5 Games the Bills Have to Win to Make the Playoffs in 2012
OK. I agree the title here is a bit of misnomer. Of course, the Buffalo Bills will probably have to win at least 10 games in a tight AFC to make the playoffs.
It's hard to imagine that the Bills can win 10 games this year, especially considering it has taken them two seasons to win 10 games under head coach Chan Gailey.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's Jekyll-and-Hyde nature at the helm of the offense hasn't inspired many to pick the Bills winning more than a middling seven, eight or nine games, and in a league where that one position has so much influence over a team's success, it's hard to hate on the doubters.
Yet, after one of the most eventful offseasons in team history, in which they added two elite pass-rushers in Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, the Bills appear poised to play meaningful games into December, and perhaps, have a crack at a playoff spot.
There's another looming reason why this might be the year for the Bills to end their 13-year playoff drought, and it comes down to mojo, otherwise known as the league-wide parity in the NFL. Every year, at least one team, that finished fourth the previous year, wins one of the league's eight divisions. Any given Sunday? It's more like any given autumn. It's time to get superstitious Bills fans.
Here's a look at five games I think the Bills will have to win if they want to advance to the playoffs this year.
Week 3, at Cleveland
In order for the Bills to get over the hump and into the playoff promise land, they'll have to clean some of the skeletons out of their closet left by bitter and downright weird losses..
They'll also have to prove they're able to achieve the hallmark of good football teams by beating teams they're supposed to beat.
In Week 3 against their Lake Erie rival in Cleveland, the Bills will have the chance to do both.
What Bills fan can forget the December 2007 game in Cleveland in which the Bills were in the thick of a wild-card race with a 7-6 record until they came up against a beastly Jamal Lewis in the snow? Following 163 yards rushing, the Bills were handed an ugly 8-0 loss and finished the season with a losing record.
And what Bills fan who witnessed that wants to remember the 6-3 puntathon loss to Cleveland in the freakish early October wind and rain at Ralph Wilson Stadium? You know, the game where quarterback Derek Anderson and his two completions (with 17 attempts) for 23 yards outplayed the fading Trent Edwards?
And wasn't it the Monday night game in Buffalo in 2008 where Trent Edwards came out and threw three picks in the first quarter that successfully derailed not only the Bills' once-promising season, but Trent Edwards' once intact confidence?
Yeah, the Bills need to exorcise the demons and beat the Browns.
Week 4, New England at Home
If you ask most Bills fans which five games on the Bills schedule they'd have to win to make the playoffs, they'd invariably fill the quota with divisional matchups.
Realistically, the Bills will have to finish at least .500 or better within their division to have the chance to advance, and the Week 4 home game against the New England Patriots already shapes up to be a huge game.
The Bills overcame a huge psychological block in defeating the Patriots in 2011 for the first time in almost a decade, and they'll need to prove that 2011 wasn't just a case of Tom Brady having a bad day in Orchard Park.
Brady is aging, New England's run game is inconsistent and their defense has its share of question marks, but they're coming off another AFC championship and are squarely in the Bills' way as they look to make the jump from scrappy losers to contenders.
This game will be an early test for the Bills' revamped pass rush featuring their key offseason acquisitions at the defensive end position: Mario Williams and former-Patriot Mark Anderson. The $68 million-plus in guaranteed salary the Bills shelled out for both should result in a visible yield come Week 4.
Week 6, at Arizona
This game doesn't have the appearance of a must-win at first blush, after all, it's an out-of-conference game against what should be a lesser opponent. But there's a lot of reasons that the Cardinals, like the Bills' Week 14 opponent the St. Louis Rams, could be just the kind of team to leave nails on the Bills' road to the playoffs.
As I said about the Cleveland game, playoff teams need to beat average teams on the road, and this game already appears to be a trap game.
The challenge presented by this game is all about its placement on the schedule. The Bills will be coming off a Week 5 showdown in San Francisco with the suddenly formidable 49ers for their second West Coast game in as many weeks and still have to play one more home game against Tennessee before the bye in Week 8.
Whether they'll return to Buffalo in between Weeks 5 and 6 or not, you can count on the Bills to be road-weary and dinged up. And almost just as sure, you can count on the Cardinals to give the Bills a stiff challenge.
Week 11, Miami at Home
The Bills took a number of positive steps in 2011. They developed an identity on offense and showed their potential by beating New England and racing to a 5-2 start. Their roster suddenly appeared deeper and more talented, and they got significant contributions from their younger players.
But let their season be remembered ultimately for this: they lost twice to the Dolphins—a team that looked a lot like recent Bills teams with a question mark under center and chaos in the front office.
To make matters worse, those two games weren't even close. The Bills lost 35-8 in Miami in a game where Fred Jackson, Terrence McGee and Donald Jones were injured, and the Bills offense sputtered and failed to score a touchdown.
The home game played in Week 15 might have been an even worse loss. In the Kelly-Marino rivalry days, the Bills always used inclement late-season Buffalo weather to their advantage.
In this game, Reggie Bush looked like Rudolph as he racked up over 200 yards on the ground. The ten points the Bills scored in garbage time make the final score of 30-23 a little better than the beatdown it was.
If the Bills want to make the postseason, they'll have to do much better than 2011's 1-5 divisional mark, and they'll have to play strong against what should be the division's weakest team—the ever-transitioning Miami Dolphins.
Flex-scheduling potentials aside, this will be the Bills' only appearance in prime time. The Bills have been an absolute nightmare in the prime-time slot in recent years. See above about exorcising the demons.
Also, this game will come after a short rest on a Thursday. The Bills will have to prove they can contain Reggie Bush.
Week 15, Seattle at "Home" in Toronto
Last season, the Bills finally broke through and won a game on the world's ugliest playing surface outside of Boise, Idaho, for the first time in the four-year history of the strange entity that is the Bills Toronto Series.
An extension of the Series appears imminent as it enters its fifth year of lukewarm crowds, expensive tickets and tailgate party crackdowns.
I don't want to suggest that the Bills need to win here to guarantee an amenable extension, but the quality of the team in the years the agreement has lasted has been bad enough to embarrass even the most ardent of fans.
The Bills will need to win this game because, let's face it, it's hard to win a home game on the road in a foreign country on a CFL-grade playing surface in the dim lighting of the Rogers Centre.
And it could be even harder depending on what condition the Seattle Seahawks roll into Toronto in. Seattle has shown great ability under coach Pete Carroll to raise the level of its play on a game by game basis. Four months away from now, and this game already looks like a perfect trap.
Marshawn Lynch should be done serving whatever suspension Mr. Goodell decrees for Beast Mode's latest entry in the crime blotter, and you have to think he'll be looking to test the mettle of the Bills' defensive line.
This is a game the Bills will need down the stretch.