Closing the Gap

Marcus Stroud

Buffalo has lost nine straight games to New England. The streak may end this season. After hitting it big in free agency, the Bills and Jets are shrinking the talent gap in the AFC East. Read on for the blueprint...

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick sounded like a really bad rapper.

He just repeated himself. Over and over and over.

Every other phrase was "We're focused on Buffalo." In a desperate attempt to divert attention from the Spygate scandal, Belichick constantly spoke of a league violation as if it was a decades-old skeleton in the team's closet. Simultaneously, he hyped up the Patriots' upcoming game against Buffalo as the team's complete focus – those stern eyes glaring.

You'd think Belichick was preparing for the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Not an injury-ravaged 0-2 Buffalo team. The Patriots steamrolled the Bills 38-7 and then somehow bettered themselves seven weeks later on Sunday Night Football, 56-10.

Both blowouts were embarrassing proof that New England was more than a typical division bully. Mike Tyson was trading blows with the cast from The O.C. In the Patriots six divisional games, they outscored Buffalo, New York and Miami, 229-76. The Pats have won the last five division titles and Buffalo hasn't upset the Patriots since Sam Adams engulfed 97.9 percent of the Sports Illustrated cover in September 2003 after the Bills' 31-0 opening day shocker.

Nine straight losses.

But after the first week of free agency, the Bills and Jets (sorry ‘Fins) significantly closed the talent gap on the aging Patriots. AFC East games will not be Varsity vs. JV laughers in 2008.

Any team with Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Belichick must be etched in as the preseason division champ, but there will not be a nine-game difference between first and second as there was last season in the AFC East. Either the Jets or Bills are bound to upset New England at least once this coming year. Both young teams are building from within, while the Patriots are aging. By 2009 or 2010 lines may cross, and the Patriots Dynasty could actually be challenged in the AFC East.

Experience meshed with youth this past week when Buffalo and New York spent approximately $194 million on seven marquee signings. It was money well spent at the precise area New England is vulnerable. All seven multi-year deals were given to linebackers and linemen, as the Bills landed Marcus Stroud, Spencer Johnson and Kawika Mitchell.

It's a copycat league. The Giants lived in New England's backfield throughout Super Bowl XLII, constantly disrupting Tom Brady's timing-based passing attack. He rarely had time to throw deep to Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth, averaging a dink-and-dunkish 9.2 yards per completion. New England didn't complete one pass over 19 yards long because the pocket was collapsing. Brady was regularly on the turf (five sacks, one fumble), running back Laurence Maroney was stuffed (2.6 yards per carry), Eli Manning was given a chance… and the unthinkable happened.

The secret got out fast. Signing promising defensive linemen is the new trend. Oakland re-signed DT Tommy Kelly – who? – to a seven-year, $50.5 million deal on the eve of free agency. Cleveland mortgaged second- and third-round picks to bookend pass-rushing tackles Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers side-by-side inside. Williams signed a six-year, $38 million and Rogers is under contract for three more years. His base salaries are $4.25 million this coming year, $5.25 in 2009, and $7 million in 2010 (according to the player's union website).

Not cheap. But the Bills and Jets joined the party. Rather than reach for skill players in free agency, both teams stocked up their interior. Why play into the Patriots' hands? They'll greet a shootout. The Bills and Jets are designing their rosters inside-out.

Jets' G.M. Mike Tannenbaum signed five-time All-Pro Alan Faneca to the richest contract ever given to an offensive lineman. And a team identity was born. Left side, strong side. With Faneca sandwiched by center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson on the left, Thomas Jones could become a clock-killing, 1,300-yard back. In Pittsburgh, Faneca was the unsung hero behind Willie Parker's rise, Jerome Bettis' longevity, and the Steelers' 2005 Super Bowl win.

The Jets also added versatile OL Damien Woody (giving the line four first round draft picks), pass-rushing defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and outside linebacker Calvin Pace (98 tackles, 6.5 sacks last season). All four acquisitions are glue players – core strength to physically wear down the 18-1 Patriots.

The offseason plan of attack was no different in Western New York.

Buffalo wisely admitted defeat by releasing Larry Tripplett, Marv Levy's prize free agent signing two years ago, and trading for Marcus Stroud. Dick Jauron's ‘Tampa 2' scheme has been soft in the trenches, where Buffalo relied on smaller defensive tackles. The results were ugly. The Bills were 25th against the rush, allowing 124 yards per game. Buffalo faced short second- and third-down situations all season.

Now, one player from the NFL's top-rated rush defense (former Viking Spencer Johnson), and another from the 11th (Stroud) are on board. Stroud has four inches and 15 lb. on Tripplett, and despite injury concerns, remains one of the best run-stoppers in the game. He is a three-time Pro Bowler that will single-handedly change the makeup of Buffalo's defense.

Stroud's space-eating should unleash Paul Posluszny. The 2007 second round pick from Penn State had 26 tackles until suffering a season-ending forearm against the Patriots in Week Three. With less blockers advancing to the second level, an untouched Posluszny should become the Bills' defensive focal point in his sophomore year. Pat Williams and Ted Washington created a similar effect in the late 90s.

Defensively, age and departures are chipping away at the Patriots. New England's top four linebackers last season will average 35 years of age when the 2008 season kicks off. Defensive backs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay hit big paydays elsewhere, along with deep threat Donte Stallworth.

Offensively, no team in the league is in New England's stratosphere. There is no reason to doubt that Tom Brady and Randy Moss won't turn their season into a video game for the next three years. Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch and the Bills' raw offense will endure more growing pains this season, as it searches for identity and stability.

But the Bills have spent wisely. Last offseason the offensive line was solidified, as Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker paved the way for Lynch's rookie 1,000-yard season. This March, Buffalo bulked up the defense. The personnel is finally starting to resemble a Dick Jauron team. It is a blueprint the Giants set in February. Remember. In Chicago, Jauron led a Jim Miller/Shane Matthews-led team to a 13-3 record. That's purely coaching and defense.

Healthy and reloaded in 2008, the Bills (and Jets) are prepared to trade blows with the bully. And the next time Belichick says he's focused on Buffalo, he will sincerely mean it.

Tyler Dunne is the Editor-in-Chief of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at thdunne@gmail.com

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