With a 4-2 start and an offense ranked third in the league in scoring and a defense at the top of the league in takeaways, the Buffalo Bills have a handful of legitimate Pro Bowl candidates to represent the AFC this season in Honolulu.
Pro Bowl voting opened earlier this week for fans to choose representatives for the AFC and NFC in Hawaii in late January.
Chan Gailey's offense has been the headliner for the Bills thus far this season. Buffalo ranks third in the league in scoring averaging 31.3 points per game. Running the offense is the AFC's third rated passer in Ryan Fitzpatrick (95.3), who also stands second in the conference in completion percentage (66.3%), touchdown passes (12) and fourth quarter passer rating (105.9). The Bills quarterback was already named the AFC Offensive Player of the Month in September.
"The way he's playing he's taking advantage of his opportunities, this is the first time he was able to come in and be named the starter," said Fred Jackson. "He's relishing that role. He's taking full advantage of making plays for his team, going in the right spots and I love playing with him."
Jackson himself is having not only a Pro Bowl type season, but perhaps an MVP campaign. The Bills feature back leads the AFC in total yards from scrimmage with 880, yards per carry (5.7), rushing touchdowns (6) and is tied for first in the conference in rushes of 20 yards or more. Jackson is the spark plug that has driven Buffalo's offense so far this season.
"I think you plug him in wherever you need him and he performs and makes the plays," said Gailey. "He can be a receiver. He can protect. He can run the football obviously. He is such a versatile football player. It really is easy to have him because he doesn't restrict you in any way. There are some people that restrict you. He restricts you in no way shape or form."
Stevie Johnson had a breakout season a year ago, and is trying to build on that impressive production this season. In six games Johnson is fourth in the AFC in receptions (33), fifth in touchdown catches (4) and tied for fifth in the conference with 10 of his 33 receptions coming on third down this season.
"He wants to be a great player," said Gailey. "He thinks he was good last year and his goal is to be great. We are all for that."
Buffalo's offensive line has also shown dramatic improvement in 2011. With Eric Wood shifting to center the Bills have done a better job in the run game where Buffalo ranks fourth in the league with 141 yards a game on the ground. They've also excelled in pass protection where they've surrendered a league-low seven sacks this season. Serving a multitude of roles has been left guard Andy Levitre. The third-year lineman has spent time at left tackle this season, and is also the team's backup center.
Defensively, Nick Barnett has been a welcome addition to the center of Buffalo's front seven. The only AFC linebacker with two or more interceptions on the season, including one which was returned for a touchdown, Barnett is fifth in the conference among inside linebackers with 48 tackles this season.
"He brought an edge, a little bit more of an edge to our team," said Gailey. "He brought great practice and meeting habits to our football team, plus he's talented. He's mentally tough and he's talented. He's been a great boost for our defense in my opinion."
Leading Buffalo in tackles this season is SS George Wilson with 57, which is also good for second in the AFC among defensive backs. Tied for second in the NFL with three interceptions, Wilson recorded all three in consecutive games (Weeks 3-5). Wilson is also tied for the team lead in pass breakups through the first six games.
"The thing about George is he works at his trade," said Gailey. "He tries to get better every time he walks into a film room or onto the field. He is a product of hard work and determination and being a smart football player."
Pro Bowl balloting will conclude on Monday, Dec. 19 following the conclusion of Monday Night Football. The teams will be announced at 7 pm (ET) Tuesday, Dec. 27 on a special NFL Total Access 2012 Pro Bowl Selection Show on NFL Network.
The 2012 Pro Bowl will be played on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012 and televised live on NBC at 7 pm (ET) from Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The AFC and NFC All-Star squads are based on the consensus votes of fans, players and coaches. Each group's vote counts one-third toward determining the 43-man rosters that represent the American Football Conference and National Football Conference in the Pro Bowl. NFL players and coaches will cast their votes on Dec. 21-22.