Welcome back to those who are still with me as we document how Buffalo can get to 10-6 and, perhaps, find themselves a Wild Card spot for the 2012 playoffs after a 12-year break.
I know we already may have lost some readers with the first part, where the Bills won three of their first four, including a big game at home against New England. b
But this is just a "what if" friends and readers, a fanciful stroll down Hopeful Lane; a best-case season, if you will.
Now, let's look into what to expect by the time Fitzpatrick and the Bills get to Week 5.
Buffalo will likely have some bumps and bruises by now, especially after their Week 4 battle against the dreaded dynasty that is the Patriots, but with depth at several positions after the Draft and free agency, the Queen City red and blue should be largely unaffected (barring major losses... like at quarterback or linebacker).
However, it's at this point in the season that the clouds start to roll in folks, where Buffalo will have to take their licks and come out still believing in the playoffs, still eyeing the prize with the same hope.
You see, whereas the Bills played a balanced two away and two at home the first four, things get a little bumpier now, starting with a two week road trip to visit the Golden Gate and the Arizona desert, followed by a quick stop at home to welcome the Music City Miracle workers before flying back west to Texas to face Super Mario's former team in Houston. Overall, Buffalo has six of their first nine games away and this is where it stands to get the ugliest, so buckle in Bills fans, these four aren't going to be pretty.
Week 5: October 7, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at San Francisco 49ers
Last meeting: 11/30/08 - Bills 3-49ers 10
Forget the last meeting, Bills fans should always think back to 1992 if they want to look at a great San Francisco/Buffalo matchup. These were two teams still very much at the top of their games, both annually in contention for the Super Bowl (Buffalo was coming off their second straight loss), and their week 2 meeting in the early 90s ended with a 34-31 Buffalo victory in a game that saw 1,086 yards of total offense.
Steve Young threw for 449 and Jim Kelly became the first quarterback in Bills history to throw for over 400 yards, going 22-33 for 403 yds, 3 TDs, INT... and a win.
That was then, though, and I just wanted to give you Bills fans a little lift before dropping a heavy bomb on you for the upcoming season. Let's face it, the 49ers were some muffed passes and an overtime fumble away from getting a shot at the Super Bowl last year, losing to the eventual champion Giants 20-17.
Though the San Francisco defense showed up that game (they were ranked first in run defense, second in points allowed, and fourth in yards allowed in 2011), the only receiver to bring his game that day was tight end gladiator Vernon Davis, who had 2 TD catches, but wasn't enough to make up for the lack of outside threat.
Alex Smith just had no options in the end, with only one catch by a receiver the whole game, to Michael Crabtree for 3 yards. The 49ers were a team "almost there" in 2011, with a top 10 rushing attack behind Frank Gore to pair with that defense, but such a glaring weakness at receiver they just couldn't get past it (even with a rejuvenated Smith throwing the ball).
That little oversight in the Bay Area, though, has been remedied with the addition of Mario Manningham from the Giants and the recently un-retired Randy Moss, which will be more than enough to push them over the "almost there" Buffalo Bills of 2012. San Francisco already has the makings of a Super Bowl season ahead of them and while the Bills have done wonders bringing in the makings of a contender they're not going to be taking down the elite of the NFC, not yet (not unless the Buffalo defense gels in a hurry and is as good as advertised).
Sure, Fitzpatrick and Smith could put up similar stats to each other, Gore and Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller could do the same damage, but there's just too much defense, desire, and experience on San Francisco for the Bills to fly out West and come away with a win. Maybe a good game, perhaps a great one, but one that will give Buffalo their second loss. Record 3-2.
Week 6: October 14, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at Arizona Cardinals
Last meeting: 10/05/08 - Bills 17-Cardinals 41
Long gone are the Kurt Warner days of plenty in Arizona and though the Cardinals managed to pull out of a 1-6 nosedive of a season to finish 8-8 (an improvement over 2010's 5-11 record), there was none of the buzz of their recent, yet already forgotten Super Bowl run in the desert.
