Can Buffalo really deliver on Whitner's guarantee? (Photo Source)
As the beginnings of the 2008 NFL season approach, Buffalo Bills fans are more hopeful than we have been in recent memory that the Bills - who have not made a playoff appearance since 1999 - can end their playoff drought. Citing a weak schedule and improvements made to personnel in the off-season, playoff predictions and double-digit winning records are predicted by fans on nearly a daily basis.
It ain't that easy, folks.
Let's put aside the players themselves for a moment - because at this point, making an attempt to gauge just how good each individual team can be based on their off-seasons alone is quite the difficult task. It's much simpler to focus on what we already know, and that's what happened last year. That easy schedule we reference so often? It's not even the easiest schedule in the AFC East, a division so top-heavy and mediocre that beyond New England, it's a virtual crapshoot. It's also important to consider the fact that because of the NFL's scheduling, Buffalo will only play two teams this season that are exclusive from the rest of their division. That's where Buffalo could be at a disadvantage.
Breaking down the schedules
Below are the winning percentages of all sixteen opponents for each of the four AFC East teams, based on 2007 record. Records were counted twice in the case of AFC East opponents; as each team plays the others twice, it only makes sense to count those records twice.
Clearly, this makes sense based on last year's standings: New England has the easiest schedule based on this system because they won the division; Buffalo finished second; and so on. That's logical. But it's also important to realize that all of these schedules are pretty easy.
All four AFC East teams will play fourteen common opponents in 2008: six games within the division; four games against all four teams from the AFC West; and four games against all four teams from the NFC West. That leaves two games for each team that are exclusive - depending on how each team finished in the standings, they'll play their equal from the AFC North and the AFC South. Here are the exclusive matchups:
New England (#1) - Pittsburgh (10-6), Indianapolis (13-3)
Buffalo (#2) - Cleveland (10-6), Jacksonville (11-5)
NY Jets (#3) - Cincinnati (7-9), Tennessee (10-6)
Miami (#4) - Baltimore (5-11), Houston (8-8)
In terms of mutually exclusive opponents, Buffalo may actually have the toughest road of any of its division rivals. Cleveland may be poised to overtake Pittsburgh for the division crown this season, and Jacksonville has the talent to finally surpass the Colts as well. The Bills could very well end up playing the division winners from both the AFC North and AFC South.
Keeping Things Realistic
It's important to understand that, even playing in the weak AFC East, the Bills have a brutal uphill climb if they're going to make the playoffs. They'll have to overcome youth on the field, and they'll have to overcome arguably the most difficult schedule within the division. They've got a fight on their hands just to finish second in the division.
It seems highly likely at this point that they'll do that. The Bills swept both the Jets and the Dolphins last season, and while both of those teams have made significant improvements in the off-season, the Bills still seem ahead of them - if only slightly - at this point. Even if they do finish there again, they'll be fighting some excellent teams for playoff spots. At this point, there are four teams that potentially stand in their way, and more can certainly be added to the list: Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. At least two of those teams will be going to the playoffs as likely division winners. There are only two wild card spots in the AFC; the remaining two teams on that list are considered the most serious wild card contenders at this point.
Don't forget about teams like Tennessee (who made the playoffs last season), Houston, and Denver, either. Those are teams who are likely to be right in the same area as Buffalo, pushing for wild card spots.
It's the end of the off-season, with training camp just around the corner. Optimism is high. It's important to feel good about our favorite team - and by and large, I do. This is the most talented Buffalo Bills team, on paper, that I've seen in quite some time. But playoff predictions from the fan base are premature. This team is on the right track. But a healthy dose of reality dictates that there is still a lot of ground to cover for this team before the playoffs become a reality. Let's just hope that they can cover that ground in one season.