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5 things that have to happen for the Bills to break the playoff drought in 2017

The Buffalo Bills’ playoff drought has nothing to do with new General Manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott.

They have not been a part of 17 straight years of failure. Don’t tell that to McDermott, though.

“I’m a part of that. When I signed my name to the dotted line, I became a part of that 17-year time period,” he said this summer. “I’m invested.”

McDermott had heard about the rabid passion of Bills fans before he took the job, but saw it firsthand before the team’s game against the Vikings, when he pulled into the stadium parking lot and saw RVs lined up – in the preseason.

“I feel what they feel,” the coach said.

Beane said he “hated” being out of the playoffs for three years with the Carolina Panthers.

“So I can’t imagine 17 years, the agony, the pain, whatever word you want to describe it, that’s brutal,” he said. “I wasn’t here for it, but I sympathize with the fan base, with a lot of these employees … I’ve talked to employees who have been here through the whole tenure and you try and understand all of what’s going on from a culture, not only in this building but this town, just everything that has come to 17 years without a playoff appearance.

“Sean and I are focused going forward because there’s nothing we can do about the past, but we want nothing more than to look out there and see the excitement in the city, in this building, for everything we’re doing.”

Here are five things the Bills must do to end the drought:

1. Cross your fingers that LeSean McCoy stays healthy.

This is an obvious No. 1 on the list. McCoy will be the key to what the Bills do on offense. Even at 29, he looks as dynamic as ever.

“I feel good,” McCoy said at the start of training camp. “I feel the same. I feel young. I feel about 25. Making the same runs, same cuts that feel good. I feel explosive. That's my game -- being explosive, quick. So when that kind of turns, and that leaves, then I'll be in trouble, but for now I feel fine.”

The Bills wisely took it easy on McCoy over the summer, managing his reps in both practice and the preseason games.

“I’ve been around LeSean, as you guys have heard me say, for a long time and I like where he is … in terms of getting himself ready to play for the season.”

That time has come. The Bills can no longer keep McCoy in bubble wrap. While the team will still have to be smart in regards to his work load, it’s clear they need him on the field as much as possible.

In that regard, they’ll need luck on their side when it comes to keeping McCoy healthy. Although he’s avoided any major injuries in his two years with the team, he has been banged up at times. Missing even a game or two in 2017 would be a big blow to the offense.

2. Turn around the defense.

By now, you know the deal under Rex Ryan. Back-to-back 19th-place finishes for the defense is perhaps the biggest reason the drought has gone from 15 to 17 years.

Under McDermott, the team will go back to a 4-3 scheme that is universally looked at as a better fit for the personnel.

“I’m very encouraged and proud of the progress that they’ve made,” McDermott said. “I think the coaches and the players have both been doing a phenomenal job. … They’re playing fast and they’re playing confident, more and more confident with each day that passes. It’s the result of their hard work. The communication between the coaches and players is flowing in a healthy manner, that’s good.”

Quarterbacks the Bills are scheduled to face in 2017 include Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston, Derek Carr, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck and Tom Brady twice.

“We have to continue to improve, continue to work to defend the best in front of us every day,” McDermott said. “There’s a pretty big challenge ahead, in terms of the offenses and the quarterbacks that we’re going to face on the schedule – we need to continue to work.”

3. Have Tyrod Taylor become a closer.

Perhaps the biggest knock against the Bills’ starting quarterback is his lack of success in the fourth quarter or overtime during games the Bills are down one possession or tied.

His record in those situations is 3-10. He’s gone 33 of 67 for 451 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions, for a quarterback rating of 66.2. He’s been sacked six times in those situations and fumbled three others. Consider, though, that Taylor went 8 of 13 for 114 yards and a touchdown in a Dec. 24 game against Miami last year, and his numbers look even worse over the other 12 games.

In those moments that define quarterbacks in the NFL, he’s far too often not gotten the job done.

Last season, the Bills went 2-6 overall in games that were decided by one possession.

4. Get the special teams to flip the field.

The “third phase” of the game has been on a downward slide. After ranking second overall in 2014 in the Dallas Morning News’ rankings – which are accepted as the league standard – the Bills slumped to 16th in 2015. That ranking dropped all the way down to 24th in 2016.

As a result, the team has drastically rebuilt the core contributors. Gone from last year are mainstays Jonathan Meeks (second on the team with 316 snaps), Lerentee McCray (fourth with 255 snaps) and Corey White (fifth, 247). Kicker Dan Carpenter was also cut, as was long snapper Garrison Sanborn.

A mix of veterans like Lorenzo Alexander and Ramon Humber will be counted on to lead the turnaround, as will rookies like Tanner Vallejo and Matt Milano. Kicker Stephen Hauschka will also have to be more reliable than Dan Carpenter, which shouldn’t be too much to ask.

5. Stop. Taking. So. Many. Penalties.

Full disclosure: This is exactly the same as last year. The hope was that with Ryan no longer in charge, the Bills would be a more disciplined team.

Through two preseason games this year, though, it became clear that penalties are still an issue. The Bills were flagged for 34 penalties in those two games, with 25 of those accepted for 237 yards.

“We need to continue to work at that. I am concerned about it,” McDermott said. “We’ve got to get it corrected.”

In 2015, the Bills were flagged 168 times – 143 of which were accepted. In 2016, it was 142 flags against, of which 127 were accepted.

That number has to decline again in 2017.

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