Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With Year 3 under head coach Chan Gailey and veteran player report day at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 24th and Sept. 9th.
Buffalo's playoff drought is lengthy. In fact it's the longest current streak in the NFL at 12 years. The litany of reasons for the club's inability to reach the postseason has been covered with one exception. Lost in all the coaching turnover, draft pick misses and revolving door situation at quarterback through most of the past dozen years has been how the team has fared in their own division.
Winning a division title is the ultimate key to the postseason. If an NFL club can win its division it removes any worry about tiebreakers and scoreboard watching the last couple of weeks of the regular season. A division title automatically punches a team's ticket to the postseason. Unfortunately for the Bills, Dolphins and Jets the New England Patriots have turned winning division titles into an art form.
Over the last 11 seasons New England has taken the AFC East crown nine times, including eight of the last nine. Their division record over the past nine years is 43-11. Buffalo's division record over that same span is 18-36.
The Bills last playoff berth in 1999 was thanks in large part to their 6-2 division record when Indianapolis was still in the AFC East. It represented more than half their win total (11) and was crucial in earning them an AFC Wild Card spot with the Colts taking the division with a 13-3 record.
Since the '99 season, Buffalo has posted just one winning division record. That came in 2007 when the Bills posted a 4-2 division mark, but finished 7-9 overall. The low water mark came the following year when the team did not post a single division victory going 0-6.
Despite all that has gone right in building the team back into a contender under GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, the team's performance within the division has yet to materialize. Everyone remembers Buffalo's big Week 3 victory over New England last season, but it was their only division win in 2011 as they went 0-5 the rest of the way in the AFC East. It was a carbon copy of their division record in 2010 (1-5) with their only AFC East victory coming against Miami.
"You can't win the division unless you've got a winning division record," said Gailey flatly. "And the goal is to win the division."
Gailey has said more than once that division games "count double" to emphasize the magnitude of those matchups. Despite New England's run of success in the AFC East, Gailey truly believes each new season presents a genuine opportunity to enact change in the division hierarchy.
"It's a new year every year," Gailey told Buffalobills.com. "The Jets have a new offensive coordinator. Miami has a new staff. I don't think New England turned over that much, but they lost their quarterbacks coach, who had a big impact on their play calling. They may change a little bit as well. So while we use history as a learning tool, we don't let it dictate anything that's going to happen this year."
With Miami trying to rebuild under new head coach Joe Philbin and the Jets looking to re-tool their offense and add youth to an aging defense, the timing might be right for Buffalo to post just their second winning division record in this century.
Armed with what looks like the best pass rushing front four in the division and widespread continuity on the offensive side of the ball, Buffalo doesn't seem to care that New England has made division crowns a habit. And that attitude starts with the team's personnel boss.
"I'll be honest with you I think we can be as good as we want to be," said Nix. "We've got good players, good coaches that work hard. I hear a lot of times, 'Well maybe we can be second and we can make a Wild Card.' I don't concede any of that and I don't concede anything to New England. I think we can win and our goal needs to be to win the division. Then you don't have to worry about whether you're going to be in (the playoffs) or not."