Too many times December games for the Bills have meant simply playing out the string. For the players it's meant trying to be a professional when there's not much but one's own pride on the line. This December things are different. Buffalo is part of a very crowded AFC playoff race entering the last four weeks of the regular season, but how have the Bills made it to this position despite an inordinate amount of adversity this season?
Just about every NFL team loses key players to injuries at some point in the year and the Bills certainly weren't immune. From Kiko Alonso to Fred Jackson to C.J. Spiller there were impact players out of Buffalo's lineup this season. But few NFL clubs go through an ownership change, a quarterback change in the first month of the season and a snowstorm that forces you to play one of your home games in another team's stadium. Through it all the Bills have persevered to keep themselves in playoff contention entering the final month of the season for the first time in 10 years.
So what's different? The players who have been on the roster long enough to bear witness to the changes had their theories.
It's a simple answer, but in the case of the Bills it's accurate. A lot of the team's high draft choices are quickly making up the core of the team. Over the last seven draft classes (2008-2014) all the first-round picks are still on the roster. There are a number of second, third and fourth-round picks that are contributing as well. Players like Aaron Williams, Nigel Bradham, Cordy Glenn, Da'Norris Searcy, Robert Woods and Preston Brown are all important pieces.
"We're probably a better team," said Eric Wood, a 2009 first-round pick. "When I say team, I don't necessarily just mean talent. As an offense, our schemes, how well we're playing defensively and how we're executing on special teams, that all contributes. I don't know that it's solely talent, but I would guess this is the most talented team I've been on since I've been here and that's probably why we're still in it."
Bills GM Doug Whaley and his personnel department have done well to augment the roster to make it more competitive. Key free agent additions and waiver claim players have deepened the pool of talent the last few years.
Scott Chandler and Kraig Urbik are two examples of waiver claims who man starting roles. Mario Williams headlines a list of free agent pickups, which also includes reliable contributors like Manny Lawson, Dan Carpenter, Brandon Spikes and Corey Graham.
And though trades are few and far between in the NFL, the acquisition and Jerry Hughes and Bryce Brown have proven astute over the last couple of years.
In year one under head coach Doug Marrone the defense was already a top 10 unit, but special teams and offense wasn't where they wanted to be in terms of performance and production. Fast forward to 2014 and special teams is markedly improved providing some of the best field position in the league this season. Buffalo's coverage units have been in the top 10 for most of the year and their kicking game has been reliable.
The offense has had its share of fits and starts, but has shown an ability to produce when they can effectively balance their run and pass games.
"Our defense has been the main thing carrying us, but when our special teams play like the way they've played the last couple of weeks, and when as an offense we've scored touchdowns in the red zone we've been pretty tough to beat," said Scott Chandler. "That's got to be our formula. We've got to play well as a team more often to make us even more successful."
When they were signed in the offseason as free agents it wasn't hard to see the common thread. Boobie Dixon, Corey Graham and Brandon Spikes had all played in important, high-pressure playoff games in their careers. Having that veteran playoff experience on the roster has helped provide the players that have not enjoyed that success with a road map on what it'll take to get there.
"Talking with the guys when I first got here and signed, that's exactly why they brought me here," said Dixon. "That's exactly what Doug (Whaley) and all those guys were telling me. You got big game experience, we've got a lot of young guys and we need leaders. I just felt the love and I was like, 'I'm with it, I want to do something great here.' That's exactly why I came."
Dixon has been a valuable complement in Buffalo's offensive backfield, while also playing an important role on special teams.
"I play hard and I work hard every day. I try to lead by example, but I like saying a little stuff to my teammates to get them going to get them motivated," said Dixon. "Just to let them know it's a big time game – embrace it."
With Spikes lining up the defense on the field and schooling up younger players like Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown the results have been obvious.
"Brandon Spikes has brought leadership and toughness to our group," said head coach Doug Marrone. "I'm happy with how we're playing at that position."
Corey Graham has been a calming influence in the Bills secondary and on special teams, serving as valuable counsel for younger players while also producing on the field.
Photos of Bills pass rushers sacking and pressuring opposing QBs during the 2014 season.
While the value of the veteran free agent additions is unquestioned, the players who have been on Buffalo's roster the last few years made an offseason commitment to one another. Simply put they were tired of losing and playing out the string at the end of the season year after year. They were going to put in whatever extra time, work and effort they could to make themselves better individually, as a unit or an entire squad to perform more consistently on the field.
Some of the more notable examples are Nigel Bradham and Da'Norris Searcy. Two players who stepped into full-time starting roles and to this point have excelled.
"It's probably the hunger," said Bradham when asked how the team has put itself in a position of playoff contention. "We just have to do it. It just has to be done. I feel like everybody in here is tired of not playing for something late in the year. I think that's the difference. We all want to play for something late in the year and keep our season going for as long as possible and that's what we're trying to do."
That combined with an improved mental toughness has been essential in Buffalo's ability to stay in pursuit of a playoff berth.
"We continue to scratch and claw," said Marcell Dareus. "We never count ourselves out. We've kept going at it and kept doing the best we can. Regardless of the downfalls or bad call here, bad call there, bad play, mistake on defense, whatever the outcome on special teams, we didn't let it get us down. We continue to go out there and do whatever we have to do to stay in the game."