There is a hope surrounding the Buffalo Bills in 2012 that has not been felt for quite some time around Orchard Park, N.Y. Fans aren't getting too ahead of themselves, but the team has clearly improved in personnel since the rocky end to last season.
The Bills still have a lot to prove if they want to compete with the New England Patriots at the top of the AFC East mountain. The Patriots have owned the division for much of the last decade behind a steady dose of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, with little sign of letting go any time soon.
Buffalo GM Buddy Nix told the Toronto Sun that the Bills aren't afraid of the big, bad Patriots any longer, but they'll need a lot more than swagger to get by the Patriots in 2012. For the Bills to have a realistic shot at the division title, many things will have to fall into place at the right time.
Buffalo has been notorious in recent years for having an injury-plagued offensive line. Most NFL teams deal with having to change up the line due to injuries over the course of the season, but Buffalo has often been among the league leaders in this regard.
Only a year ago, guard Andy Levitre, one of the more unheralded players at the position, was forced to play three of the five positions on the line after injuries to Eric Wood and Demetress Bell. That fact in itself should show the that team's deficiencies to stay healthy have hampered the development of the young squad.
Injuries were equally as detrimental last season on the defensive line with Kyle Williams being placed on IR as well as oft-injured players Shawne Merriman and Torrell Troup. Coaches were forced to misuse players and play them out of position often in an effort to field a competitive team, to no avail.
If the Bills want a shot at the New England Patriots throne as AFC East champions, they'll need their lines to do their jobs for the full 16-game slate.
Aside from Peyton Manning, there was no bigger offseason signing than Mario Williams. The news was a shocking development to most with long-time knowledge of the league. Why would a former No. 1 pick want to sign in Buffalo, a city that some think could lose their franchise due to an aging owner and the lack of a plan for the team once he passes?
Money talks sure, but maybe, just maybe, players are seeing what the Bills have started to build in Western New York.
Williams will play a pivotal role in the success of the Bills this coming season. His contract is the richest for a defensive player in NFL history, and he will have to play up to the standards that come with that kind of honor.
Lucky for the former Houston Texan that he has plenty of help lining up next to him and won't be asked to take the defense on his back.
The other Williams, Kyle, is back and looking like he did during his Pro Bowl bid in 2010. He'll line up next to his new running mate, second year defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who is kicking inside after spending a portion of last season playing defensive end in George Edwards' 3-4 hybrid defense.
Dareus was a disruptive defensive tackle at Alabama and should pose problems along with Kyle Williams for opponents' interior lines.
Mark Anderson comes over from the Patriots after posting a double-digit sack campaign for the first time since his rookie year in 2006. Anderson was an under-the-radar move for the team and could prove as much a solution to the anemic pass rush as Mario Williams will.
The Bills have invested a lot of money into the re-shaping of their defensive line, and now it is their time to return the favor by wreaking havoc on AFC East quarterbacks.
The Buffalo Bills came out gunning in 2011, leading the NFL in three and four wide-receiver sets. Chan Gailey wanted to spread teams out, but defenses eventually caught on to what the Bills were doing.
Once the familiarity with the spread attack set in across the AFC, teams were able to expose the Bills' limited offensive weapons and force signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick to play outside of his skill set.
A vanilla offense in the preseason didn't shed on any light on how the Bills will approach their offense this season, but it better change to a more balanced one.
The Bills have two talented running backs at their disposal. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller both had career years in 2011 on limited touches, which has fans wondering what they could do with a bigger role carved out in Gailey's playbook.
Jackson is an above-average pass-blocker, but Spiller has supposedly also improved in this regard. If that is the case, Gailey has the opportunity to play both on the field at the same time in a four-wide set with one of the players lining up outside.
The Bills left themselves thin at receiver after cutting all the roster bubble players at the position. The team will roll with Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, David Nelson and T.J. Graham as the full-time players at the position with Brad Smith splitting time there also.
Buffalo doesn't have the worst receiving unit in the league, but the lack of a true No. 2 creates more questions than it does answers.
Buffalo will need to use Fitzpatrick for his strengths while also being aware of his weaknesses. Despite shelling out a huge contract to him last fall, the team needs to understand that they can't ride his arm to a divisional crown.
They'll need to figure out a way to get their running backs involved and keep defenses honest rather then be a telegraphing pass-first offense.
Every team needs a little bit of luck to have a successful season in the NFL. Injuries, calls and turnovers can all make or break a team in the long run of a four-month football season.
Buffalo hasn't had much luck during their 12-year playoff drought, but is this the year that the tide finally turns in that regard? That remains to be seen.
If the Bills want a chance to win the division in 2012 and make a run in the playoffs, they will need just about everything to go their way. The talent and the opportunities are there for it to happen. It is time for the team to put it all together and prove that the offseason hype was well deserved.