Last four weeks of the season now and the Bills are looking fine at 8-4, at least on paper (potentially).
As we now get to that last stretch of the year, the all important march to the postseason, we'll discuss what the Bills have to do to ensure their first playoff bid since before the turn of the century, including yet another trip to the Great White North for a home game and a finish that sees two straight AFC East opponents.
If this is your first visit to this series, take the time to read the first three chapters here (PART 1
... PART 2
... PART 3
), but if you're already caught up, let's get right into it.
Week 14: December 9, 2012 - St Louis Rams at Buffalo Bills
Last meeting: 9/28/08 - Bills 31 - Rams 14
There's a lot of new things going on in St Louis as they try to put some distance between 2012 and their dreadful 2-14 showing last season, starting with new head coach Jeff Fisher now running the show (Steve Spagnuolo was fired after a 2-14 season? Color me shocked).
As the coach of the Titans for 16 seasons (all the way back to when they were still the Oilers), Fisher brings some clout to the lowly joke that is the Rams, with a career win-loss mark of 142-120 (plus 5-6 in the postseason). That includes a trip to the Super Bowl in 1999 after pulling off a questionable "miracle" against Buffalo in the Wild Card round, but the Titans fell just short as Kevin Dyson was tackled a yard short of the game-winning score as time expired (...they got what they deserved). The team Fisher lost to? Yep, the Rams. Irony.
Though Gregg Williams was slated to take over the defense this season with the Rams (a former Bills head coach), he's taking a forced break from football to think about why it is not okay to lie about paying to injure people, so coach Fisher is bringing his vast coordinator background to the defense... which needs a lot of attention after last season.
Though ranked 7th in pass yards allowed (206.3), they were in the bottom half in all other defensive rankings, including giving up 152.1 yards per game to runners, ranked 31st in 2011.
Though first-round pick Michael Brockers out of LSU should pair nicely with sack machine Chris Long (who had a career high 13 last season, but is now on his fourth defensive scheme in five years) and the Rams added two good corners to their backfield (Tumaine Johnson and superfreak Janoris Jenkins from North Alabama by way of Florida), it's their offense where the Rams' problems truly come to light.
Without Steven Jackson and his fifth 1000+ yard season, there would have been no offense in St Louis. They were 32nd in points scored with a lowly 12.1/game average and the passing game was just non-existent with QB Sam Bradford riding an injury-riddled sophomore season to the land of No Options (just 6 TDs, 6 INTs in 10 games last year, after a 3,512 yds, 18 TD, 15 INT first season that won him Offensive Rookie of the Year).
Brandon Lloyd helped after being acquired Week 4, but he's with the Patriots now, so that makes Jackson and his 42 receptions the most prolific option from last year's roster. St Louis tried to fix that with a Draft Day trade to grab Appalachian State's Brian Quick, who may soon become the top receiver for the Rams (they hope), but he is currently one of nine receivers on the Rams with four or less years experience (six have under two years in the NFL), so the experience and maturity won't be coming from a veteran squad around him.
For Buffalo to take this game, they simply have to contain Steven Jackson, hold against the Rams' frontline of defense, and not make any big mistakes on offense (little ones should be fixable). Sure, it's a bit simplistic sounding, but there aren't a whole lot of wrinkles to this Rams team that need to be addressed otherwise.
Bradford will likely rebound after his injured slump and Jackson is still a top ten running back, but the young QB still hasn't looked that scary in his two seasons and Steven's numbers have been on a steady decline as he heads into his ninth season (1,416 yds in 2009,1,241 in 2010, 1,145 in 2011,with just seven or less TDs each season since 2007).
With the Bills' front seven likely to shred the Rams' offensive protection (what protection?), the Bills' defensive backfield should have no problem blanketing the young receivers, taking them out of the equation and resulting in a St Louis score that should be in keeping with their average from last season.
