Are Bills set up for success?

February 6, 2018

I want to thank my friend Larry for bringing ESPN's 2018 NFL Power Rankings to my attention Monday. If he hadn't done so I may never have found out about them, which would have been unfortunate and sad. The fact that almost 20 hours transpired between the end of the Super Bowl and my learning of these rankings is more than a little scary.

I read Larry's text and at first couldn't decide what he was upset about -- that the Bills were ranked too high by ESPN or too low. (Upset = "the author needs to put the crack pipe down".) The Bills were ranked 21st. Now, it seems pretty easy to get that Larry thought they were being slighted. But often texts I get from friends lean the other way, that somewhere the Bills are being over-hyped.

At first glance it would seem that Larry had a point. Twelve teams make the playoffs, how could one of them enter the off-season 21st?

But after a closer look, in my opinion it's not crazy to think they should be that low.

Here's why:

(Let me say first that yes, this is a column written as a reaction to power rankings. I don't know how much lower it gets.)

A whopping nine teams that missed the playoffs show up before Buffalo on ESPN's list. I think most of them deserve it, including:

** Green Bay (No. 8). The Packers made the playoffs eight years in a row before missing in 2017, mostly because of Aaron Rodgers' injury. Do Bills fans have a gripe being ranked below the Packers? NO GRIPE.

** Seattle (No. 11). The Seahawks appear to be a team in decline. Injuries and age on what was an all-time great defense, a terrible offensive line and no running game to speak of. You can certainly make an argument that Seattle lines up ahead of the Bills, but by 10 spots? SLIGHT GRIPE.

** Dallas (No. 13). Dak Prescott is the key. His game disappeared in the second half, and the argument that it was caused by Ezekiel Elliott's supsension doesn't work. Coaching is just ordinary, defense not strong on talent. The smarties predicted Cowboys regression in 2017, and were right. I'd rank Dallas lower but not necessarily lower than Buffalo. SLIGHT GRIPE.

** San Francisco (No. 14). I have no problem with this. Coach and quarterback look really good right now. NO GRIPE.

** Houston (No. 15). Don't you have to go with the Texans over the Bills? DeShaun Watson was incredible in his games. Hopkins, Clowney, Watt, even Will Fuller ... there's big talent there. Barring trades Houston won't draft in Rounds 1 or 2, but they already have a lot to work with. They were 4-12 though. Anyway ... NO GRIPE.

** L.A. Chargers (No. 16). This team had the same as the Bills and beat them head-to-head by 30 points. For the season, L.A.'s point differential was 140 points better. That's massive. If you're betting on next season I think the Chargers should be the AFC West favorite, so if we're talking playoff odds they'd come in well before the Bills -- at least until Brady/Belichick drops a bomb and walks away. NO GRIPE.

** Oakland (No. 18). The only reason to agree with this is Jon Gruden's return, and that's not enough for me. The Bills whipped Oakland head-to-head. GRIPE.

** Baltimore (No. 19). I don't love the Ravens but they did play to an eighth-best point differential of plus-92 last year. At that rate they were unlucky to come in at 9-7. Baltimore-Buffalo is close in the rankings, and I'm no Joe Flacco fan, but if you put the Ravens a notch above the Bills, I can't argue. NO GRIPE.

** Detroit (No. 20). Interesting off-season there with a new coach in Matt Patricia and a bunch of impending free-agent starters. The Lions went 9-7 in the much tougher NFC. I'm ambivolent on this one, and that's no mood for a gripe. NO GRIPE.

There it is, scientifically: No gripe with six of the teams, a slight gripe with two, and a legitimate one with only the Raiders.

What do the Bills have in their favor? I think it starts with the draft picks -- two in Round 1, two in Round 2. Hang in there until your turn at 21, take an offer of two seconds or a second and a third for that pick, and you're at 5-6 players on the first two days of the draft. Theoretically with this roster and a little luck those players could all be starters.

Of course just about everyone has thought since last year's draft that the Bills want to come down with a good quarterback this time around. There go some of those draft picks, probably.

Hit on that and you rank with teams like Baltimore and Detroit, teams that go into each season with realistic playoff hopes. If the wheel lands on one of the green spaces you can become what Seattle and Green Bay have been, teams that annually expect to make it.

The 2017 Bills were a great story but not a great team. To do better in power rankings like these you've got to be more solid. You've got to achieve more.

Sorry, Larry.