NFL Preview - Buffalo (0-0) at Chicago (0-0)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It'd be one thing if it was still 2002 or 2003.
But now that we're 14 years into a new century, the fact that Buffalo Bills fans can still lament that they haven't been to the playoffs since the final year of the previous century is beginning to have gravity.
It was back in 1999 - with coach Wade Phillips and quarterback Doug Flutie - that the Bills finished the regular season at 11-5 and headed to the postseason chock full of wagon-circling optimism.
Of course, given that the result the following week's events have since gone down in history as the
"Music City Miracle," perhaps it's understandable that even the specter of playing meaningful games in January continues to give Western New Yorkers the shakes.
The subsequent 14 seasons have yielded exactly one better-than-.500 record (2004), two more where wins equaled losses (2000 and 2002) and 11 more in which a rabid and occasionally frostbitten fan base has been left to glean positives from win totals numbering from three to seven.
Whether the 2014 season will be the one in which the Bills once again crack the playoff code is, at best, up for debate. But what's not in question is the reality that, in order to stretch the schedule beyond Dec. 28 this year they're going to have to score some points.
Until quarterback EJ Manuel tossed a second-half touchdown pass against Tampa Bay in game four of a five-game preseason, Buffalo's first-team offense had gone 18 quarters without a touchdown.
Manuel enters year two of an already eventful stay with the Bills, who made him the 16th overall draft choice out of Florida State in 2013. Injuries limited him to just 10 games as rookie - he was 4-6 as a starter - and the team wound up 28th in a 32-team league with only 193.9 pass yards per game.
To be fair, of course, Buffalo was second in the league in rushing thanks to the tandem of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, who teamed up to gain 1,823 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Dynamic wide receiver Sammy Watkins was taken with the fourth overall pick out of Clemson this spring and has yielded some spectacular practice-reel highlights, but he's been hampered by bruised ribs for much of the preseason schedule. He's officially labeled questionable for the opener, but is nonetheless expected to take the field opposite another new Manuel target - Mike Williams - who was brought in from Tampa Bay in an offseason trade.
New weapons equal new confidence for second-year coach Doug Marrone.
"With EJ, obviously we're looking for him to progress and to keep coming along," Marrone said. "We're going to stick with him. I'm going to support him 110 percent. And we're going to get him better."
The new faces aren't solely limited to the offense.
The defense will be run by new coordinator Jim Schwartz after Mike Pettine exited that position to take the head coaching job in Cleveland. Schwartz's unit it headlined by incoming linebacker Brandon Spikes.
Spikes at least softens the blow felt when Kiko Alonso, who made 87 tackles as a rookie last season, was lost to a knee injury.
The Bills established a franchise record with 57 sacks in 2013, but were gashed for 150 or more rushing yards seven times.
"I don't want to get ahead of that stuff but, hey, the proof's in the pudding," Spikes said. "(Schwartz) wants us getting vertical, getting disruptive, causing havoc."
Buffalo has never won in five all-time visits to Chicago, and it'll face a 2014 version of the Bears that's looking to make its own improvements when it comes to stopping opposition offense.
The 2013 Bears opened the season with three consecutive victories and had control of their playoff destiny several weeks later, needing one win in the final two games to reach the playoffs. Instead, the defense was blown up for 87 points and nearly 1,000 total yards in losses to Philadelphia and Green Bay.
"We're hungry," cornerback Tim Jennings said. "We've got attitude from last year. The coaches feel the same way as well as the players do. We really still have a bad taste in our mouth."
The offense remains in good hands with second-year coach Marc Trestman, who delivered his trademark prodigious offense. Chicago was fifth in passing and eighth in total offense - jumping from 29th and 28th a season before - and figures to be even better this season if Jay Cutler stays healthy.
Cutler missed five starts thanks to recurring ankle and groin issues, but still managed his best completion percentage since his 2007 days in Denver. His 89.2 passer rating was the best of his career and he threw 12 interceptions compared to 19 touchdowns.
It didn't hurt that he was sacked just 19 times, too, after being dumped 38 times in 2012.
Wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were deemed Pro Bowl-worthy after joining forces for 2,716 yards and 19 touchdowns on a combined 189 catches. Jeffery was second in the NFL with 1,526 scrimmage yards, and veteran Santonio Holmes joins the mix this season as well.
"(Holmes is) exciting," Cutler said. "We've just got to get him caught up with everything right now. It's hard coming in where we are offensively and just kind of throwing him into the mix."
The running back, as it turns out, isn't bad either.
Matt Forte rumbled for a career-best 1,339 ground yards to place second in the league, and his 1,933 scrimmage yards were third among all players.
But it couldn't offset a defense that was 30th overall as a unit, allowed just short of 400 yards per game, tied for the bottom rung in sacks and gave up more than 2,500 rushing yards. few faces to shore things up include veteran Jared Allen, a five-time Pro Bowler. Also incoming are linemen Willie Young and LaMarr Houston, though Julius Peppers left town to sign with Green Bay.
First-round draft pick Kyle Fuller was nicked up during the preseason with an ankle injury, but is expected to be 100 percent for his debut.
"All the additions that we brought to this defense," Jennings said, "I'm excited about it and I just can't wait to get us all together and get us come Sunday, and see where we're at."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Start of Something Big
All Buffalo-centric eyes will be on Watkins, who's heralded as a true difference-maker for a team that's had precious few of them since the historic Super Bowl run of a generation ago. Matched up with a defense that'll be considered suspect until definitively proven otherwise, he's at least an even- money bet to be a central highlight on Sunday night post-game recap shows.
An Embarrassment of Riches
As mentioned previously, the Bears have a generous selection of offensive weapons at their disposal. The aerial combination of Cutler and Marshall/Jeffery is going to unnerve a lot of teams again this season, and Bills cornerbacks Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore will be the first to get a taste of the 2014 version - with Holmes and Forte probably taking advantage of matchups alongside.
It's Week 1, so everyone's an optimist in every city. And both teams here have reason to believe that improvement over 2013 is a real possibility.
Offense should be the name of the game in this one, and whatever team's woebegone defense can make an extra stop - or cause an extra turnover - could be the deciding factor in a shootout. The Bears are home, so call that the tipping point.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bears 30, Bills 24
09/04 11:26:05 ET