Of course, Larry Fitzgerald played as advertised, making one-handed grabs and racking up 1,411 yards and 8 TDs, while running back Beanie Wells set career marks in yards (1,047) and TDs (10), that was the bulk of the feel goods for the red birds. Bringing in Philadelphia backup Kevin Kolb didn't solve their passer issues, as their new "franchise" quarterback just couldn't stay healthy and was often replaced by John Skelton. Kolb had great games against Carolina and Dallas, but played in just nine games total and looks to be competing with Skelton for the starting job in 2012 (even though Kolb just got a $7 million bonus).
This game against Buffalo should be an interesting one, though, as both teams seem to be on that bubble of teams that could sneak into the playoffs come January. With the addition of Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Fitzgerald got the player he asked for and will no longer have to be the only receiving threat, benefiting from the stretched field if Buffalo's DBs can't find ways to disrupt this dynamic duo.
Both Kolb and Skelton threw for 1,000+ yards, combining for 20 TDs and 22 INTs, but coach Ken Whisenhunt will need to clearly delineate his QB early to avoid controversy and hope that choice stays healthy throughout the year. However, the Bills' frontline is, on paper, infinitely better than the Cardinals' protection, which allowed 54 sacks in 2011.
Going strictly by the 2011 numbers here, Arizona will really have to play hard to take down Buffalo in 2012. Offensively and defensively, the Cardinals weren't ranked better than 17th in any major category and though Ole Miss' offensive tackle Bobby Massie was a steal in the 4th to bolster the protection, they didn't address any of their defensive needs in the pass rush.
Buffalo, however, did and should benefit greatly in this game with the added presence of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson alongside Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. There are some major matchup problems with Fitzgerald and Floyd (both 6'3", both around 220 pounds), but if Gilmore is as good as advertised and the Bills can stay healthy at safety (and corner... looking at you McGee), this should result in a win for Buffalo.
The Bills have a better running attack (Wells is still recovering from knee surgery anyway) and Fitzpatrick's increased protection should give him time to pick apart the Arizona defense, even with the addition of veteran cornerback William Gay. In the end, Buffalo's still a step ahead of the Cardinals, who need clarity at QB plus more protection and pass rush (sounds like Buffalo's 2011 season, huh?). Record: 4-2
Week 7: October 21, 2012 - Tennessee Titans at Buffalo Bills
Last meeting: 12/4/11 - Bills 17-Titans 23
Since 1999's Miracle, Buffalo has played Tennessee five times and have not a single win to show for it. They've been largely close games (only 2009's 17-41 drubbing was a double digit margin of victory), but the Bills just haven't been able to avenge that playoff loss and get past the hump that the Titans have presented for them.
Last year, Tennessee spent most of their season waiting for Chris Johnson to live up to his new paycheck and though they ended the year with the 31st ranked running attack, Johnson had finally started to show signs of his former self by the time the Buffalo game came around. Fresh off a 190-yard day against Tampa, Johnson put up 153 yds and 2 TDs against the 28th ranked rushing defense of Buffalo and was the deciding factor in the victory last December.
However, this game also proved that Buffalo's C.J. Spiller still had a pulse, as he rushed for a personal best 83 yards and a TD in his second game filling in for the broken Jackson. With the home crowd watching, Spiller finally seemed to find both his NFL footing and his place in the Buffalo offense, while Steve Johnson kept the game close-ish with a TD catch just under three minutes that proved to be too little, too late.
Meanwhile, Fitz threw for 288 yards and a TD (his 20th, first since Jim Kelly to hit that mark in consecutive seasons), but was asked to shoulder too much of the offense in the end, throwing 46 times in the game (his second highest attempt total of the season... one he equaled in two other games) and largely running from the Titans throughout the day (though he was sacked just once).
This season, these teams seem to be on equal footing, with minor holes and questions marks, but a Draft that addressed many of the problem areas. In comparison, the Titans had a better base to work with after a 9-7 2011 campaign that just missed a Wild Card, but with Jake Locker, not Matt Hasselbeck taking snaps this time against the Bills, that lack of interior protection seen last season (Buffalo actually got a sack in this game) should really begin to show against Buffalo's improved pass rush.
