The AFC East is a feast or famine division. The New England Patriots have won all but two division titles dating back to 2001 and are in a position in 2012 to continue dominating the division. The New York Jets may talk a good game, but they are a team that finished 8-8 last season, played like they were 6-10, and did not significantly (or insignificantly) improve in the off-season. And the Miami Dolphins are… well… the Dolphins. Their ownership and management are clinically brain dead, and while the team has some of the components to compete, they simply don’t have enough of them. Dolphins’ fans want to believe that their team is merely a player away from being a championship club, but the truth is that they are much further away.
And that brings us to the Buffalo Bills. What about the Bills? For all of the off-season news coming from Orchard Park, New York, is this team truly ready to compete? It is a little known fact that in the past ten seasons (dating back to 2002-2003), the Buffalo Bills are the only NFL team not to advance to the playoffs, last making it to the postseason in 1999. Thirty-one other teams have made it during that span, but not the Bills. The Bills still seem to be in recovery from the Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and his missing helmet, “wide left”, four straight Super Bowl losses era of 1990-1993, but this off-season they have seemed determined to make sure that their rehabilitation is complete.
The offense is peppered with outstanding talent, but much of their success boils down to injuries and the play of Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Will we see the Fitzpatrick from the first half of last season, who started out shredding defenses on his way to a 4-1 record, before injuries began decimating the team, or will we see the Fitzpatrick from the second half of the season? As the 2011 season went on, Fitzpatrick looked less confident and struggled as the Bills dropped seven straight games to send them crashing into a tie for last place in the division. The final game of the year seemed like an appropriate synopsis of the entire season; the Patriots spotted the Bills 21 first quarter points before scoring 14 points, 14 points, and 21 points in the final three quarters to emerge with a 49-21 blowout win over the Bills. So what will help make 2012 different than 2011?
A healthy Fred Jackson at running back would be a good start and a huge plus for the Bills, but Jackson is 31 years old and may have trouble coming back from last season’s injury. Vince Young and CJ Spiller are the back-ups at quarterback and running back. Spiller has the potential to be a solid back, but right now he is better as a platoon back (along with Tashard Choice) than a primary. To his credit, Young has yet to refer to the Bills as a “dream team,” so maybe that bodes well for their season. Young is capable, but if he is starting then there are bigger problems in Buffalo. Stevie Johnson promises to be a #1 receiving threat, as long as he can stop mimicking Plaxico Burress shooting himself during his touchdown celebrations. Seriously, Johnson is good, and is complemented by solid if unspectacular secondary receivers in David Nelson, Scott Chandler, and Donald Jones. Buffalo’s offensive line was excellent last season, ranking 5th in yards per carry and leading the league in sacks allowed, and all of its core players are returning for the 2012 campaign. On the whole, the Bills offense looks capable of putting up big points, and they appear to have better depth than in 2011.
The defense has been the talk of the off-season, and for good reason. The Bills’ move to a 4-3 defense will now be a successful one with Mario Williams terrorizing opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks. He will start opposite Chris Kelsay, but the Bills will use a rotation of players and added former Patriot Mark Anderson, who racked up 10 sacks in 2011. Some believe that Anderson was a one year contract wonder, but I tend to think that Anderson fit in well with the New England scheme and will find a similar comfort level in Buffalo. Marcell Darius and Kyle Williams will anchor the tackle spots and give Buffalo one of the best (if not the best) defensive lines in football. This group should be able to get consistent pressure with four players, freeing up the linebackers for coverage and run support. Nick Barnett heads up a linebacking corps that includes Kirk Morrison and Kelvin Sheppard, and they possess a decent but not outstanding secondary of Terrence McGee, Stephon Gilmore, Jairus Byrd and George Wilson. Still, this group will not need to be spectacular with the pressure that the front four is capable of generating. If the defensive line is neutralized however, opponents will find the ability to carve up the Bills’ coverage unit. Consistent pressure will be the key to this unit’s success. Rian Lindell and Brian Moorman provide an experienced and generally reliable kicking game. Chan Gailey seems to be an effective coach in the process of righting the ship, and Dave Wannstedt is the perfect person to run the team’s 4-3 defense.
The Bills benefit from both an easy schedule draw for the AFC East, and for finishing last in the division last season. In addition to the AFC South and NFC West, the Bills will play Cleveland and Kansas City outside of their division. This, along with their improvements on defense, mean the team is almost certain to do better than last season’s 6-10 campaign. Barring multiple serious injuries, this team is an easy selection to finally return to the playoffs. The fans in Buffalo have good reason to feel positive about the 2012 prospects for the Bills, as well as for the foreseeable future.