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Overdue Bills might finally be contenders

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:09 AM
PALM BEACH -

If you know any Buffalo fans living in the Bay area, you've probably already noticed a little strut in their step.

After a dozen years of suffering, the Bills may be relevant again.

A franchise that advanced to a record four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s has withered into an AFC East lightweight since 1999, Buffalo's last playoff appearance.

That 12-year postseason drought marks the longest gap of any NFL club, but there are signs the Bills are poised to make some noise in a division where Bill Belichick's Patriots tend to drown out all competitors.

Western New York was jolted two weeks ago when Buffalo won a bidding war for free agent defensive end Mario Williams, offering the former Houston Texans standout $50 million guaranteed in a 6-year deal that proved these Bills aren't counterfeit.

"There's a lot to like when you talk about Mario,'' Buffalo coach Chan Gailey said this week at the NFL owners meetings. "You're talking about talent, productivity and character. When you're investing that kind of money, you have to make sure you're getting the right kind of person as well as a guy that can go play.''

In other words, your big free-agency splash had better not turn out to be a belly-flop.

Still recovering from a torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for the final 11 games last year, Williams is stirring the echoes for Buffalo fans who can't shake the image of Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith collapsing the pocket and stealing the football.

After engineering the biggest free-agent move in franchise history, the Bills report more than 4,000 season-ticket holders have renewed and the organization signed up 1,400 new fans for season tickets.

When you're facing Tom Brady twice a season, you'd better have a pass rush.

The Bills boast a potentially dominant front, with Williams and new addition Mark Anderson manning the end spots while Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams return as stout interior linemen.

"You hope you've got a viable pass rush with four people,'' Gailey said, "and you hope the opposing quarterback feels like he's got to get the ball out quicker. Maybe that makes him rush, and if he rushes something, maybe he throws it to us instead of to his own guy.''

As the Bills abandon their traditional 3-4 alignment, they are banking on the same defensive philosophy as the Bucs, hoping a 4-man front can generate consistent pressure.

Anderson was a savvy free-agent pickup after he registered 10 sacks for New England in 2011, despite playing only 47 percent of the snaps.

Dareus posted 5.5 sacks as a rookie and don't forget about 27-year-old outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, a former sackmaster coming off Achilles tendon surgery.

Defense hasn't exactly been a buzzword in Orchard Park. Buffalo's 5-2 start included some big comebacks authored by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but the Bills couldn't stop anybody when it counted, winning only once in the final nine games.

Buffalo yielded 30 touchdown passes and Gailey is smart enough to know the only way you can hope to neutralize receivers in a league designed to promote completions is with a relentless rush.

"No, the league doesn't want to curtail it,'' Gailey said of the NFL's steady rise in point production. "The more scoring and the more exciting plays, the better, so I don't see it going the other way for awhile. I'm an old-timer. I think you win championships with defense and I like to go watch a 1-0 baseball game, so I'm in the minority.''

Buffalo fans won't care if the Bills win, 7-6, every week. With the 2012 season still five months away, they're already feeling a rush.

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