In front of a home crowd at the Ralph during a December run that may lead to the playoffs, this game's a gimme and should be gotten. If Fitzpatrick and the offense can manage a couple of quick scores early, look for a heavy dose of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller in the second half, as the Rams defense isn't quite there yet and should still be susceptible to the run. Record 9-4
Week 15: December 16, 2012 - Seattle Seahawks vs. Buffalo Bills (in Toronto, CA)
Last meeting: 9/7/08 - Bills 34-Seahawks 10
This one's the only game down the stretch that is truly a coin toss for Buffalo and represents the real difference between 10-6 and 11-5.
Last season, I'd have given the Bills an edge in this matchup, Canada game or not, but there's just something about Seattle this year, they're not quite as far off as people might have been led to believe.
Last year, the Seahawks finished 7-9 for the second straight time, but, due to San Francisco's sudden reanimation, Seattle was unable to secure the playoff spot that a sub-.500 record got them in 2010.
However, regardless of two straight losing records, regardless of having one of the worst offenses in the NFL last season, regardless of being so far to the northwest that most don't even remember they're there half the time; regardless, the Seahawks are much improved and should be a winning team in 2012.
First, there's former Buffalo back Marshawn Lynch, who may have played the best season of his career in 2011, getting 1,204 yards on 285 rushes for 12 TDs (as well as 212 yds and a score receiving), giving Seattle the only offense they had all season (though it was only enough to rank their rushing game 21st for the year).
This will be Lynch's first trip back to Buffalo since being traded for draft picks in 2010 and if last season was any indication, Skittles will be gunning for his fourth 1000+ yard season and his violent, downhill running style could spell a long day for the Buffalo defense (for having such a light schedule, the Bills sure have to face a lot of top rushers).
Add to that the rebuilt shoulders of receiver Sidney Rice, who will be looking for his first healthy and stat-heavy season since 2009's 1,312 yards and eight TDs in Minnesota, especially in pairing with last year's rookie standout Doug Baldwin.
Then, up it with the addition of Green Bay backup Matt Flynn and rookie Russell Wilson from Wisconsin, giving the Seahawks several viable options at quarterback to choose from (the first time I can remember ever saying that about the Seattle).
Put all those factors together and the only hole in the offense is their protection up front, meaning they could be powerful if Flynn or even Tarvaris Jackson manages to live up to billing (if not, Wilson should be ready in a season or two) and should be better than their 2011 rankings (23rd in points and 28th in yards).
Also, Seattle's defense should be even better than its top ten performance last season with the additions of pass-rushing beast Bruce Irvin and explosive linebacker Bobby Wagner in the Draft, you've got to think they'll be on Fitzpatrick like snow on Buffalo in their meeting.
The 2011 Seahawks were fourth in INTs with 22 and sixth in pass deflections, so the backfield may be the most worrisome thing about the defense. What may be worse, a pure pass rusher like West Virginia's Irvin should pair well with DE Chris Clemons to raise Seattle's slightly low sack total (33, ranked 19th) and spell even more trouble for the Buffalo passing game.
Lastly, there's the Bills' 1-3 record in Toronto since 2008, when they started playing an annual home game north of the border. Sure, last season saw them pitch a shutout against the Redskins (their last good game of 2011, really), but a random win doesn't restore confidence in Buffalo's abilities to play in Canada with the same comfort as a home game (maybe if the crowd continues to get into it like last season... maybe...).
This one could be a loss if Seattle is good as they seem to be for this year, but if Buffalo's still largely healthy to this point, or if the Seahawks can't settle on a quarterback, or if Lynch comes down with another season of nagging injury (one of the reason's the Bills parted ways with him); well, there's so many variables to this one that it truly marks the difference between a 10-win and an 11-win campaign in Western New York.
All things being equal, though, Seattle likely goes back to Washington with a win. Record 9-5
Week 16: December 23, 2012 - Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins
Last meeting: 11/15/12 - (predicted a win in part 3)
You'd think Buffalo would recover from their fumble in Toronto by winning the rest of the way, but I don't think Miami's a walk in the park next season.
