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Jerry Sullivan: Bills look to defy history, get to 6-2

Jerry Sullivan

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Defensive tackle Ryan Davis was sitting alone at his locker on Wednesday, looking at his cellphone, so I figured it was a good time for a quiz question. Ryan, when was the last time the Bills were 6-2?

"Six and two?" Davis said. "Uh, it was in the last, I want to say about five years ago."

"It was 1993," I said.

"That's when they were 6-2?" Davis said with an incredulous look. "I've heard about the 17-year thing, but sheesh, that's wild to me."

To be precise, the Bills got off to a 7-1 start in '93, the last of the four Super Bowl years. But it has been 24 years since they won six of their first eight games in a regular season. Zay Jones, Shaq Lawson and Tre'Davious White weren't alive.

"Well, we're not 6-2 at this point," said head coach Sean McDermott. "We're 5-2 right now, so we've got a great opportunity against a good football team that's well-coached. They've got playmakers and they've been where we want to go, not last year but the year before that."

Intentional or not, McDermott struck a cautionary note about getting too giddy over a hot start in a head coach's first year. The Jets got to 10-5 two years ago in Todd Bowles' first season. Then they lost the finale in Buffalo, missed the playoffs, and have been in free fall ever since.

So regardless of Thursday night's outcome against the Jets, the Bills have a long way to go. But getting to 6-2, tied with the Pats for first place in the division at the midpoint, would be a remarkable achievement for a team that was perceived to be tanking late in the summer.

The Bills haven't even been 6-4 after 10 games since 2000, the first year of the drought. That's the most amazing stat of all, that a team could go 17 years and not be above .500 at the 10-game mark once in a league of such numbing parity.

That means they could lose two of the next three and still have their best 10-game record since Bill Clinton was still in the White House. The Bills have more lofty ambitions, of course, but grim history gives pause to even the mildest skeptic.

During the drought, the Bills have tended to crumble when they seemed about to break through. The 2011 team started 5-2, then lost seven in a row. In 2008, they were 5-1 and lost four straight. The 2002 team was 5-3, tied for first in Drew Bledsoe's first year, then lost its next three.

"I understand that," said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. "That's the difference between being a fan and being part of this team internally. Everybody hasn't been part of that. Most of these guys don't know. This team is totally different; we don't impose that whole 17 years on us."

The AFC is wide open, which is why General Manager Brandon Beane made the deal for Kelvin Benjamin. There's been a siege of bad luck, a lot of it to quarterbacks. The Dolphins lost Ryan Tannehill. Andrew Luck has yet to play for the Colts. The Raiders' Derek Carr missed time and hasn't been the same. Houston's Deshaun Watson went down with a torn ACL Thursday.

Everything seems to be falling the Bills' way this year. They're tied for the fewest losses in the AFC with the Pats, Steelers and Chiefs — the three top seeds in last year's conference playoffs. They're two games up on the Broncos, three on the Raiders, with a win over both.

They must be having visions of the playoffs, right?

"Nah, not yet," said tailback LeSean McCoy. "In this league, I've seen the craziest things happen. Teams that you don't think will make the playoffs do, and teams that should make the playoffs don't."

That's why it's so astonishing for the Bills to have missed the playoffs 17 years in a row. You need only be the sixth best team out of 16 in a league designed to let mediocrities slip through. You almost have to work at not making the playoffs that often, which is sort of what the Bills have done.

Maybe their luck is finally turning. The Bills have avoided major injuries. McDermott and Beane have engendered a powerful bond in the locker room. Their plus-14 turnover margin is the highest by a team through the first seven games of a season since the Bengals were plus-16 in 2005. They practice taking the ball away, yes, but some of that is the luck of the bounce.

On Thursday night, the Bills had a chance to show the world they have something special going. It's only one game, but a strong performance on the road would lift them to 2-0 in the division and 4-1 in the conference. It's good to stack wins early in case you stumble late.

The road gets a little tougher from here. After a 10-day break, they host a Saints team that has won five in a row by an average of 14 points heading into Sunday's game with the Bucs. The Saints have been the NFC's version of the Bills, winning with an unheralded, resourceful defense.

They follow that with road games against the Chargers and Chiefs before hosting the Pats for the first of two December games with the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bills will be hard-pressed to split their next four games after the Jets, so Thursday's game was a vital test, a chance to build more cushion for the stretch run.

Center Eric Wood was well aware that it had been 24 years since the Bills got off to a 6-2 start. He's a media-savvy guy and heard it on the radio when he was getting treatment on Monday. He has been on teams that fizzled after a promising start, so he tries to keep an even temperament and not take anything for granted.

"It's cliche," Wood said, "but we're taking it one game at a time and this is an extremely big game for us. It's a divisional opponent. You need those games now. They pay off down the road."


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