The Buffalo Bills had their ninth straight losing season last year and have the longest playoff drought in the NFL, most recently playing postseason football in 1999. Sportsbooks give Buffalo a 2014 wins total of 6.5 on NFL odds, with over and under at -110.
Buffalo surprised just about everyone by reaching for Florida State QB E.J. Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft, and then the Bills really had no choice but to throw Manuel to the wolves in Week 1. That pick looked terrific in the opener when Manuel completed 66.7 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and no interceptions as Buffalo nearly upset the Patriots. In typical rookie fashion, however, Manuel was up-and-down over the next four games, with Buffalo winning two of them. He got injured in Week 5 against Cleveland and wouldn't return until Week 10 against the Steelers. The Bills were 1-3 under Thaddeus Lewis and Jeff Tuel in that stretch. Manuel would start the next five games (Bills were 2-3) before another injury cost him the season's final two games. Buffalo finished 6-10 for a third straight season.
So what were the positives under first-year coach Doug Marrone? The running game behind C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson was one of the best in the NFL, with the Bills ranking No. 2 overall on the ground. Lewis also showed enough in that he could be a capable backup quarterback if Manuel goes down again. Receiver Robert Woods (40 catches, 587 yards, three TDs) had a nice rookie season. Meanwhile, the defense was very good against the pass, ranking No. 4 in the league. Linebacker Kiko Alonso was a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year (he finished second), leading the team with 159 tackles and four interceptions.
Key Offseason Moves
The Bills weren't hugely active in free agency. They lost one of their best defensive players in three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, whom the Saints made the highest-paid safety in the NFL at the time. Really he was the only major loss. Buffalo added Rams offensive lineman Chris Williams, traded for Bucs receiver Mike Williams, and beefed up the defense with Ravens cornerback Corey Graham (74 tackles, four INTs), Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes (86 tackles) and Giants linebacker Keith Rivers (45 tackles). That defense also will have a new coordinator. Mike Pettine was a surprise hire as Cleveland's head coach so the Bills replaced him with former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. He wasn't a good coach in Detroit but was a very good defensive coordinator before that with the Titans.
2014 Schedule (all times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sep. 7, at Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sep. 14, Miami, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sep. 21, San Diego, 1 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sep. 28, at Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, New England, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, at NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 9: BYE
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 9, Kansas City, 1 p.m.
Week 11: Thursday, Nov. 13, at Miami, 8:25 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, NY Jets, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at Denver, 4:05 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Oakland, 4:25 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at New England, 1 p.m.
Buffalo has a schedule that ranks as the 14th toughest in the NFL -- but easiest among the AFC East teams -- with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .500. It has six games against playoff teams.
The Bills are 6.5-point underdogs at sportsbooks for Week 1 at Chicago. The total is 49 on NFL odds. Buffalo has never won at the Bears, going 0-5. The teams last played 2010 in Toronto, a Chicago victory. If the Bills can pull the upset of the Bears, a 3-0 start isn't out of the question with the next two at home. The Bills were 4-4 at Ralph Wilson Stadium last season and could have won in all four defeats. Buffalo had Miami's number in 2013, sweeping the Dolphins. The Dolphins' visit to Buffalo in Week 16 was a dominant 19-0 performance in which the Buffalo defense allowed just 103 yards and had seven sacks.
Looking at the bright side of the pre-BYE portion of the schedule, the only two playoff teams on it, the Chargers and Patriots, visit Buffalo and there are no unusual start times, which can throw players' rhythms off. Buffalo fans no doubt remember the last time the team beat the Patriots at home: 2011 when the Bills rallied from a 21-0 hole for a 34-31 victory. Buffalo split with the Jets last year, blowing them out at home but losing 27-20 on the road.
The first four games out of the BYE appears to be the easiest stretch of the season. Three of the four at home, and while the Chiefs were a playoff team last year they faded big time down the stretch. Buffalo statistically dominated the visiting Chiefs in Week 9 but lost 23-13 because of two Kansas City defensive touchdowns. Not much is expected of the Browns again this year, although they beat Buffalo in Week 5 last year 37-24 on a Thursday night short turnaround game in Ohio.
The final quarter of the schedule is a monster other than the game with Oakland. Most times Buffalo has an advantage hosting teams in December, but the Packers won't have any troubles with potential wintry weather.
NFL free picks: 'Under' 6.5 wins on NFL odds at -110. The Bills have an enviable running back tandem and what should be a very solid defense. This is a quarterback league, however, and we still don't know what Buffalo has there.