The Buffalo Bills will be a playoff team in 2012.
That is not a typo. This is not a joke. It isn't some sick, twisted prank I'm playing on the poor souls in Buffalo that could really use some playoff football in their lives.
The fact of the matter is the Bills are a vastly improving team, so much so that they should be right in the thick of the wild card hunt this season, possibly even vying for the AFC East championship.
I'm not going to make such a bold prediction and not back it up with reasoning, so here are five reasons why I believe the Bills will be playing football in January this season.
In the first half of the 2011 NFL season, the Bills were on fire.
After their 23-0 shutout against the Redskins, they were sitting at 5-2 and were set up to cruise right into the playoffs, largely due to the efforts of offensive stars Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, Fitzpatrick cracked his ribs during the game against the Redskins, rendering him largely ineffective for the rest of the season.
Three weeks later against the Dolphins, Fred Jackson broke a bone in his lower right leg, ending what would have, and possibly still is, the best season of his career. Stevie Johnson played in all 16 games last year, but came into the season with a groin injury that only worsened as the season went on.
All three of those guys will be back in full health for the Bills this season, and barring more injuries, they should get the Bills offense back to playing like it was the first half of last season.
One of the biggest weaknesses for the Bills in recent years has been their subpar offensive line. This year, however, it looks to be one of their strengths.
The Bills have been picking up quality linemen in the draft the past few years, and have finally put together what looks to be a solid starting lineup.
Second-year tackle Chris Hairston looks to be the Week 1 starter on the left side, with second-round pick Cordy Glenn pushing him early on.
The reliable Andy Levitre will take his usual spot at left guard, where he's provided the Bills with solid play on an otherwise awful line for the past four years.
Former first-round pick Eric Wood will return from an injury again this year, hopefully putting an end to a string of injuries that have plagued his promising career thus far.
The competition for the right guard position should be one of the best training camp battles in Buffalo this year, with both Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart having starting-caliber talent, and the loser of the competition for left tackle also being a wild-card candidate to get some starts.
The veteran of the group is 29-year-old Erik Pears, who might be pushed by behemoth Sam Young for the right tackle spot. Fifth-round pick Zebrie Sanders also will provide quality depth, with the potential to start early on if the need arises.
The Bills offensive line will go into the 2012 season with not one projected starter over 30, as well as one of the deeper lines in the league. Sounds pretty good for a team whose line has been known as one of the worst in the league the past few years.
Despite taking an unfair amount of criticism for being unable to cover receivers long enough for the Bills' non-existent pass rush to reach the quarterback, the Bills decided that they needed to address their secondary in the draft this year.
They took South Carolina star Stephon Gilmore with the 10th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, adding another talented young kid in a secondary that is now loaded with great players. They now have four starting-caliber cornerbacks on their roster in Gilmore, Leodis Mckelvin, Terrence Mcgee and Aaron Williams, two of which have been drafted within the last two years.
Add in young prospects Justin Rogers and Ron Brooks, and the cornerback position is now overflowing with talent.
The Bills secondary isn't just set at cornerback, though. It also boasts one of the most underrated safety tandems in the league, with ball hawk Jairus Byrd and tackling machine George Wilson, both lining up deep for the Bills defense. Third safety Bryan Scott also contributes significantly for the Bills, showing that he is capable of doing everything from rushing the passer to picking off passes.
These guys now have a chip on their shoulder however, after taking a lot of undeserved flack last season, and will surely play with an intensity that should make a lot of teams regret trying to pass on them.
Do you want to hear a joke? The Bills' pass rush in 2011. They were tied for 30th in the NFL in sacks last year, bringing down the quarterback a measly 29 times and giving opposing signal-callers all day to throw the football.
That did not please Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix, who proceeded to promote linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator, change their scheme to a 4-3 to let loose all their talent on the defensive line and sign pass-rushing demons Mark Anderson and Mario Williams, effectively turning the Bills into one of the scariest pass-rushing teams in the league going into this season.
Going from 30th to first might seem far-fetched to some, but don't be surprised if the Bills lead the NFL in sacks in 2012.
After all the improvements the Bills made this offseason, you would think that analysts would be gushing about how Buffalo is going to be a team to watch out for in 2012.
That is not the case.
After everything Buffalo has done, it is still considered by many to be one of the least impressive teams in the league, and that just makes the Bills more dangerous. They will use the underdog role they find themselves in to their full advantage, flying under the radar and using that collective chip on their shoulders as extra motivation to give 110 percent every week.
The Bills will make the playoffs in 2012, and will do it with an attitude that comes from a team that has been beaten down and ridiculed for far too long.