For Bills fans, it can be easy to feel like an afterthought.
Elsewhere in the division reside the perennial powerhouse Patriots, in-state rival and SportsCenter darling Jets, and the Dolphins, who have dominated headlines during the Richie Incognito fiasco and return plenty of talent from an 8-8 team.
The Bills have also been one of the NFL’s biggest underachievers in recent history, having missed the playoffs every year since the turn of the century.
Despite the misfortune and woe that has engulfed the franchise in recent years, the Bills have quietly assembled a young, talented roster for the future.
Heading that roster is EJ Manuel, the second-year dual-threat quarterback out of Florida State.
Manuel was hampered by a knee injury throughout the 2013 season (before a second knee injury, a sprained LCL, ended his year), but was able to lead his team to victories over the NFC South champion Carolina Panthers and the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
Though he has been much maligned for his inaccuracy (58.8%, 28th in the NFL) and inconsistency, Manuel’s strong arm and leadership in late-game situations has Bills fans believing he could be the face of the franchise.
In the second half of games, he has a 59.2 completion percentage compared to 58.1 in the first half. In the final two minutes Manuel’s stats enter an elite level, albeit in a small sample size. Manuel owned a 67.5 completion percentage in crunch time and went 6-8 for 50 yards in a game-winning drive against Carolina.
Throughout the course of a game, Manuel is nowhere near an elite level, and his nearly 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio is demonstrative of that fact. Nonetheless, with an improved receiving corps and another season under his belt, Manuel could be ready to take the next step.
Joining Manuel, will be free agent wide receiver acquisition Mike Williams. Williams, a Buffalo native and Syracuse alum, will look to bolster a position that has long been barren in Buffalo.
Williams had a tumultuous 2013 season in Tampa Bay, suffering a season-ending hamstring injury after just six games and dodging criminal mischief and trespassing charges.
The Bills are hoping Williams can regain the form he showed in 2012 where he finished with 996 yards and nine touchdowns, a stat line that would help take the pressure off of Buffalo’s top pass catcher, Stevie Johnson.
Joining the ex-Buccaneer on offense will be free agent signee left guard Chris Williams (who happens to be one of seven Williams on the Bills’ roster). Williams, a former first-round draft pick, started all 16 games for the Rams last season and should open holes for the talented backfield duo of Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller.
On the defensive side, the Bills made another free-agent splash in signing ex-Patriot Brandon Spikes. Spikes, a punishing linebacker who played in every game last season for New England, is already predicting a pair of wins over the Patriots next fall.
While Spikes’ words may be a little hasty, his optimism for the future of the Bills is not far-fetched. Spikes joins three-time Pro-Bowler Mario Williams on a defense that finished 10th in the NFL yards allowed in 2013.
For now, the Patriots have earned the right to be division favorites until there is proof that their reign is over. With new talent and the 2014 NFL Draft pending, however, the Buffalo Bills could be a handful in the AFC East in the fall.