The Buffalo Bills currently own the longest NFL playoff drought, dating back to the 1999 season when they lost to the Tennessee Titans in an AFC wild-card game. Since then, the Bills have finished one season with a winning record and have finished last in the AFC East for the past six seasons. After a strong draft and free agent acquisitions, the Bills have solidified their roster, giving them a solid chance to end their playoff drought this season.
Here are five things the Bills must do this season to get back into the playoffs:
1) C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson must stay healthy and be the staple of the Bills’ offense. A strong running game is a young quarterback’s best friend. Just look at what it did for Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks last season. Spiller gives sophomore quarterback EJ Manuel a speedy back than can move the chains and is a reliable check-down receiver. Jackson will pound the ball up the middle, forcing opposing defenses to cover the middle of the field, which gives the option to throw outside to a versatile Sammy Watkins.
2) Sweep the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins in the division. Attack both young quarterbacks (assuming Geno Smith starts for the Jets) with an aggressive pass rush, forcing them to turn over the ball. Ideally, sweep the New England Patriots as well, but that may be an uphill battle facing a team with Tom Brady and Darrelle Revis.
3) Stop the run. Last year, the Bills had the fifth worst defense against the run, giving up an average of 128.5 yards per game. Free agent acquisition Brandon Spikes must be the lead run-stuffer. Last season, Spikes had the second-best tackle efficiency for linebackers in the NFL. He will need to continue this in order to stop some of the top running backs, like Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles.
4) Manuel must remain healthy and start in all 16 games. The Bills upgraded their offensive line in the 2014 NFL Draft, which will give the quarterback better protection. Manuel must also know when to slide or go out of bounds while running with the ball. This is a lesson that he learned the hard way, after suffering a knee injury last season from colliding with Tashaun Gipson of the Cleveland Browns.
5) Someone needs to step up and be the clutch receiver. Too many times the Bills were so close to a win until a dropped catch or a fumble ruined it. Steve Johnson was a solid receiver, but proved to be unreliable when a big play was needed. Tight end Scott Chandler has shown a similar flaw, most recently fumbling the ball when the team was driving towards a game-winning score last season against the Atlanta Falcons. Either Watkins or Robert Woods will be that go-to receiver this season. Manuel and Woods built a strong chemistry last season, so look for that duo to shine with the game on the line.
The New England Patriots will still be the top dog of the AFC East, but the Bills will have a solid shot at a wild-card berth if they run the ball, stop the run and get consistent play from Manuel.