This week, we’re taking a look at the New England Patriots’ competition in the AFC East. Check out the Miami Dolphins’ notebook from Tuesday and the New York Jets’ notebook from Wednesday. Let’s wrap up the division today with a look at the Buffalo Bills.
2008 finish: 7-9 (fourth in AFC East; missed playoffs)
Key additions: Wide receiver Terrell Owens, cornerback Drayton Florence, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running back Dominic Rhodes, center Geoff Hangartner, middle linebacker Pat Thomas
Key losses: Quarterback J.P. Losman, tight end Robert Royal, left tackle Jason Peters
Key draftees: Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin, Louisville center Eric Wood, Oregon cornerback Jairus Byrd, Southern Mississippi tight end Shawn Nelson
Why the Bills can threaten the Patriots: For more than a month last season, the Bills were among the best teams in the NFL, as they won their first four games and had a 5-1 record before completely face-planting. Injuries have really been an issue in Buffalo over the last two seasons, helping derail a pair of talented, hard-working squads.
The Bills were most effective defensively when they pressured quarterbacks, and that edge rush was obsolete when defensive end Aaron Schobel missed their last 11 games with a foot injury. They’re hoping Maybin, last season’s Big 10 leader with 12 sacks, can turn into the pass rusher they desperately need across the line from Schobel. If that is the case and the Bills can again wreak havoc in the backfield, their cornerbacks — an improved unit from 2008 — won’t be so exposed, which was another reason for last season’s demise.
And then there is T.O., the house-hunting reality-television star who also plays some wide receiver in his spare time. Focusing on the positives, Owens will at least open up some space across the field for wideout Lee Evans, who struggled last year when defenses overloaded him with double-teams. Evans has averaged 59 receptions over the last two seasons, while there were also some real inconsistencies with the quarterbacking situation. With Trent Edwards firmly in place as the starter, Owens on the opposite side, and Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish back in their roles as slot receivers, expect Evans to get closer to his 2006 marks of 82 receptions, 1,292 yards and eight touchdowns.
Why there might not be enough in Buffalo: To start, running back Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games of 2009 for his issues off the field. He’ll miss the road opener against the Patriots and home games against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints. He can only pray the Bills aren’t in a huge hole by the time he is allowed to return for a Week 4 road trip to Miami.
And after trading Peters to the Eagles, the Bills’ offensive line is in shambles. Granted, Peters was in Buffalo about a year too long and was hardly serviceable due to his displeasure with the team, but now the Bills are reshuffling their line and they still don’t know who will start at each guard position. Uncertainties along the offensive line can cripple the most talented of teams, so it could destroy any chance the Bills have of developing an offensive rhythm next season.
Which leads us, again, to Owens. Did you know last season was just the second time in his 13-year career that he started all 16 games? Yet, Owens only caught 69 passes in 2008, his fewest total since 1999 (outside of a suspension-plagued 2005 season in which Owens played just seven games). The 35-year-old wideout’s skills have depleted, and his focus has strayed even more. With questions surrounding the offensive line and how strong-minded Edwards can be with Owens in camp, it’s only a matter of time before Owens goes nuts, especially if the Bills fade out of the playoff picture.