Adding Baylor's Kendall Wright to the mix, the Titans have a pretty decent receiving corps, but I'm just not sold on Locker yet and don't see Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 defense letting Johnson run loose like he did last season. Look for the Buffalo linebackers to figure heavily in this one, as Nick Barnett and company should be locked on Johnson all day.
In the end, the Buffalo offense should out-match the Titans, especially if Coach Gailey has found a rhythm to his one-two running back punch (Jackson and Spiller are both 100-yard backs) and can take some of the pressure off of Fitzpatrick, allowing him to show up the inferior, uncertain Locker. Buffalo has better protection, a running back duo at least equal to the Titans' star, and, should their defense play to their potential, a win going into the bye in front of the Western New York faithful (they'd like that). Record 5-2
Week 9: November 4, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at Houston Texans
Last meeting: 11/1/09 - Bills 10-Texans 31
Forget the last meeting, Houston didn't even have Arian Foster and the Bills were still throwing to Terrell Owens. Forget about how the Texans are fielding one of the top 5 teams in the AFC this season and are almost a lock to take their division in 2012. Forget about Buffalo coming off a bye at 5-2. Forget about every other storyline there is coming in to this game, because the only one you'll hear anything about during the Bills' bye week will be Mario Williams.
Returning to Reliant Stadium in his first season wearing another uniform, Williams will likely be out to prove to the Houston fans and the franchise that they not only let him go too soon, but that he was indeed worth the largest defensive contract in the NFL. Taking advantage of a largely new and green Titans offensive line (they lost RT Eric Winston and G Mike Brisiel), Super Mario should be an electrified wrecking ball in the backfield, disrupting both quarterback Matt Schaub and running back extraordinaire Arian Foster.
This should force the Texans to rely early on quick throws to a thin receiving roster that only added one name in the Draft (and a largely unknown one at that in Ohio State's DeVier Posey, who wasn't even projected in the top 100 of receivers).
That being said, the Bills can't expect Mario to win the whole game for them and though they may get some sacks and bust up some running plays, it won't be enough to derail Houston's playoff train. Keep in mind, the Texans will also be looking to prove they were right in releasing Mario, especially with the addition of Illinois DE/OLB Whitney Mercilus (pronounced "merciless", like his game), a one-year wonder who put up 57 tackles and 16 sacks after being relatively unknown his two years previous.
Yes, the Texans need help in protection and receiving, but they were more than good enough to go 10-6 last season and will be difficult to derail without a complete game from a really good team. Even if the Buffalo defense is as fired up as Mario is sure to be, the Texans were top 5 almost across the board defensively and will hold Buffalo to their lowest scoring day of the season so far.
The Texans' offense, meanwhile, will score enough to make this a potential blowout as the Bills' defense will likely be exhausted by the end of the game (I predict Buffalo will be doing some three-and-outs this day to help in this). Though they'll be a big Bills push to start, leading to some Buffalo sacks and perhaps some turnovers early, the Texans should weather that first half barrage relatively unharmed by the Buffalo offense. Chalk up a win for the Texans... Sorry Mario... Record 5-3
Okay, not too bad. Again, we're basing this on a relatively healthy Bills team, which is an assumption large enough to park a snow plow on. Mario Williams might not even be available come Week 9, but let's not think about that too much. What's worse, calling a win against the Titans and the Cardinals may seem solid enough when you look at the stats, but these games are too close to bet the bank on and the Bills could just as well be 5-5 at the end of this.
Let me say once more, Buffalo's first half is a beast for a team that is supposedly playing the 3rd weakest schedule by strength. To this point, they've already played five away games and will be heading to New England Week 10 for their sixth, but from then on there's hope in the Queen City, as well as five home games (if you count Toronto) during a time of year when Buffalo weather results in a definite home-field advantage, so if they can eke out 5-3 by this point, the road to the playoffs could very well be smooth sailing.
See you next week.