder Leodis McKelvin continued to struggle and began to have the “bust” label attached to his name. Drayton Florence had some solid moments, but poor play and costly penalties at the end of the year earned him a pink slip this offseason. 

Because of the turmoil, the team used the 10th overall pick in this past Draft to select Stephon Gilmore out of South Carolina, who is expected to earn a starting job right out of camp.  On the other side should be either McGee or second-year pro Aaron Williams, who showed flashes of great potential but missed several games with a collarbone injury. 

The loser of that battle should fit in at the nickel spot, with McKelvin likely the nickel or dime cornerback. Street free agent Justin Rogers also showed some potential in limited playing time. There is a lot of potential within this group, but they need to bring it out quickly if they expect to compete for the division in 2012.

So, there we are. There are a lot of variables in the equation, but none of them are extremely outlandish.  Regression at the top, improved play at quarterback and receiver, and solidifying the running back, left tackle and cornerback positions are the real keys for the Bills. 

If they can do all that, and if the Patriots fall off just enough and give up another game to the Bills, then Buffalo might just be able to break through and not only make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, but take the division as well.