The Buffalo Bills have been the center of a lot of talk this offseason. Universally praised for their dedication to improving, they've focused on doing more of what made them the highest scoring offense in the NFL to start the season while addressing the the painfully obvious needs on the defensive side of the ball.
They brought in Mario Williams to shore up the pass rush (paying him almost what the rest of the line makes together) and drafted a hungry young corner in Stephon Gilmore.
They re-signed the keys of their offensive success last year (i.e. Fred Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Stevie Johnson) and pieced together their weak spots, drafting left tackle prize Cordy Glenn and speedy receiver T.J. Graham.
So... Now that the pieces all seem to be there... Now that the Bills have their holes filled and their depth very much deepened... Now that Buddy Nix seems satisfied with the team... Now what?
The playoffs. That's the goal now. There's no more room for excuses this season, it's time for Buffalo to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 Music City Mess. Looking at their 2012 schedule, it seems like the stars are starting to line up for this to happen, as the Bills have drawn opponents this season with a combined 2011 winning percentage of .473 (121-135).
Granted, the Patriots have an even easier road (the easiest in the NFL actually), but Buffalo's not looking to take first place in the East from New England this year (though it would be nice) and will likely be fighting for one of those elusive Wild Card bids come December.
This article is the first of a four part series that will look at how Buffalo can get that Wild Card spot this season. We're going to just assume for argument's sake that you'll need at least a 10-6 record to get in this year (no more 8-8 winning divisions again, please), so we're going to look at the Bills' upcoming games, four per article, and chart what they would have to do to find the postseason come the start of 2013. Interested? Let's dive in then...
Week 1: September 9, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at New York Jets
Last meeting: 11/27/11 - Bills 24-Jets 28
If you're a fan of either team, you remember that this last game was a sore loss for the Bills. After being beaten soundly at home earlier in the year by New York (27-11), Buffalo traveled to New Jersey trying to shake off a three-game losing streak that started with that aforementioned beating.
It was tight the whole game, as the first half ended in a 14-14 tie, marred only by Steve Johnson showboating during his only touchdown catch by pretending to shoot himself in the thigh, imitating Jets' receiver Plaxico Burress during his celebration (resulting in a 15-yard penalty).
Bad karma followed and it would come back to haunt Johnson big time when, late in the game, down just four, he dropped not one, but two possible TD catches (one in the endzone) that would have put the Bills ahead. In all likelihood, this was the game that truly ended the Bills' season, as they dipped into familiar territory with a losing record of 5-6 that would get even worse.
The loss had to stick with the Bills since, especially with Johnson, who will likely be looking to have a perfect game this time around - the beginning of perhaps another 1,000-yard season. Look for a (hopefully) matured, dialed in Stevie and a big defensive push from a new Bills frontline that will immediately want to make their presence known in the league, but the difference between winning and losing this game will, in the end, largely fall to the one factor not involved in the last meeting: Fred Jackson.
Coming off his breakout season (at age 30) and a broken leg, Jackson will want to ensure that he is not only worth the extension he received through 2014, but is still the No. 1 back in Buffalo.
Both teams will be looking to make a statement this game after a disappointing 2011 and though the Jets made headlines in the offseason (some of it more noise than improvements), they still have major protection issues on the offensive line and no real presence in the defensive backfield (especially at safety).
We shouldn't see Mark Sanchez throw 4 TDs as he did the last meeting, Tim Tebow will be a non-factor (and Buffalo took him handily last season with Denver, the Bills' sole bright point the last nine). And without any real running threat (ranked 22nd last year, Shonn Greene got over a 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, but just barely). Plus the Jets once-vaunted defense will have to step in (or at least try, they ranked 20th in points allowed last year).
However, Buffalo's offensive firepower and rebuilt defense should prove too much for the soap opera that has become the Jets and the Bills can walk away with a great win to start (they are 53-46 all-time vs New York). Record: 1-0.
Week 2: September 16, 2012 - Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills
Last meeting: 9/11/11 - Bills 41-Chiefs 7
This may disappoint many and cause an uproar amongst the more fair weather fans, but Buffalo will likely lose this game (the wagon will empty like a sieve on Monday). From the look of their offseason, there's promise in Kansas City for 2012, especially if running back Jamaal Charles is as healthy as advertised (he's promised to "punish opposing defenders") and Peyton Hillis can find his game again (it'd be a potent one-two, like Buffalo is hoping Spiller/Jackson will be).
