You've heard it since the conclusion of April's NFL Draft. You'll continue to hear it throughout the summer, during training camp, and heading into the 2010 regular season. "The Buffalo Bills are destined for a last-place finish in the AFC East. The team spun its wheels in the off-season, and the rest of the division made moves that only widened the gap that Buffalo will eventually have to close if it ever hopes to compete for a playoff spot again."
That idea isn't without merit. Buffalo has finished last in the division for two straight seasons, having won just two of their last 12 divisional games. You don't need me to re-iterate the fact that the Bills have rather massive question marks at three of the game's most critical positions - quarterback, left tackle and the pass rush. And yes, the Patriots, Jets and Dolphins are three of the better-run franchises in the league.
But divisional games in the NFL are rarely that easy. Traditionally, divisional games are the toughest for even the league's best teams to win; the best of the NFL routinely lose games to their own division's cellar dweller.
The Bills will probably struggle to pile up wins in 2010. But there is absolutely no way that they become the doormats of the division - not in the sense that they'll be blown out every week, at least.
Let's take a look at the last five AFC East teams to finish last in the division. Those teams are:
2005 New York Jets (4-12, six games out of first place)
2006 Miami Dolphins (6-10, six games out of first place)
2007 Miami Dolphins (1-15, 15 games out of first place)
2008 Buffalo Bills (7-9, four games out of first place)
2009 Buffalo Bills (6-10, four games out of first place)
Yes, aside from 2008, the New England Patriots have won the division every other year in that five-year window.
All five of these teams were terrible, though those '07 Dolphins were a special kind of terrible all their own (the 2008 Detroit Lions aren't included in this exercise, for obvious reasons). But even considering those teams' poor finishes, all were at least semi-competitive in divisional games. Note: none of these five teams finished better than 2-4 in the division ('05 Jets, '09 Bills; '06 Dolphins were 1-5, and the '07 Dolphins and '08 Bills were 0-6). All found ways to compete despite their hardships.
Closeness of losses
One way to gauge just how terrible (or not so terrible) these five teams were is to gauge just how competitive the teams were in losses. As you can see, these teams had varying degrees of success in their divisional losses.
'05 Jets: 9.25-point deficit in four divisional losses
'08 Bills: 9.67-point deficit in six divisional losses
'09 Bills: 10.5-point deficit in four divisional losses
'06 Dolphins: 11.4-point deficit in five divisional losses
'07 Dolphins: 16.0-point deficit in six divisional losses
Two of those teams, including the '08 Bills, lost their games by an average of ten points or less. That's not a blowout loss by any teams. The '07 Dolphins stick out like a sore thumb, getting blown out of the division by an average of more than two touchdowns per game. They're the anomaly here, however; in many cases, these bad teams were competitive even in defeat.
Competing well on the road
Another way to measure the grit of these bad teams is to gauge how well they competed in-division on the road. For our purposes, we'll look at the number of games that each team played on the road in which they lost by fewer than 10 points. That's not exactly a close game, I understand, but it's also not akin to rolling over and dying, either.
3 road losses of 10 or fewer points: '08 Bills
2 road losses of 10 or fewer points: '05 Jets, '06 Dolphins, '09 Bills
1 road loss of 10 or fewer points: '07 Dolphins
Even that awful Dolphins team found a way to keep it close in one of their three divisional road games. The '08 Bills didn't win a single division game, but didn't lose a single divisional road game by more than 10 points, either (though a late touchdown in New England helped their cause slightly in an otherwise awful performance).
Three of these teams, the majority, found ways to stay competitive in two of their three road games. Even when the teams were bad, the games were close. This is the hallmark of NFL divisional play.
Defending home turf
No matter how bad your team is, you'd like to see them win at least half of their home games, and particularly play well at home against divisional opponents. None of these teams were effective in this department; only the '05 Jets won more than one home divisional game (going 2-1). The '06 Dolphins and '09 Bills both won one home divisional game each (with the Bills adding a road win to boot), and both the '07 Dolphins and '08 Bills didn't win any of their home divisional games.
Buffalo hasn't won consecutive division games at Ralph Wilson Stadium since an '06 Week 15 victory over Miami was followed up by an '07 Week 3 victory over the Jets. That inability to hold home-field advantage in the division is by far the most alarming aspect of Buffalo's struggles in the division.
One last measure of the mettle of these cellar-dwellers is how they fared outside the division.
'08 Bills: 7-3 non-divisional record
'06 Dolphins: 5-5
'09 Bills: 4-6
'05 Jets: 2-8
'07 Dolphins: 1-9
Those '08 Bills were a true anomaly, taking advantage of a weak schedule to sniff hopefully at the playoffs before an inability to win close divisional games nearly cost Dick Jauron his job a year before he actually lost it. Otherwise, the teams ranged from mediocre to awful against the rest of the league, which helps to gauge the level of play you'd expect in divisional games. In many cases, the expectations were met; in some, the expectations were exceeded. In the case of those '08 Bills, the disappointment was monumental.
But the point here is this: these were, by and large, five terrible football teams, but with the exception of the '07 Dolphins, all of those teams kept things interesting in AFC East play - and even those '07 Dolphins kept it close once or twice, as well. Unless you're of the opinion that the Bills are destined for an '07 Dolphins level of ineptitude, the chances are much more likely that the Bills will keep things interesting in divisional play this year, even if what you're hearing now about the widening gap in the division ends up being correct. We don't know where the '10 Bills will finish in the division, but they're probably not going to be blown out of the water - it'd take a very special set of circumstances for that to occur.