Look, just because the Bills won their Thursday night contest off a short week last month, don't think they're guaranteed a sure victory here.
The Bills aren't going to win the AFC East, they aren't going to just power through teams all season; no, they're still a young team looking to finally end a playoff drought, not an NFL power with the inside track to the Super Bowl.
There will still be missteps next season (we're looking for 10-6, not 14-2), especially from a Miami team that leads Buffalo all-time 55-36-1, including a 17-game streak during the 70's that is still the longest in the NFL against one team (though the Bills have the edge in post-season wins at 3-1).
During the 1980's and 90s, the Bills-Dolphins rivalry really found its groove, annually anticipated by fans as rabidly as Ohio-Michigan in college.
With the arrivals of Jim Kelly and Dan Marino in the 1983 Draft (though Kelly opted for the USFL Generals until 1986) the contests really began to heat up and by the 1990s, they were trading punches like prize fighter twice a year, sometime more.
They met in the playoffs for the first time in 1990, met in the AFC Championship in 1992 (both were Buffalo wins), and soon fans and players alike found they had an intense, burning hatred of one another.
Miami's Brian Cox famously gave Buffalo fans the one finger salute in 1993. The Bills shot back by setting the modern day league record for rushing yards in a game the following year, racking up 341 yards against the Dolphins on the ground. It went like this the whole decade, two teams just trading punches in the center of the ring, though the overall edge goes to Buffalo 10-8 in the 90s (again, with another 3-1 in the playoffs).
However, by the midpoint of the last decade, the NFL finally saw the rivalry fade to near nothing. They failed to sell out a 2006 Miami game in Buffalo as the teams had by now ceded the top of the East to New England and New York, taking all the excitement with it.
Last season, Buffalo dropped both to Miami, in games void of much of the fire that so used to drive these matchups. Sad, sure, but fear not, as the pulse of these teams has started to beat a little stronger once more in this offseason.
The Bills are seeing the first real attention since bringing in Drew Bledsoe and Miami is starting to sort out its team, seemingly a year or so behind what Buffalo has done (...is doing).
There could be an AFC East shift in the near future with the slow decline we've been witnessing in the play of the flailing Jets and aging Bradys... I mean, Patriots. Would it surprise that many if the Dolphins and Bills started fighting for one and two again in the next few years, making these games mean something again?
In short, the 2012 season could mark the real renewal of this rivalry (as it may with New Engalnd and Buffalo) and to believe that the Bills or Dolphins can afford to just cakewalk through these games anymore is a disservice to the teams that fought before them.
If Miami has figured out it's quarterback carousel by the end of the year, then either Matt Moore or Ryan Tannehill could be doing some good stuff by Week 16 (it won't be Garrard), as could the reinvigorated Reggie Bush and the Miami defense, who was strong against the run in 2010 and improving against the pass.
After a trip as far north as possible the week prior, Buffalo here goes to the deepest south to face Miami, and though the Dolphins may not be in playoff contention, the fans will be getting excited for their Fins again and the raucous environment could very well result in the Dolphins taking this one.
Miami won both games last season, are 6-2 against the Bills since 2008, and just because Buffalo got one at home in front of a primetime crowd doesn't mean they're locked in on this one as well.
Miami's got potential (especially if Ochocinco can find his game and, thusly, Miami's pass game again), as does this rivalry again, so it wouldn't be a surprise if Buffalo heads into the last week of the season needing to win to get to 10-6 after losing this one in Florida. It also wouldn't surprise me if Dolphins-Bills matchups get more primetime recognition again in the next few seasons. Record 9-6
Week 17: December 30, 2012 - New York Jets at Buffalo Bills
Last Meeting: 9/9/12 - (predicted a win in part 1)
Tell me, Buffalo fans, what could be a nicer gift this holiday season than a Bills game the Sunday after Christmas with playoff implications on the line against a division rival? Who doesn't want to see the Bills ring in the New Year with their tickets punched for the Wild Card?