Matt Cassel will lead the Chiefs once more at QB (another player hoping to find his game again), with top 5 receiver Dwayne Bowe (best thing about the Chiefs last year) coming off a third 1,000+ yard season where he averaged 14.3 per amazing catch. Signing rookie nose tackle Dontari Poe should also give the Bills' offensive line some big tests up front (he's a freak of nature) and the defense isn't hurting at defensive back with 18 possibilities on the roster (including Brandon Flowers, who had a team high 4 INTs in 2011).
Look, the Bills just came out and embarrassed the Chiefs to start last season, blowing away people's expectations of what Buffalo was capable of (especially after an almost winless 2010 campaign). Fitzpatrick threw 4 TDs in the meeting last year, Jackson ran for 112, and both Johnson and David Nelson had 66 yards receiving (they also each averaged 16.5 per catch).
The Bills' defense stepped up as well, grabbing an INT (by Drayton Florence, who won't be doing anything in a Bills uniform this year), sacking Cassel twice, holding the QB to 119 yards passing, and Charles to 56 yards rushing. While the Bills may be more than capable of repeating this, there's reasons why we won't see a 2-0 start in Buffalo.
First, the Chiefs won't be caught unaware by the Bills this year, as Buffalo has been making noise since the offseason began and are one of the more visible sleeper picks in the NFL for 2012. Second, after losing by 34, Kansas City and new head coach Romeo Crennel (2-1 in his three games last season as interim coach) will be jacked up to repay Buffalo by stomping all over their home opener this year and have the firepower to do it, too.
Hey, the Broncos and Chiefs figure to both be in the playoff hunt come end of the year and the Chiefs start with winnable games against uncertain Atlanta, Buffalo, and a decimated New Orleans squad. Finally, and more important, Buffalo will need a slap in the face early in the year, especially coming off a first game win against division rival New York (an emotional start to the year, especially since their last win over the Jets was October 2009).
This is the game that will get Buffalo's head in the game, bring them down to earth and remind them that a solid work ethic is more important than all the hype that will surely be rained down on them with a Week 1 victory. Not a blow out, but their first loss. Record: 1-1
Week 3: September 23, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns
Last meeting: 12/12/10 - Bills 13-Browns 6
This matchup used to be one of the least anticipated events in the NFL, with two of the worst teams meeting annually four years in a row for some reason.
This was a terrible series between 2007-2010, one which saw next to no scoring apart from a 29-27 Cleveland win in 2008 that actually had playoff implications for Buffalo (meaning they officially blew their 4-0 start that season by falling to 5-5 after this game, which ended with a wide right miss by Rian Lindell... shiver...).
If you combine the other three games played, neither team scored as much as the 2008 meeting, with Cleveland only posting 17 and Buffalo 19 (again, that's three combined total game scores).
Last year we thankfully got a break from this dreadful series, but find it renewed once more for Week 3 of 2012.
However, while the Bills have improved largely since 2010, the Browns seem to be the same old ne'er do wells.
Cleveland was 4-12 last year and though their defense showed signs of life (ranked 5th in points allowed, 2nd in passing yards... 30th in run defense...), they've really done nothing to better their standing in the NFL for the coming year apart from taking Trent Richardson to replace the departed Hillis.
Second year coach Pat Shurmur is still getting experience coaching at the pro level and still seems to need time to find his rhythm, while 3rd-year QB Colt McCoy may not be a total loss yet, but didn't exactly get a vote of confidence in the offseason with Cleveland Drafting Oklahoma State QB Brandon Weeden in the first round (who may be a rookie, but he's three years older than Colt and has more polish/accuracy to his game already).
In the end, the Bills will have (should have) awoken after losing their home opener to Kansas City and will be ready for what should be an easy win. The Bills' rebuilt defensive front four can handle the rookie Richardson (especially Dareus, a former teammate) and they'll give whoever is under center for the Browns a full day of pursuit, probably resulting in turnovers in the Cleveland passing attack or (gasp) sacks for Buffalo.
On the other side of the ball, Cleveland's Achilles heel on defense was the run lasy year, an area the Bills excelled in and that should continue, especially if the thunder of Jackson can be truly married to the lightening of C.J. Spiller's game (his first round talent finally appeared towards the end of 2011).
