As the Vikings prepare for their preseason home opener, they do so against a team that has been where the Vikings currently reside, but are in a position the Vikings hope to possess soon.
The Bills find themselves as one of the sleeper teams of the AFC with many NFL analysts viewing them as a solid wild card threat in 2012. After years of being an also-ran in the AFC East, the Bills have a team in place that can make some noise. They started 5-2 last year and seemed to have the playoffs in their sights before injuries crippled them and they fell flat – losing their next seven games and finishing 6-10.
Buffalo has found a way to create a potent offense, although their first preseason game showed they have a ways to go before they're in that position. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the unquestioned starter and former Titan Vince Young and former Viking Tyler Thigpen are competing for the No. 2 QB job. However, in their preseason opener against the Redskins, none of them completed 50 percent of his passes – Fitzpatrick completed just 6 of 14 passes for 61 yards, Young completed 5 of 12 passes for 50 yards and Thigpen completed just 3 of 8 passes for 38 yards and an interception. All three will be under pressure to improve dramatically on those numbers against the Vikings, but the bigger issue may be in the running game.
The Bills have a pair of impressive running backs in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Before breaking his fibula in Week 11, Jackson was leading the NFL in rushing. He was on his way to a monster year before he went down, which opened the door for second-year pro C.J. Spiller. A first-round pick in the 2010 draft, the intention was that Spiller would replace Jackson as the primary starter, but the move seemed to motivate Jackson. As a rookie, Spiller saw very little action and wasn't getting many opportunities before Jackson went down. However, when Jackson was injured, Spiller played extremely well late – creating a competition for the starting job this year. Both are capable of being three-down backs and each brings a different dynamic to the game – Jackson as a between-the-tackles, one-cut banger and Spiller having the ability to take the ball the distance any time he touches it. Neither had a carry in the preseason opener, but both are expected to see plenty of action early as the Bills try to settle on one of them to be the primary back.
The other offensive player to watch early in the game will be Stevie Johnson. While he doesn't have blazing speed, he finds ways to consistently beat single coverage and has become a go-to receiver capable of 80 catches for 1,200 yards and double-digit touchdowns. Beyond Johnson, the Bills have a collection of role players, but they aren't the type of receivers that inspire terror in defensive coordinators. Instead, they seem to be a tight-knit group of players who know their assignments and execute them effectively.
While a team can be impressive on one side of the ball, to be viewed as a playoff contender, a team usually has to be impressive on both sides of the ball. The Bills have quietly built an impressive defense that starts and ends up front. Prior to this season, they had two of the league's best interior pass rushers in defensive tackles Marcel Darius, who was impressive as a rookie and only looks to get better, and Kyle Williams – an undersized but energetic defensive tackle who finds ways to split gaps and blow up plays. The team already had decent defensive ends in Chris Kelsey and Mark Anderson, but arguably made the biggest splash of the free-agent season by adding premier pass rusher Mario Williams. Williams is a relentless pass rusher who was the first overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Houston Texans. Many questioned the Texans' decision, but, six years later, nobody doubts that Williams is one of the most dominant pass rushers in the league – whether as a 4-3 defensive end or as a 3-4 standup linebacker. He is going to line up against rookie Matt Kalil and will be one of the bigger tests from the youngster as he continues to acclimate himself to the NFL. Aside from Jared Allen, there may be no bigger challenge than what Kalil will face Friday night.
The Bills have talent at all three levels of the defense, including former Packer middle linebacker Nick Barnett and first-round rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore. For a team that has already proved it can win games with offense, the addition of Darius and Barnett last year and Williams and Gilmore this year will help go a long way to making Buffalo a team to watch in 2012.
The Vikings have a lot to prove to themselves and their fan base. While many might think of Buffalo as a rather non-descript franchise that has been annually overshadowed by the Patriots and the Jets, the Bills have quickly put themselves in the position to make some noise in the AFC and bring the franchise back to the glory days that they haven't enjoyed since Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith dominated the AFC 20 years ago. No longer pushovers, the Bills will be a good yardstick for how far along the young Vikings have come in their own franchise overhaul and will help determine how much more work needs to be done for the Vikings to be competitive.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Preview: Bills could be an AFC sleeper
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