It's been 14 long years since Kevin Dyson caught a lateral from Frank Wycheck after a kickoff and proceeded to run down the field for the game-winning touchdown as the Tennessee Titans beat the Buffalo Bills 22-16 in the 2000 AFC Wild Card game, dubbed the “Music City Miracle.”
That infamous day in Bills' history is the last image fans have of their beloved team in the playoffs. And they really haven't come close since as their drought has reached a NFL-leading 14 years.
With all their past failures and the rising concern that a group led by rock star Jon Bon Jovi will buy the team with the intent of moving them to Toronto, the franchise could really use a “pick-me-up” and the 2014 version of the Bills might be able to grant that desire.
Led by second-year head coach Doug Marrone and second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, the Bills seem to be a young team headed in the right direction and will look to improve on the 6-10 record they've held for each of the past three seasons.
If the Bills are going to break their postseason drought, chances are it will be because Manuel has a breakout season. The 24-year-old only played in ten games during his rookie season as a knee injury suffered in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns caused him to miss considerable time. Manuel threw for 1,972 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions during the time he was able to play. The Florida State product will need to take a few steps forward, not back, in order for the Bills to have a chance at extra football.
Marrone enters his sophomore season with the Bills and has been trying to change the culture surrounding the club after failed attempts from the likes of Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey. His first year may have been unsuccessful in the win column, but he was praised for how he handled such a young, inexperienced squad and will be expected to do much of the same this year.
The Bills are hoping for a better year out of 27-year-old running back C.J. Spiller in order for their offence to be more multifaceted. The club expected big things out of Spiller in 2013, but he suffered through a high ankle sprain for most of the season and only managed 933 yards rushing with a pair of touchdowns. Buffalo knows that they can rely on the veteran Fred Jackson to perform, but will need more from a healthy Spiller in 2014.
Buffalo needs to hit the ground running and pick up as many wins as possible in the early portion of the season if they want to be in meaningful games once December rolls around. The Bills have the 14th toughest schedule this year with an opponents' winning percentage of .500 (from last year) and have winnable games in the first half of the season against the Chicago Bears, Miami Dolphins, San Diego Chargers, Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings and New York Jets. Buffalo needs a good record going into the final month with contests against powerhouses like the Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots. Beating those teams with a possible playoff spot on the line will be no easy feat.
If the Bills can stay healthy, get a great year out of Manuel and have a few youngsters surpass expectations, Buffalo might have a chance at breaking their playoff drought in 2014. “Might” is the key word in that sentence. They are the Bills after all.
Watkins and Company
One of the bright spots for the Bills in 2014 should be their young and talented receiving core. Out is Stevie Johnson (traded to San Francisco) and in is the highly touted Sammy Watkins (drafted fourth overall this year) out of Clemson and 27-year-old veteran Mike Williams who was acquired in the off-season from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The group also includes sophomore Robert Woods, who could be penciled in as the top wide out on the depth chart once Week 1 rolls around, as well as the speedy Marquise Goodwin. Manuel should have plenty of options to throw to in 2014.
Kiko is KO'd
Probably the biggest question mark going into this season for the Bills is, who will replace the loss of Kiko Alonso? The linebacker had a terrific rookie campaign in 2013, but suffered a torn ligament in his left knee during the off-season and is out for the entire year. The Oregon product racked up 159 tackles with four interceptions and was a candidate for defensive rookie of the year last season. General manager Doug Whaley picked up linebackers Brandon Spikes from the Patriots and Keith Rivers from the Giants in the off-season and they'll be trusted to help fill the Alonso void. Buffalo also lost ball-hawking safety Jairus Byrd to the New Orleans Saints and may struggle in the secondary because of it.
New Coach in Town
Jim Schwartz will be the man behind the defensive side of things for the Bills this season. Buffalo picked up the former Detroit Lions' head coach after Mike Pettine left to take the Browns' vacancy. Schwartz will bring his 4-3 base defence along with him to Buffalo which might actually be a positive change for the team. The Bills used a 3-4 defence in 2013, but with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus - who came to training camp out of shape - manning the line of scrimmage, Buffalo could have one of the most intimidating collection of pass rushers for opposing quarterbacks and offensive linemen. The Bills were second in the NFL in total sacks - behind the Carolina Panthers - last season with 57 and there's no reason they can't replicate that performance again. They'll have to improve on stopping the run though as they let the fifth most rushing yards per game (128.9) in 2013.