This one's a win, no doubt. As with my write up of the first game of the year against the Jets, it will be the Bills' passion that will carry the day for them here, as well as heavy dose of the inept team management that has so characterized the Jets offseason.
With OTAs finishing up this week, we've seen no marked progress in the game of Jets' franchise QB Mark Sanchez and have instead heard troubling words like "regression" and "decline" in connection with his play thus far. Meanwhile, Tim Tebow is getting more attention for religious appearances and his mouth than for his play on the field.
Yes, we know that he'll be in San Diego on Father's Day, but what we don't know is how good his throwing motion's looked this season, or even what position he'll play. What we do know is that Tim's outshining Sanchez so far, getting more press, more New York (New Jersey) love, and actually outperforming him under center (Tebow threw for 64.7% (11-17) and Sanchez for 37% (10-27) during passing drills thus far).
This doesn't bode well for Mark, who may be facing the Bills Week 1, but will likely just be another overpaid bench warmer come the end of the season.
However, just because Tebow will be the starter week 17 doesn't mean the Jets are the new Broncos. This group is ripe for a schism in the locker room, regardless of Rex's promise that the "team will get along". We already saw this last season, but most Jets fans just hoped it was the emotion of a disappointing season coming to an inglorious end and that their team would bounce back stronger for it.
Truth is, they probably won't, the problems will just get worse as the year rolls on, and we might end up with wholesale changes in the Jets come 2013 (starting with the QB and the coach).
Additionally, if it is Tebow, the Bills have already shown they had his number last season when they got their lone win of the last nine games against the Broncos.That was a 40-14 blowout in front of the Western New York faithful that saw Tebow have his worst NFL game to that point (13-29, 185 yards, TD, 3 INTs), including two picks returned for scores and get eaten up by Chris Kelsay on a three sack day.
The Jets will be in freefall at this point, with no one driving the boat and no shot at the playoffs, so unless Tebow gets touched by the hand of God or the Jets' defense plays up to and beyond their fullest potential, the tidal wave of Buffalo's first playoff season since 1999 will carry them to the shores of victory on this one. It will mark the end of the Bills' era of losing and may also start the dissolution of the Jets as we've known them (it could also be the start of the end for both Tebow and Sanchez in New York, especially if Ryan is fired). Final Record 10-6
All conjecture, of course, mixed with a dash of fan-ciful hope, but you can't help but wonder if this season might truly see the Bills and their fans shake off that mantle of mediocrity they've had to wear so many years now.
Hey, 10-6 might not even be enough to make the playoffs in 2012, what with a stacked AFC West, both Houston and Tennessee looking strong in the South, and a toss up between Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and maybe even the Bengals up north, but this is the first year that talks of playoffs in Buffalo didn't automatically come with a snicker and a snort.
The Bills are due. They've paid for their brushes with success in the nineties and have put their fans through such tortures that even Cubs fans sympathize with them. Enough curse talk, enough dwelling on wide rights and miracles of the past, enough losing in Buffalo; the time to regain your name in the NFL has come and fans in the Queen City should be buzzing in anticipation at even this early a stage (in truth, it started even earlier with the signing of Mario WIlliams).
Listen, there's no bias in saying I'm a Bills fan and will be for life. You can't grow up during the 80s and 90s and not be scarred into Bills slavery for life, but after so many years of bearing the brunt of endless insults and put downs, it feels like the storm may finally be relenting. Just once, I'd like to say to someone that I'm a Bills fan without the inevitable response of, "Oh, I'm sorry". Is it so much to ask?
10-6, playoffs, hope: these are the words that sum up the Bills' 2012 season for me, one that may just see them regain that confidence that was so lost after four straight Super Bowl losses. Would there be any greater present to the Buffalo fans this holiday season than to give them an extra week, maybe more, of football? It'd be a nice way to welcome in lucky '13, that's for sure.