Even though the Buffalo Bills have finished dead last in the AFC East for five straight seasons, Bills fans are going into the 2013 season with high confidence in their favorite team. Recently, some Bills fans have gone as far to predict that their team will go from worst to first in the division.
The Bills are ready to begin a new era, headlined by a new coaching staff under head coach Doug Marrone and new quarterbacks in first-round pick rookie EJ Manuel and veteran Kevin Kolb. After years of being one of the NFL’s bottom-feeding teams, the Bills are expected to be a team on the rise.
The New England Patriots have been very far on the other end of the spectrum since the turn of the century. The Patriots have won the division in 10 of the last 12 NFL seasons, and have won three Super Bowl championships in five Super Bowl appearances during that span.
Some cracks in the Patriots have started to show this offseason, however, which has many wondering whether their reign of dominance could come to an end in 2013. Most significantly, there are some serious concerns about the passing offense that has been the Patriots’ backbone throughout their championship era.
While Tom Brady continues to be one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, the team has a serious lack of proven receivers. The Patriots have one of the NFL’s best tight ends in Rob Gronkowski, but his status for the start of the 2013 season is in jeopardy after offseason back surgery. Their other star tight end, Aaron Hernandez, was released by the team last week and is in jail after being charged with murder.
All of this has many Bills fans wondering if the Bills could truly turn the tables on the division and win the AFC East this season. We want you to join the debate and comment below, but first, three members of BBD’s staff have taken different sides of the debate.
Is the door truly open for the Bills to win? Glenn Gifford discusses that possibility. On Page 2, Dan Hope explains why the Patriots are still the AFC East’s team to beat, while Eric Samulski explains why the Bills’ success this season may not be defined by the Patriots at all.
Why Buffalo Could Win — BBD Staff Writer: Glenn Gifford
Shortly after the acquisition of free-agent defensive end Mario Williams last season, many NFL analysts started to flirt with the idea of the Buffalo Bills being an improved team that could contend for a 2012 playoff spot. As it turned out, the Bills lost some close games and the defense did not live up to expectations.
Buffalo was again mired in another sub-.500 year and was once again picking near the top of the draft. Nonetheless, were the expectations of a playoff appearance for the Bills that far out of line?
While some may feel that Buffalo is fully in rebuilding mode, I am of the opinion that Buffalo is not that far off from winning the AFC East. The Bills have improved themselves from last year on a variety of fronts. This improvement along with a slight decline in talent over in New England could signal the beginning of the long awaited shift in power in the AFC East. Let’s have a look and see where the Bills have improved.
Coaching: With so much emphasis on talent in the NFL sometimes the role of the coach gets overshadowed. I feel that Doug Marrone will be an improvement over Chan Gailey. While he is not an NFL proven head coach yet, I am optimistic that his experience with Sean Payton in New Orleans and the response he has received from his players in Buffalo speak to his abilities.
Defensively, the Bills should be much improved under Mike Pettine. His multiple-look defenses which will put a greater emphasis on pressuring the quarterback is a recipe for success. Offensively, new coordinator Nathaniel Hackett should look to exploit team speed by taking advantage of weapons like running back C.J. Spiller, and be less predictable with a quick pace to keep opposing defenses guessing.
Quarterback: Regardless of who the quarterback is at the start of the season, the Bills have improved. The Bills now have quarterbacks who can throw the ball down field with accuracy. The Bills also have quarterbacks who can throw the ball with enough velocity to complete routine passes. Because of the importance of the position, and the improvement that Buffalo has made with the additions of Manuel and Kolb, the Bills should see more consistent play.
Wide Receivers: What was once considered a weakness on the Bills offense has instantly changed to a position of strength after this year’s NFL draft. The Bills drafted two receivers in USC standout Robert Woods and Texas speedster Marquise Goodwin. Buffalo also added two talented undrafted free agent with high potential in Da’Rick Rogers and Brandon Kaufman. Combine these new additions with Steve Johnson and second year bullet TJ Graham and the Bills have a improved, young receiving corps.
Linebackers: The youth movement continues at the position of linebacker with the team’s second-round draft selection of linebacker Kiko Alonso, who is expected to make a big impact as a starter as a rookie. Second-year linebacker Nigel Bradham out of Florida State is also poised to have a nice year, while the Bills also added two outside linebackers in free-agent Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes, who they acquired from the Indianapolis Colts. These players all seem to fit into the system that Pettine wants to run.
Let’s be clear. New England is New England. As long as Bill Belichick is the coach of the Patriots and Tom Brady is their quarterback, they are going to be the team to beat in the AFC East. The Patriots have morphed over the years, their personnel changed but one thing that has remained consistent, their ability to win. Has this changed?
New England has been dealt a few blows this off season that may hinder their chances to remain atop the AFC East. It began with the departure of Wes Welker for Denver. Welker was a key component to the Patriot offense whose statistics speak for themselves. He was a third-down specialist who absolutely killed the Bills in a game in Buffalo last year.
The often injured and concussed former St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola has been crowned as Welker’s replacement. How long will Amendola last, and if he remains healthy, will he put up Welker-like numbers? I’m not sure that this change is a straight up push when it comes to talent and ability.
Another area of concern for the Patriots is the position of tight end. Aaron Hernandez is gone. While Rob Gronkowski had successful back surgery, his timetable for return will “depend on his progression through the rehabilitation program,” according to a statement from Gronkowski’s surgeon published by NFL.com’s Dan Hanzus.
Losing three key elements to your offense and replacing them with unfamiliar talent will, despite Tom Brady’s presence, be felt. Will it translate into a difference in wins and losses? Time will tell. But for the first time in years, fans of other teams in the AFC East have legitimate hope that things may be different, and that this could be the beginning of the end of the Patriots reign as champs.