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Pitoniak: Playoff drought ends this season

Flip the calendar back to January 8, 2000.
Gas was $1.51 per gallon. We had just survived the Y2K scare that was supposed to incapacitate computers worldwide. President Bill Clinton was beginning his final year in office. And the Buffalo Bills had their hearts broken in an AFC Wild Card playoff game on a last-second kickoff return by Tennessee's Kevin Dyson that should have been nullified because it was a forward pass, not a lateral.
Little did we know at the time that this would be not only a date which would live in Bills infamy, but also a date that would mark the beginning of a playoff famine that is now 12 years old and counting.
So, when does the NFL's longest current postseason drought end?
This season, I believe.
The offseason upgrades, particularly on defense, coupled with a relatively soft schedule, should be enough to put an end to this suffering and give the Bills their first playoff berth of the 21st century.
Peering into my crystal football, I see a 10-6 record, good for a second-place finish and a Wild Card spot.
In order for this prognostication to become a reality, the following must happen:
               1.       Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to be solid for an entire season. Notice, I used the word "solid." The Bills quarterback doesn't have to be the superhero who threw 14 TD passes and had a 97.8 pass efficiency rating as he did during Buffalo's 5-2 start last fall. But neither can Fitz be the turnover machine he was while throwing 16 picks during the Bills 1-8 finish. In his defense, he played much of the second half of the season with cracked ribs. Being healthy along with improved mechanics from working with QB coach David Lee should result in a more consistent performance. If he can just be slightly above average, Buffalo will have a shot.
2.        The defense needs to be as good as advertised. Last season, the Bills were dead last in the league against the run and third from the bottom in sacks (29). With the addition of Super Mario Williams and Mark Anderson at the ends, the healthy return of tackle Kyle Williams and the continued maturation of second-year tackle Marcell Dareus, Buffalo is going to be able to turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks and stuff the run. The secondary appears solid with the addition of rookie corner Stephon Gilmore, who will make a contribution immediately. My only concern is the mediocre linebacker corps, which yielded too many big plays during the preseason.
3.       Buffalo has to take advantage of a schedule that's ranked the third easiest in the NFL. If the Bills are 5-4 or even 4-5 through their first nine (which includes two games vs. New England, along with tough challenges at San Francisco and Houston), they will be in decent shape. They should be able to make hay in weeks 11-16 when they play five home games and face Miami twice, along with weaker teams such as Indianapolis, St. Louis and Jacksonville. The Bills also must assert themselves in their division. Last year, they won only one AFC East contest (an upset of New England.) They need to go at least 4-2 this time around. A win in Sunday's opener against the Jets in the Meadowlands would be huge.
4.       Stay healthy. Last year's slide was precipitated by injuries to Fitz, Fred Jackson (broken leg), Eric Wood (center) and several wide receivers. The Bills depth is better than last year, but they still don't have enough talent to withstand a rash of injuries.
5.       Dominate on special teams. This definitely is doable. Brian Moorman looks as good as ever, dropping more than half of his preseason punts inside the 20. Rian Lindell remains a dependable and accurate kicker. And John Potter can become an additional weapon - none of his kickoffs were returned. Leodis McKelvin, Justin Rogers, C.J. Spiller and Brad Smith (if his groin heals) give Buffalo a potentially potent return game.
6.       The offensive line must continue to protect well and open holes. The Bills "big uglies" were a pleasant surprise last season, yielding fewer sacks than any team in the league while helping Jackson and Spiller average more than five yards per crack. This, despite losing Wood for part of the season. There is good depth here. Focus will be on rookie Cordy Glenn, who's been plugged in at all-important left tackle.
      
      Nationally honored columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the late 1960s, covered them since the mid-1980s and written five books about their storied history. 
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