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How Buffalo managed a winless AFC East record in '08

Bills finished 0-6 against East in '08 (photo source)

In 2008, the Buffalo Bills went 7-3 against the ten teams they played that aren't members of the AFC East.  Which divisional opponent fared better than the Bills in that department?  The answer may surprise you - not a single team.  The Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots also finished 7-3 in non-division games, while the New York Jets were just 5-4.

How, then, did the Bills finish 7-9, two games back of the third-place Jets in the division?  That'll happen when you're 0-6 against your three chief rivals.

The painful fact of the matter is that in 2008, the Buffalo Bills had a playoff-caliber football team - when they weren't playing their most important games.  During those contests, the Bills were closer to resembling the Detroit Lions or the St. Louis Rams - the only other NFL teams to go winless in their respective divisions last season (and, not-so-ironically, owners of the top two selections in this past April's Draft).

Exactly how did the Bills manage to avoid picking up a win against the Dolphins, Pats and Jets?  It's not exactly rocket science, folks.

Typically, the team that scores the most points wins.
The Bills scored 26.5 points per game in their ten non-division games last season.  Their consistent offensive attack in those matchups helped them overcome a largely unspectacular defense that gave up over 21 points per game to some of the worst teams in the league.  Needless to say, those statistics changed dramatically in-division.

First, it's important to note that unlike in previous seasons, the Bills actually avoided getting blown out in their intra-division matchups last season.  Their widest margin of loss was just 13 points in the season finale against the Patriots.  At a bare minimum, the Bills had a fighter's chance in each of the six contests.

Defensively, the Bills were on par with the rest of their divisional opponents, giving up 21.8 points per game - as compared to the Dolphins' 19.5, the Pats' 20 and the Jets' 22.  The defense did enough to keep the Bills in each game.

It's the offense that did Buffalo in.  While the Dolphins (24.2 points per game), Patriots (24) and Jets (23) were putting up solid point totals, the Bills managed to score a paltry 12.2 points per game in their six losses.  Call me crazy, but if you're pumping out four field goals on average in your most critical games, you're probably not going anywhere - and that's exactly where the Bills went.

"Run and stop the run" is cliche for a reason - it works.
Much has been made about Buffalo's weak play along the offensive line against the division's excellent 3-4 defenses.  Those discussions are highly accurate, as the Bills were the worst team in division games running the ball.  It didn't stop there, however; Buffalo's run defense was shoddy as well.

The Bills ended up averaging 106.8 yards per game on the ground in division games - but only after rushing for 187 yards in New York (a 31-27 loss) and 161 yards in the finale to New England.  Through their first four games, the Bills were averaging a paltry 73.3 rushing yards, including a rather pathetic 30-yard outing in a home loss to the Jets.  Meanwhile, the only team to approach Buffalo's rushing mediocrity was the Dolphins, who averaged 104 rushing yards per game - a figure that dwindled to 81.6 when discounting their monstrous performance in New England when the 'Wildcat' was first introduced.  New England (123.5) and the Jets (116.2) had very little trouble running the ball in-division.

Meanwhile, the only team to surrender more rushing yards per game than Buffalo's 123.3 yards per game in-division was New England (124.5); the Jets were pretty bad in that department as well (114.7).  The Dolphins - by no mere coincidence the winners of the division - gave up 99.2 yards per game on the ground.

Here's another cliche - win the turnover battle.
There's no better cure for an ailing offensive attack than killer field position after a key turnover.  Unfortunately for Buffalo, the team severely lacked in this department as well.

Division-winning Miami picked up a whopping 15 turnovers and 13 sacks in just six games.  The Jets logged 10 turnovers and 19 sacks.  New England's defense showed its age by nabbing just six turnovers, but made up for it with a respectable 12 sacks.  Buffalo? Division lows - by leaps and bounds - with 5 forced turnovers and a measly 4 sacks.  In a word - ouch.

What's that? Your stomach's not doing backflips yet?  Here are two more stats for you: of the 44 sacks that the Dolphins, Patriots and Jets picked up, 18 of them (40.9%) were on Bills quarterbacks.  How about those 31 turnovers?  Yep - 16 (51.6%) were committed by Buffalo.

Have the Bills seen the light?
Let's see - can't score, can't run, can't stop the run, can't avoid shooting yourself in the foot (or forcing your opponent into mistakes).  That'll set some low expectations right there.  Quite simply, the Bills deserved to be winless against their division rivals.

To their credit, the Bills have at least made attempts to address some of these (very basic) issues this off-season.  In need of points offensively, the Bills signed WR Terrell Owens, a virtual lock to score 10 touchdowns per season throughout his career.  In order to run the ball more effectively, the Bills re-tooled the interior of their offensive line to deal with the division's massive nose tackles.  They drafted two players that they hope can aid the pass rush (DE Aaron Maybin) and provide a play-making presence (FS Jairus Byrd).

The changes have been made - by all four teams - and with a far tougher slate of games on each team's plate, intra-division games become all the more critical.  Buffalo lost six games to these teams last season because they struggled in the most basic football areas - scoring points, playing physically and making plays.  If they can't improve in those areas, the Bills could be staring a repeat of '08 in the face - and this time around, 7-3 out of the division is far less likely.