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The Buffalo Bills Could Make the Postseason in 2011

As my first act after the lifting of the 2011 NFL Lockout, I am going to talk about the Buffalo Bills making the playoffs.

No, I am quite seriously about to do that.

Chan Gailey’s first season in Buffalo saw him overtake a bad team and lead them to as rough a start as any team has had in at least five years, a start which made Gailey make a rare admission just two months into the season: that he had picked the wrong quarterback by choosing Trent Edwards over Ryan Fitzpatrick as a week one starter.  Edwards was released after three weeks.  Then, of course, there was the case of the team’s new 3-4 defense under recycled coordinator George Edwards, which lasted exactly six weeks before they scrapped the shiny new defensive scheme, ranked 32nd overall at the time, and went back to the drawing board.

You’d probably have had cause there in just the first six weeks to fire the entire Bills coaching staff and start from scratch on both sides of the ball.  But in the absence of what could have happened at that point, we can only comment on what did happen: for the last ten weeks of the 2010, the Buffalo Bills were a pretty darn good team who went a hard luck 4-6 against probably the most difficult “last 10” schedule in the league.  Ryan Fitzpatrick finished the season near the top of the league in touchdown passes per attempt (TD rate) and above the median in yards per attempt.

Still, for their troubles, the Bills were awarded with the last place schedule in 2011, and it was a pretty good year to get it, because it gave them the Titans and the Bengals, who both lost their quarterbacks for various reasons.  Not only that, but the travel schedule also ends up very favorable for them versus other AFC East teams.  The Patriots and Jets, for example, will head to Oakland and to Denver this season, at separate times.  The only time the Bills will have to cross more than one time zone comes late in the year against the Chargers, at which point it could already be apparent that they’re in it for the long haul.

The Bills have been a strong defense and special teams unit for years upon years, only departing from that last year under new leadership.  But in the time period of the most recent NFL offensive explosion: 2003-2009, the Bills had been bogged down by a lack of offense.  For the first time in eight years, the offense in 2010 looked to be an asset instead of a liability.  Buffalo is going to need to keep that momentum going into the 2011 season to have a realistic shot at contention, but assuming that Fitzpatrick’s gains were real and not imagined — whether they were a function of the unique Gailey offense isn’t relevant — the offense around him looks like a very good group.

So with expected defense/special teams regression, and perhaps the most optimistic expectation for their offense since Drew Bledsoe came aboard in 2002, the Buffalo Bills might end the season as the second best team in the AFC East.  Obviously, you have the Jets holding that position right now.  The Dolphins might have the best defense in all of football.  And the Patriots remain the Patriots.  But the Dolphins have failed to surround Chad Henne with enough dynamic weapons for him to improve his offensive numbers this year, and the Jets have question marks all over the field to settle in free agency…with not much salary cap space to work with.

The Bills have not done a good job drafting in the last five years, and that is something they will have to overcome to push for a playoff spot in 2011.  The roster is not overflowing with talent.  It never has been at any point in the recent past.  But the results on the point prevention side have always been there.  Buffalo may once again face a tough slate of defenses that depresses points (1/4 of their schedule played against the Jets and Dolphins), but they could also find themselves near the top of the AFC in scoring and total offense and no one would bat an eye at it.

The question is, and I’ll try to answer this question further in the Bills’ roster roundouts 2011 article, is why this new perception of being able to score added to the longstanding tradition of fundamental defense and explosive special teams isn’t going to result in a higher expectation of the Bills to win games in 2011.  I think, to an extent, there is still a perception out there that offensive totals can masquerade as “empty statistics” since the principals in the Bills offense aren’t big name talent.  Therefore, they might be able to put up stats, but they are stats that are “given” by the defense.  Such an approach may be intellectually dishonest, but it is perception nonetheless.

I’m not the biggest Ryan Fitzpatrick supporter, and perhaps Stevie Johnson gets a bit more credit than he deserves, but this team still has C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, and Lee Evans, and has well developed lineman on the interior that they spent high picks on in the 2009 draft, who have now matured.  With strong cover corners and a well-built defensive line, the Bills will only have to address in house players in free agency, and try to add some outside linebackers who can get after the passer.  That should streamline the free agency process, and help to make 2011 a continuation of the gains made in a “lost” 2010 season for the Buffalo Bills.  And despite problems I have with their recent draft history, the larger, more significant problems in the rest of the AFC East make the Bills a surprisingly good, if quiet, bet to finish in second place behind the Patriots.  And in a conference where the sixth seed hasn’t been nearly this wide open in years, that may make the most optimistic Bills fan giddy about a potential playoff run in 20-11.

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