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KEY PLAYERS MUST IMPROVE IF BILLS ARE GOING TO CATCH JETS

The Buffalo Bills have improved enough since last season to win the AFC East!

Or . . .

The Buffalo Bills stood pat during the offseason and still aren't good enough to beat the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins!

That's the debate that has been raging among Western New York football fans for months, and it's not likely to end until Jan. 2.

Most National Football League observers have not climbed aboard the Bills' bandwagon. The Bills are picked to finish third in the AFC East in almost every preview publication on the newsstands.

Are all those so-called experts missing something?

There is good reason to believe the Bills are better than last year because of the fact they helped themselves in the draft. Rookies Antoine Winfield and Peerless Price should immediately make the Bills better on third down offensively and defensively.

But that alone probably won't be enough to get the Bills to the top of the mountain in the toughest division in the NFL.

The Bills are counting on significant improvement from within, and here are the ways it might happen:

Marcellus Wiley makes the pass rush dominant.

Familiarity with Joe Pendry's offense makes for even better efficiency, especially in the running game and the red zone.

Jay Riemersma performs a lot better at tight end than Lonnie Johnson.

Sam Cowart develops into one of the best linebackers in the AFC.

Pro Bowlers Ted Washington and Ruben Brown kick it up a notch.

The Bills probably will need every one of those things to come true. That's how tough the competition is. Like the Bills, the Jets and Dolphins have reason to believe they are slightly improved over last year. The Jets think their defense is tougher and their offense is just as good despite inexperience on the offensive line. The Dolphins think they can discover a dominant running game.

A third-place schedule could help the Bills, because they don't have to play Denver or Jacksonville, the top two teams in the conference. Both the Jets and Dolphins play at Denver. The Jets face the Jaguars. The Bills also don't play Dallas, the defending champ in the NFC East. Both the Jets and Miami visit the Cowboys.

"This year we expect more of ourselves," said coach Wade Phillips. "The fans and everybody expects more of our team, and we're going to try to take another step forward."

Here's a look at the squad, position by position.

Quarterbacks

In Doug Flutie, the Bills have one of the top playmakers in the league. There's no reason to think he can't duplicate his performance of last season. Look for teams to try to continue to rush their ends straight upfield and keep Flutie in the pocket. The Jets did it well. Miami tried it and he still torched them for 360 passing yards in the playoffs. Look for Pendry to better utilize Flutie's skills this year. Last season, for instance, they barely worked on the five-wide set in preseason.

Phillips has to be concerned about Rob Johnson "dying on the vine," as Marv Levy would say. This is Johnson's fifth year, and he has made just seven starts. That's why Wade gave him so much work in preseason, besides the fact they'll need Johnson to rescue the season if Flutie gets hurt.

Running backs

The running game is the No. 1 concern on the team in the wake of the preseason, even though -- all together now -- the preseason means nothing! Antowain Smith had a decent year in '98, ranking 14th in the NFL in rushing. Even if he doesn't improve, the Bills' offense still will be good. But he has to improve if the Bills are going win a playoff game -- especially on the road. Will his groin problem flare up? If so, the Bills might not miss a beat with hard-running Jonathan Linton. But that's only if Linton can hang onto the ball. Thurman Thomas remains an excellent third-down back.

Receivers

A major strength. Eric Moulds looks primed for another monster season. Remarkable Andre Reed should give the team another good year (it may be his last) as a possession receiver. If he catches 52 passes, he will move past Art Monk into second place on the all-time list. Price will give defenses fits. Riemersma can't do anything but improve the tight end spot. We'll see how well he blocks.

Offensive line

The shift of Jerry Ostroski to center is aimed at giving the line more smash-mouth ability. Ostroski should be fine, but the jury is out on whether the right side of the line and the overall unit will improve. Robert Hicks is promising at right tackle but has a lot to prove. Right guard is unsettled. Joe Panos might need surgery on his neck. If Jamie Nails were in shape, we'd say he could move up and the Bills wouldn't miss a beat. But he obviously isn't, which is why Dusty Zeigler is starting. Give Zeigler credit. He got demoted from the center job and had a good preseason.

The Bills are fine on the left side with a trimmer Brown and John Fina. The line will get plenty of help from the blocking of Sam Gash and the scrambling of Flutie.

Defensive line

Bruce Smith still commands double-team respect at age 36. Washington and Phil Hansen appear ready for big years. The depth is outstanding. The team needs Wiley to emerge to help stop third-down conversions. Pat Williams is blossoming at backup nose tackle. Shawn Price and Sean Moran are solid. This is an outstanding unit.

Linebackers

Cowart and John Holecek were superb the second half of last season. Example: They helped hold Curtis Martin to a 2.2-yard average in two meetings with the Jets. Sam Rogers is a reliable veteran. Gabe Northern did OK his first year as a starter. Neither Rogers nor Northern got much chance to rush the passer last year. We'll see if that changes.

Defensive backs

Winfield plugs a major hole. Now maybe the Bills will finish better than 19th on third-down defense. He also gives coordinator Ted Cottrell more leeway to attack opposing passers. The Bills don't have big playmakers in the secondary, but the starting unit -- Thomas Smith, Ken Irvin, Henry Jones and Kurt Schulz -- is a veteran group that makes few mistakes.

Special teams

The return game has the potential to give the team a big boost from last year. Despite the presence of Kevin Williams, the Bills were 17th on punt returns and 22nd on kickoff returns. They must do better. Punt coverage needs to get better, too. Two new "gunners" -- Daryl Porter will be one of them -- should help. Steve Christie and Chris Mohr are in their eighth season as a tandem, by far the longest running kicker-punter duo in team history.

Outlook

Look for another three-way photo finish in the AFC East. The Bills' season will come down to three or four plays in the games against the Jets and Dolphins. It will take 12 wins to claim the division title and get a first-round bye, which is virtually essential to making the Super Bowl. Call it Jets 12-4, Bills 11-5, Dolphins 10-6.

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