The goal of reaching the postseason has become more pressing than ever as the Bills close in on a decade of playoff futility in 2009. Last season appeared as though it would be a breakthrough season with a weak strength of schedule coupled with a fast 5-1 start. However, a postseason berth still managed to elude them thanks mainly to an unfortunate second half slide.
Now armed with an infusion of new veteran talent and a draft class that appears ready to contribute early, can Buffalo finally vanquish their playoff demons and play football in late January?
Who they face
It has been feast or famine when it comes to the schedule Buffalo has to play. In 2007 the Bills were tied with the Oakland Raiders for the toughest slate in terms of opponents' winning percentage (.539). Last year it was the reverse, with Buffalo's list of opponents ranking 28th in terms of strength of schedule (.449).
In 2009 it's back to a difficult lineup as the Bills have the sixth-toughest schedule based on opponents' winning percentage from a year ago (.570). Buffalo faces just three opponents that finished under .500 last season in Cleveland (4-12), Jacksonville (5-11) and Kansas City (2-14).
Going up against a competitive NFC South in which no team finished under .500 last year, as well as a tough AFC South, the Bills will have their hands full.
Buffalo does have the benefit of facing five teams with new head coaches including one in their own division in the New York Jets. But only two of those teams saw complete staff overhauls (Clev., KC).
In large part the Bills will be facing teams with more offensive strengths. Buffalo squares off six times against five of the top 10 offenses from a season ago, including top ranked New Orleans. And that's not even counting Indianapolis. Five of the top 10 rushing offenses are also on Buffalo's schedule.
Defensively speaking the opponents appear on the surface to be a bit less daunting with just three top 10 defenses from a year ago on the docket (N.E. – twice, Tenn., T.B.).
Head coach Dick Jauron rarely concerns himself with when they play certain opponents and where with respect to the schedule.
"Strength of schedule has never been an issue with me," said Jauron. "Every team in the league can certainly beat you. They're capable of stepping up and beating you. You have to play well every single Sunday to have a chance, so you look at your team and improving it and go play the schedule the way it is. Our division is very tough. It just has been, and it makes it great to be in a very, very competitive division, and very difficult."
One statistic that Jauron does put stock in is points for and points against, and his team will be playing seven games against teams that finished in the top 10 in points scored and seven games against teams that finished in the top 10 in points allowed.
What they areOffensively is where the Bills appear most different. With the addition of Terrell Owens to the receiving attack, Dominic Rhodes providing valuable depth in the offensive backfield to fill the void left by Marshawn Lynch's three-game suspension, and an anticipated influx of youth on the offensive line, Buffalo appears to have made some important upgrades in terms of talent.
Coupled with an expected up tempo attack that should feature some no huddle, Buffalo stands a good chance of upping their point production, which has languished in the league's bottom third the past few years.
"This year there's no 'we're young' because they've got that experience (from last season) and that's going to benefit all of them, all the way from our quarterback down to all of our young guys," said offensive coordinator Turk Schonert. "Just that alone we're going to be a better football team than last year with the experience we gained."
Add in the dimension that Owens adds and the passing game should be more potent than it was in 2008 when it ranked 22nd in the league.
"I think he instantly makes this team a lot better," said Trent Edwards. "We were looking to find a guy of his caliber and his speed and his playmaking abilities and that's what we were able to get bringing him in here. And hopefully we can make those Bills fans cheer a little bit and put some points on the board."
Edwards however, must make the right decisions as he's been entrusted with a greater responsibility at the line of scrimmage pre-snap in terms of calling audibles. It will be up to him to get the ball to his playmakers, and his revamped offensive line to give him enough time to do so for this offense to truly take the next step.
Defensively, Buffalo shouldn't be all that different in terms of scheme, but there's a healthy 'to-do' list. The Bills must be stouter against the run after ranking 22nd last season, improve their pass rush following a 24-sack campaign in 2008 and log more takeaways after a franchise low 10 interceptions last year.
"I've said often times to my staff in the offseason that we need to add more playmakers to our defense," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "Well when the ball is in the air or on the turf can we get a person that creates turnovers for us to put us in a better position? Hopefully we can increase our production in sacks as well as turnovers."
With Aaron Schobel set to make a healthy return coupled with the drafting of pass rusher Aaron Maybin, Buffalo should have success in getting to the quarterback much like their first season under Dick Jauron when the defense tallied 40.5 sacks in 2006.
With young veterans like Leodis McKelvin and Paul Posluszny set to emerge as playmakers, Buffalo also should have more players capitalizing on takeaway opportunities.
As for Buffalo's top ranked special teams unit of a year ago, there are young second-year players and rookies anxious to contribute to Bobby April's premier unit. With veterans in the kicking game and wildly productive return men in place, the Bills should see no drop-off in this area.
What they need to doIn their three years under Dick Jauron, the Bills have experienced both slow and fast starts with neither proving beneficial come season's end when consistency was hard to come by.
What seems to be a bigger key for Buffalo than even starting fast is staying healthy. Injuries have struck the Bills hard in the season's first half each of the last two years. It robbed the team of its continuity and their play faltered.
With depth still very much a question mark in a handful of positions, due mainly to inexperience, the Bills absolutely must have luck on their side when it comes to injuries.
With respect to individuals, Trent Edwards has to take the next step in his development as a quarterback. That means consistent decision making to put his team in the best position to score and ultimately succeed.
"There's no doubt that he will improve," said Jauron of Edwards. "His recognition on the field, the more you do it the better off you are. In the National Football League you play 16 regular games, that's all. So in two years of playing, if you start every one of those at quarterback you've still only amassed 32 games of experience. It's not a lot.
"You get the practice time and it helps prepare you, but it is nothing like the real thing. Still the more times you're on that field, the more times you see things, the better off you are. He'll be better because he's not a guy that he doesn't have to re-learn it every day. He usually builds from day-to-day. I'm very optimistic about his ability which makes me optimistic about our team."
Hopefully Edwards improved play leads to more scoring, as Buffalo ranked just 23rd in that category a year ago.
"We had opportunities, but for whatever reason we didn't have the production," said Schonert. "We didn't get in the end zone as much in the second half of the season and as a result didn't win as many games."
But Buffalo appears poised to change all that, especially with Owens on board. Owens however, cautions that it's going to require a collective effort.
"I know Turk (Schonert) is going to throw the ball down the field. I feel very confident in the guys that we have in the rotation and that we have on the offensive side of the ball," he said. "I know I don't talk much about the defense, but those guys fly around. I'm looking for some big things from those guys and they're going to be instrumental in some of the things that we're doing on offense, so the defense is going to be key for us.
"I think to get us to the playoffs we just have to take it one game at a time. We're going to start that in New England on September the 14th and we're going to work our butts off to go up there and get a win."