That unfamiliar sight on the shores of Lake Erie right now is swagger. It has been a long time since Bills’ fans have had any reason for confidence or hope — probably since the days of Jim Kelly. Though consecutive trips to the Super Bowl aren’t likely to happen again, this is a team that has legitimate wild card potential.
Of course, there have been glimpses of hope in the past. The Bills have been touted as potential threats in the past from time to time, but they have been remarkably good at finding unique and painful ways to disappoint.
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The difference this year lies with just one man — Mario Williams. The former No. 1 pick was the hottest defensive free agent in several years. Not only did he stun the world by choosing Buffalo, but he did so without even visiting anyone else. That’s a ringing endorsement — a clear sense that there are some good things going on within the organization. It has been so long since that has been true that people had quit even bothering to look until Williams opened our eyes.
Confidence, of course, doesn’t do anything once the game starts. The Eagles were as confident as any team can be heading into last season and they floundered and didn’t even make the playoffs. For a team with no recent franchise memory of success it could be hard to deal with the pressure they face. On the other hand, they have one huge advantage — they have been so underwhelming for so long that it’s not too tough to show improvement.
How you feel about this team when they have the ball depends on how you feel about Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Halfway through the season last year the quarterback was playing as well as anyone. The team had such confidence in him that they inked him to an expensive seven-year contract at that point.
And then the wheels fell off.
He was mostly terrible in his last nine games, and he salvaged just one win over the stretch. He has unquestionable skill, but the mental game is clearly a concern.
If he can get back on track then he is definitely good enough to lead this squad to the playoffs. If he struggles like he did late last year, though, then Buffalo is on a fast track to being, well, Buffalo.
Vince Young has been added as a potential backup, but if that gives you any faith at all then you are clearly seeing something in him that I’m not.
The biggest assets Fitzpatrick have going for him are a deep and solid running game, a line that is solid and is particularly good inside, and receiver Steve Johnson. Johnson has caught more than 1,000 yards worth of passes each of the last two years, and, with a surgically repaired groin and a fat new contract, he should be ready to shine again. He’ll need to, though, because behind him the depth at receiver that has been disastrous in recent years is still a potential concern.
It’s a whole new look up front for this squad. Williams is the highest-paid defensive player the league has ever seen, and he’ll line up with fellow new addition Mark Anderson to form what should be a formidable rush. Marcell Dareus will be asked to take a big step forward after his rookie year.
Dareus will also have to adjust to a new scheme as Dave Wannstedt has taken over as defensive coordinator and is moving to a 4-3. George Edwards was quite possibly the worst defensive coordinator in the league last year, so any change would be positive, and we certainly know Wannstedt can run a defense — much better than he can run a Big East football team.
They were horrible in every aspect of defensive play last year so they have a long, long way to go. They have the tools to take big steps forward, though. I don’t expect them to be an elite unit this year, but this team would be dramatically improved if they even got average defensive play.
One area to watch on this team will be the secondary. There is all sorts of talent — Top 10 pick Stephon Gilmore and sophomore Aaron Williams at the corners, and excellent safeties Jairus Byrd and George Wilson. If they open the season playing strong then the team should be solid. If they are struggling, though, then it may be time to panic.
2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis
It usually comes down to how a team can play on the road, so that’s a good place to start here.
For the Bills the news could be worse. They start the season with a trip to the Jets. There will be a ridiculous Tebow-induced circus around that squad, but I have a hard time believing they are built to win. Later trips to Cleveland, Arizona, Indianapolis and Miami have to be considered winnable as well.
Houston will be a tough opponent, but Williams will have both insights into how to play the team and an intense desire to beat them. That leaves only San Francisco and New England as teams that they are far more likely to come out of with a loss than a win.
The home schedule is tougher to judge.
New England will obviously be tough — though they are the biggest reason Williams was paid the big bucks. The other seven opponents — the Chiefs, Titans, Dolphins, Jaguars, Rams, Seahawks and Jets — are all tough to read. All have at least somewhat of a shot at being strong, but they all could easily implode as well.
This is a manageable schedule, but it will be tough to really judge it effectively until halfway through the season.
2012 Buffalo Bills NFL Future Odds
Bovada has the Bills listed as the third choice to win the AFC East at +700. They are miles behind the Patriots at -350, and just behind the Jets at +600 — though the combination of the home market and the Tebow factor have clearly had an impact on the odds for the guys in green. They are the 10th choice to win the AFC at 25/1, and sit at 50/1 to win the Super Bowl.
In early action 5Dimes has them as 3.5-point underdogs in their season opener at the Jets. BetOnline opened the season win total at 6.5, and it has risen to 7.5 in the face of heavy “over” action. The over sits at -165 right now, so there is a decent chance the total will rise again.
2012 Buffalo Bills Predictions
I am bullish on the Bills. I like Fitzpatrick quite a bit, and think that the combination of the injury to Fred Jackson and the rib injury that became apparent after the season ended can be blamed for most of his performance issues late last year.
They should be able to move the ball and score points reasonably effectively. They also should be able to play significantly better defense than they did last year.
I don’t like the AFC East outside of the Patriots, so there are games to be won there, and the schedule certainly can’t be called unfavorable. All in all I think that it is possible to find 10 wins on the schedule, and I think 10 wins would get a wild card position.
I probably wouldn’t pick them to win a playoff game, but more than some people I do expect them to play one.
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