Bills aim for playoffs in 2011: Season preview

Ryan Fitzpatrick, courtesy Buffalo Bills (Ryan250)

This may come as a surprise to NFL fans, but the Buffalo Bills expect to make the playoffs.

After finishing last season with a pitiful 4-12 record, including dropping eight straight to start the year, the Bills look to right the ship under second-year coach Chan Gailey and end their streak of missing the playoffs for 11 seasons in a row.

“I expect it, I think our players expect it,” said Gailey, of making the playoffs. “If you don’t expect it, something’s wrong with you. If you say ‘I hope we’re a little better than last year,’ I want you to get out.

“I expect to win every one of them, I expect to be undefeated.”

There are some reasons for Gailey’s optimistic view.

Ryan Fitzpatrick, the team’s starting quarterback and on-field leader once Trent Edwards was expelled early last year, threw for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in only 13 starts in 2010.

The team is banking on the 28-year old pivot to repeat, if not exceed, that performance, and the club’s success this season will largely hinge on whether he is able to deliver.

“Being the unquestioned starter going into the year, that’s a big deal for me. I’m really excited,” Fitzpatrick said, at the Wednesday press conference. “Right now there’s so much optimism and so much hope.

“We really think we have a good team, and we think we improved a lot from last year.”

Gailey’s pass-happy system also bodes well for a repeat performance from last season’s breakout star, wide receiver Stevie Johnson. The 2008 eighth-round pick out of Kentucky developed an instant chemistry with Fitzpatrick, and it certainly showed in his year end numbers: 82 receptions, 1073 yards, and 10 touchdowns.

Jackson needs big year

Fred Jackson, the team’s starting running back, is another guy who should have a big year under Gailey’s offence. The versatile back ran for 927 yards while also grabbing 31 catches for 215 yards, and paired along with second-year back C.J. Spiller, the Bills have a lot of options out of the backfield.

The team needs both backs to continue to pound the ball effectively into opposing defences in order to open up the passing game for Fitzpatrick to exploit.

However, much of the attack hinges on whether the offensive line can hold up, and a year after trading stalwart All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bills again enter the season with a bunch of question marks on the line.

As for the defence, the Bills can look forward to getting another solid year out of nose tackle Kyle Williams, who made the Pro Bowl last year on the strength of his 77 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

After that, however, things look bleak.

The team finished 24th in the NFL in total defence in 2010, and were dead last against the run. Although they picked up veteran linebackers Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison during the offseason, it is still largely a makeshift unit and didn’t get the dramatic overhaul it needed.

As far as special teams go, the Bills signed utility player Brad Smith to run the wildcat offence and handle kick return abilities, so the potential is certainly there to score points in unconventional ways.

In order to win games this season, Buffalo is going to need both the defence and special teams to surprise in a big way.

The Bills and their porous run defence head into Kansas City this weekend and go against 2010’s number one rushing team and one of the game’s most dangerous backs, Jamaal Charles.

If the Bills are to have any chance to win the game, they need the defence to stop the run while also getting quick points on the board from the offence.

“You have to get where you’re supposed to be, and you got to get there fast with [Charles],” Williams said. “If you don’t, he can cut it anywhere, he can run it anywhere, and if he gets a step, nobody’s going to catch him.”

Buffalo opens this Sunday in Kansas City against the Chiefs.