Even if Fitzpatrick and the passing game are stymied by the Browns, the running game should be more than enough to compensate. In the end, there's just no reason to believe that the Browns have any real game in 2012, so unless the Bills' record a dozen injuries the first two weeks, or they just decide to give up after one loss, there's no problem getting another victory here. Record: 2-1
Week 4: September 30, 2012 - New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills
Last meeting: 1/1/12 - Bills 21-Patriots 49
This series (finally) got interesting again last year, though you wouldn't know it from the way the season ended. While the Bills were thoroughly embarrassed in January, they were simply brilliant in September of 2011 when they shrugged off a 15-game losing streak and won at home 34-31 on a Rian Lindell 28-yard field goal as time expired (that got Lindell AFC Special Teams POTW).
It was their first win against the Patriots since 2003 and was accomplished with 4 Brady INTs, a 5 reception, 101-yard receiving day for Donald Jones (this was the game that made him the contender for the No. 2 receiver spot), and a comeback from a 21-10 halftime deficit.
Then came the season finale at New England, which started with the Bills being spotted a 21-0 lead in the first quarter that would prove to be their only points scored, with Fitzpatrick now the one throwing 4 INTs, Brady racking up 338 and 3 TDs, and more of Johnson's TD antics, as he pulled up his jersey to reveal a "Happy New Year" scrawled undershirt (resulting in a penalty from the refs and a benching from coach Gailey).
What to make of this one then? Will Buffalo recapture the glory of last September and bring a repeat performance for 2012's home crowd, or will the New England machine right itself in the Buffalo series and continue the pounding where they left off? This is a great game to end this article on, as it represents a real tuning fork for the rest of Buffalo's season.
Let's face it, most of the moves this offseason have been designed around beating the Patriots, with steps made to acquire a greater presence in the pass rush, as well as deepening their options in the defensive backfield.
Whether they'll admit it or not, Buffalo's free agency and draft can largely be seen as game planning for their two toughest opponents every year: New England and New England. Mario Williams and Patriots' 2011 standout Mark Anderson (one of his ten sacks was Fitzpatrick) were brought in to aid Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the end result being a higher sack total than the dreadful 23 they posted last season (4 of which, however, were against Brady in the last meeting).
Meanwhile, the increased speed and youth in the defensive backfield with the additions of Stephon Gilmore and Ron Brooks were meant to build off the successes seen in games like the first New England meeting and the Philadelphia win last season, perhaps combining with the renewed pass rush to result in another multi-INT game for Brady.
This is a true unknown result for me really, as we haven't seen any of Buffalo's improvements enough to judge if they truly can compete against the perennial AFC East winner. Sure, Brady looked a little rusty in a few games last season, but he still finished the year with the second most passing yards in NFL history (5,236).
With weapons like Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez, it's not hard to figure out how he got there and the Patriots rode their offense to 13-3 record, as their defense seemed marginal at best until the playoffs (when they seemed to finally awaken).
In addition, Coach Bill spent the Draft largely doing what Buffalo did: filling holes in their rotten defense with youthful talent. Though the Patriots have a veteran offense that knows how to win, the combination of a fired up and focused Buffalo defense with a hungry offense that already got a taste of beating New England should be enough to secure another AFC East win before the Western New York faithful.
I'm not predicting a sweep of the season series necessarily, nor will it be a beatdown for the ages, but a win is, in the end, still a win no matter how close and this may be the second year that this matchup results in a game worth watching (who would have thought?).
Also, Buffalo has a two-week trip to the west coast following this game (more on that next article) and it would be best to leave town on a high (especially if I'm right about losing to the Chiefs). Maybe a reach, but a must have win early in the year. Record: 3-1
Four games down and, by my slightly biased count, only one loss to show for it so far. If Buffalo plans on pursuing their season past Week 17, though, they pretty much have to start this way (especially with so much of their away time coming in the first nine games, during which they are home only three times, two of which are already played to this point).
It's not impossible for them to find success if they don't start out 3-1, but this would make things a whole lot easier on fans, even if they let a 5-2 start last year result in a 6-10 stinker by the end.
Laugh if you will, quit reading to this point if you must, but is it really that unlikely to think the Bills could be sharing the lead for first in the AFC East by Week 4? They did last year and they weren't nearly as good on paper as they are in 2012.
More to come soon... If you're still with me that is. Isn't guessing wonderful?