A winning season seemed out of reach for the Buffalo Bills after an 0-3 start and injuries that depleted the roster.
But the improbable has become possible, thanks to a remarkable turnaround that has seen the Bills win four of their last five games to claw their way to .500 while also putting themselves in the middle of the playoff picture.
"We know there's a long way to go and there's a lot of football in front of us, but those guys deserve a lot of credit for struggling through the things we went through for fighting their way back to .500," Bills coach Dick Jauron said. "We're at the halfway point, so it's not early in the season and it's not late, so here we are. I give them a lot of credit for how they've hung in there, and making the plays they've had to make, particularly recently. But it does not get any easier, so we'll see where it goes."
The Bills have experienced a season's worth of highs and lows after only eight games. Here's a look at five things that defined the first half of their season:
1. Kevin Everett's injury
It was as if time stood still after Everett collided with Denver kick returner Domenik Hixon and crumpled to the turf. But after suffering partial paralysis, Everett is doing much better and is recovering in a rehabilitation center in Houston. Doctors now believe he could walk again. His grim initial prognosis and a remarkable recovery parallel the Bills' season. Some of the players say Everett's ordeal brought this team closer together.
"It made us appreciate everything a little more," wide receiver Lee Evans said. "It made us a stronger team because we started to work a little harder and trust in each other. Just like Kevin, we have come through a difficult period and we can see good things ahead of us as long as we keep getting better."
2. The quarterback shuffle
J.P. Losman entered the season as the unquestioned starter, but a knee injury gave rookie Trent Edwards a chance and he took full advantage of it. After playing well in leading the Bills to two wins in three starts, Edwards was given the starting job, a move that didn't gain unanimous approval in the locker room.
However, Edwards' sprained wrist re-opened the door for Losman, who led the Bills to a 13-3 win over the New York Jets. Neither quarterback had been able to generate much offense before Losman threw for a season-high 295 yards and the Bills gained 479 overall in a 33-21 win over Cincinnati last Sunday.
Losman is more athletic than Edwards and has the bigger arm, giving the Bills a chance to stretch the field vertically. But the team likes Edwards' poise, pocket presence and accuracy.
Jauron said performance will be a factor in determining who starts at quarterback. Another good showing by Losman in Miami will make it very difficult to take him out of the lineup.
"As long as you keep performing, and that's going to be the case, then that's simple enough for me," Losman said. "I know what I got to do and if I take care of it and I do it then I stay in there. If I don't then, what can I say, I didn't do my job. I can't argue with that."
3. Defense decimated by injuries
It started in the preseason with newly signed defensive end Al Wallace. It continued into the regular season with cornerback Jason Webster, free safety Ko Simpson and middle linebacker Paul Posluszny.
Few teams have dealt with as many injuries as the Bills in such a short period of time.
The Bills have placed 10 players on the season-ending injured reserve list. More than half of them went down within the first three games. The defense was hit the hardest with eight players out for the year. That includes three starters -- Webster (broken forearm), Simpson (broken ankle) and Posluszny (broken forearm). Another starter, weakside linebacker Keith Ellison (ankle), missed the first four games. Ryan Denney, the team's third defensive end, returned just last week from a broken foot which he suffered in the middle of preseason.
The multitude of injuries forced the Bills to start three different players at right cornerback, free safety and weakside linebacker. They also have used defensive tackles at defensive end, put middle linebackers outside and outside backers in the middle.
However, the Bills' defense has proved to be resilient. Reserves such as cornerback Jabari Greer, middle linebacker John DiGiorgio and free safety George Wilson, a converted wide receiver, have stepped into the lineup and excelled.
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's creative schemes and blitz packages have disrupted opposing offenses, leading to more big plays. More than anything, the defense's improvement has been the biggest reason for the Bills' recent surge.
"I think guys are more comfortable with the defense and their role in it," linebacker Angelo Crowell said. "Coach Fewell is doing a great job of putting us in position to make plays. We're flying around and having fun right now."
4. Heartbreaking losses
The Bills thoroughly outplayed Denver and Dallas. They didn't trail in either game until the final second. However, the Broncos and Cowboys pulled out improbable one-point victories with field goals on the final play.
The Bills got good games from their defense, but the offense failed to do its part by failing to produce more points. So Buffalo lost two games it clearly should have won, and a 4-4 record easily could be 6-2.
"You hate to say shoulda, woulda, coulda, but you do wonder what might have been," safety Donte Whitner said. "Those were bad losses, but we can't get them back. We just have to learn from them and make sure it doesn't happen again."
5. Offensive line is better
In the offseason, the Bills opened their bank vault and spent big money in free agency to upgrade this unit. Left guard Derrick Dockery, right tackle Langston Walker and guard/center Jason Whittle were signed at a combined cost of $74.6 million.
Some people thought the Bills overpaid for a bunch of players who had never been to a Pro Bowl, but halfway through the season, the moves appear to be paying off. Whittle was lost early to a season-ending injury, but Dockery and Walker have joined forces with center Melvin Fowler, right guard Brad Butler and promising left tackle Jason Peters to form a solid unit.
The line's run blocking, while spotty at times, has gotten progressively better and has paved the way for running back Marshawn Lynch to have an outstanding rookie season. Its pass blocking has given both quarterbacks excellent protection.
"It's a unit that takes time to develop," offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said. "They have to play together, and it's starting to come around. You can see they are much improved from last year. You can see the sky is the limit and they can be a very good offensive line. We feel like we're headed in that direction."
It helps that the starting offensive linemen have been durable. The group has started every game and its continuity is showing.
"We had a couple new guys added to the offensive line and it's Week Nine now and it's starting to click," Peters said. "It helps a lot knowing who you are playing beside. I've been here four years and had a different guy beside me. That chemistry and knowing what the guy next to you is going to do helps a lot."
Offensive MVP: Lynch. Despite the revolving door at quarterback, Lynch has been a model of consistency. He is fourth in the NFL in rushing (690 yards) and 10th in yards from scrimmage (786). If not for Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, Lynch would get more consideration as the league's top rookie.
Defensive MVP: Crowell. With youngsters shuttling in and out around him, Crowell has been a steadying force on an improving defense with a team-high 72 tackles. Honorable mention goes to Whitner, who has been outstanding in a secondary that has experienced a lot of personnel changes.