The Buffalo Bills have had the longest stretch of not making the playoffs of any team in the NFL. Just to give an idea of how agonizing the last dozen years have been, the second-most recent play the Bills have had in a playoff game was the Music City Miracle. The Browns have made the playoffs during the last 12 years, the Lions finally broke their streak last year. The Bengals have been in the playoffs three times during this stretch. Listening to experts and reading football writers' predictions for this season, one strange name is showing up a lot in their playoff picks—Buffalo. Some big defensive offseason moves are most likely leading the charge, but do the Bills really have the ability to make the playoffs this year?
More than anything else, the NFL has morphed into a quarterbacks league. In the last nine years, the Super Bowl winners have been led by Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Roethlisberger, Brady, Rodgers and Brees. Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't that caliber of a quarterback; however, the Bills need to make baby steps and making the playoffs would be a great step. Last year, TJ Yates, Tim Tebow and Andy Dalton were three of the six AFC QBs in the playoffs. Either Fitzpatrick or Tarvaris Jackson are in that league.
Last year, the season started to crumble after the Washington game when it appeared Fitzpatrick suffered a rib injury. Fitzpatrick was never the same (he had one good game, against the Jets, after the injury) and the Bills went 1-8 after a 5-2 start.
Fitzpatrick's health is a big concern, because even if Tarvaris Jackson is an upgrade over Tyler Thigpen (eventually), for the Bills to be successful, Fitzpatrick has to play like he did in the beginning of last season for the Bills to score points and win games. Cincinnati averaged 21.5 points per game and made the playoffs; only the Steelers averaged less points and they only allowed a little more than 14 per game.
The Bills offense has to revolve around Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller. Jackson and Spiller add the element of making big plays both in the backfield and receiving, and ideally both of them will play a lot. A problem last year for Fitzpatrick was when the injuries began to pile up, Jackson included, he didn't have enough weapons to throw to. Spiller and Jackson are probably the most explosive players for the Bills and they each have to touch the ball at least 15 times per game.
Once again, the Bills make the maddening decision to limit themselves at receiver, with four receivers on the roster and Brad Smith (they do have two on the practice squad and since Bills receivers are just injured all the time, one of them will be on the team soon enough). I know that the Patriots have only four receivers on their roster; however, they also have Hernandez and Gronkowski. Scott Chandler is a nice asset at tight end, but he's not those two guys.
I'm just not sure that in a spread offense, having one excellent receiver, two undrafted guys in their third years and a rookie is enough firepower to compete with New England. If there is a major weakness on the Bills, it is probably at receiver.
For years a lot of experts have perceived their offensive line as a weakness, but it wasn't that much of a weakness last year, until injuries ravaged the line. Fitzpatrick was getting plenty of time, Jackson was getting holes to run through and they were allowing few sacks. Cordy Glenn is an interesting addition at left tackle, and health and Glenn's learning curve are going to be a big factor on Fitzpatrick staying healthy.
Buffalo upgraded the most on the defensive line, and if this defensive line gels, this defense looks way different. Last year was an interesting tale for the defense. Early in the season the Bills were winning games with the defense allowing massive amounts of yards but also creating a lot of turnovers. The turnovers went away, for the most part the yards actually went down, and the Bills were losing.
During their seven-game loss stretch last year, the defense didn't play well, but the offense was a bigger issue. The Bills scored 11,7,8,24,17,10 and 23 points during that stretch. Even with a better defense, most NFL teams lose most of those games.
Kyle Williams got injured early in the season last year, and that left Marcell Dareus in charge of the line. Now with big-dollar free agents, Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, on the edges, the line on paper looks really good. Pressure on the QB and a push forward would change how the back seven is perceived also because there were so few sacks last year (tied for third worst in the league) and the fifth highest rushing yards per attempt allowed. The success of the new defensive line will be the biggest factor on if they can create turnovers and keep scores to a manageable amount.
The Bills linebacker corps has been a weakness probably since Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley. The fact that for the last few years the Bills were employing a 3-4 defense, when in no way they had four quality linebackers in the scheme, showcased the insanity of the franchise who have played in one playoff game this century. It's still a weakness, but if the front four is vastly improved, the linebacker deficiencies will be covered for to some extent.
The Bills love drafting corners. It's an obsession they can't get enough of. This year, the Bills just fell into a draft position where nothing stood out as a bigger need (unless Michael Floyd become a star and then ouch). Aaron Williams last year and Stephon Gilmore this year are bigger 6' corners in the mix to cover guys like Gronkowski and Hernandez. The rules of the NFL 2012 make corners and safeties' jobs so much more difficult.
This Bills group, with George Wilson and Jairus Byrd at safety, needs to take advantage of the errand passes and errors created by the front four and make big plays like they did so much at the beginning of the 2011 season. Four hundred and fifty yards allowed is much more forgivable if the defense scores and creates multiple turnovers in the process.
When I looked at the schedule for the Bills, I strongly doubted their chances of making the playoffs. The stretch that looks challenging is Weeks 4-10, with New England, at San Fran, at Arizona, Tennessee, the bye week, at Houston and at New England. A West Coast trip, two games against the Patriots, six games against teams with winning records or .500 teams from last year and four road games. On paper it looks to be a very tough stretch of games, one that in recent history the Bills have faltered through. If the Bills struggle during these six games, the season could be pretty much over before their Thursday night game against Miami.
However, I then wrote down the opponents of the Bills this year, and my perception of their chances changed.
New England is always tough, but the Bills did beat them this year. Who knows what the Jets or Dolphins are going to look like this year? The Bills play the AFC South, with Houston and Tennessee as decent teams and an improved Indy and the London Jags. They also play the NFC West, historically the worst division in the NFC year after year. Their other AFC foes are Cleveland and Kansas City. How many playoff teams are in that group total? Three, maybe four.
Who a team plays is a huge factor in terms of teams that make the playoffs. The AFC South plays a really good NFC North. The AFC North does play a mediocre AFC West, but they also play the NFC East, which should be better this year. The AFC West plays the NFC South, and even if the South is down, the AFC West is far from a strong division. All of this points to a very good opportunity for an AFC East team to make the playoffs as a wild card.
The Jets play the Steelers and the Chargers. The Dolphins play the Raiders and the Bengals. None of the schedules are very difficult. However at this point, the Jets defense is going to have to play like the 85 Bears for them to have a chance to win a lot. Miami does have a new coach and a new rookie QB, so they are intriguing, I'm just unsure of what they will be.
The possibility of the Bills making it out of this group is real. Do I think this is the year the Bills finally make the playoffs?
Yes—just like Cubs fans believe in February that one year it will be their year. It has to happen at some point, right?
Maybe it's a moot point anyway as the Bills will finally make the playoffs as a wild card and lose 35-13 in the Wild Card Round to the Ravens. Then again, anything would be better than the Music City Miracle.