Safety Donte Whitner admits the thought has gone through his mind this week.
Today might be the last game he plays in Ralph Wilson Stadium as a Buffalo Bill. Whitner's contract is up. Who knows what the future holds as the NFL enters an uncertain offseason without a collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners?
"I've been here five years," Whitner said. "The thought is -- there's a realistic chance it might be my last home game here in Buffalo. I haven't beaten the New England Patriots since I've been here. So if it is my last game, I'd like to go out with a W and give the fans here a W. We haven't had one in a long time. It's a big game for everybody."
The Bills can put a great cap on their home season at Ralph Wilson Stadium today by ending their seven-year drought against the Patriots. Buffalo is aiming for its fifth win in seven games and its first against the Pats since the season opener in 2003. Buffalo's 14-game losing streak to the Patriots is tied for the fourth-longest in NFL history. Miami holds the record winning streak over one opponent -- 20 straight games over the Bills in the 1970s.
Whitner is one of 11 Bills whose contracts are up at the end of the year and who are expected to become unrestricted free agents in March -- or whenever the league and the players' union strike a new CBA. It's presumed that the NFL will adopt new salary-cap rules, and players who currently have four years of experience will hit the open market. (Last offseason, because there was no salary cap in place, players needed at least six years of experience to hit free agency.)
The other Bills expected to become unrestricted free agents are: linebackers Paul Posluszny, Akin Ayodele, Shawne Merriman and Keith Ellison; defensive backs Drayton Florence, George Wilson and Ashton Youboty; offensive tackle Mansfield Wrotto; defensive tackle John McCargo; and running back Quinton Ganther.
The top two players on that list are Whitner and Posluszny.
Whitner's agent has had ongoing negotiations with the Bills. Whitner, 25, is having his most productive season. He's leading all NFL defensive backs in tackles with 125, the fifth-highest total in the league. Whitner very much would like to return to the Bills -- if the team makes him an offer he views as satisfactory. It's believed he's looking for a deal that would put him in the top five at the safety position, in the $7 million-a-year range. It's believed the Bills so far have been offering well below that -- in the $5 million-a-year range.
Posluszny, 26, likewise is having his most productive season. Posluszny is fourth in the league in tackles at 126, according to NFL.com. The Bills also are very interested in retaining him.
However, negotiating with Posluszny during this season hasn't been a realistic option for the Bills. Since the NFL is operating in an uncapped year, league rules stipulate that a contract cannot have an annual salary increase of more than 30 percent, excluding amounts treated as a signing bonus.
Most players on their first contract, including Posluszny, have relatively low base salaries. Posluszny is making $665,000 this year. If the Bills gave him a new contract under the current rules, his base salary three years out could be only $1.4 million. The Bills, essentially, would have to give Posluszny all his money via a signing bonus, making his entire contract virtually guaranteed. That's not realistic in the NFL. Whenever a new CBA is signed, the Bills won't be restricted by the 30 percent rule.
Posluszny says he wants to continue his career in Buffalo.
"I would like to stay," he says with conviction.
However, he says he's not worrying about the future.
"I've gone through the whole season without thinking about it," Posluszny said. "There's nothing I can do. What can I do about it? The most important thing I can do is play well on the field, so that's what I've been trying to do."
Because Whitner entered the league as the eighth overall pick in the draft, his base salary this year is high enough ($3.3 million) that the 30 percent rule doesn't have such a major impact on his negotiations.
Next on the list of importance after Whitner and Posluszny is Florence, who has started 27 straight games for the Bills at cornerback. The Bills are likely to want him back, but he also has played well enough to draw good interest from other teams. Ayodele has started seven straight games. His chances to return to Buffalo might depend on how negotiations go with Posluszny.
Wilson has started 26 games over the past four years at safety, and it's likely the Bills will pursue his return. If the Bills don't reach a deal with Whitner, Wilson would be the leading candidate to take his place as starter.
Wilson also hopes today is not his last game as a Bill in Orchard Park.
"I've spent well over six years of my life here," Wilson said. "I've given my all to the organization. I feel the love and the warmth here, not only from the organization but in the community. It would be tough to part ways if I do. But I'll just wait and see what happens."