Despite their failures in the Big Game, the decade of the 1990s was kind to the Buffalo Bills. The franchise reached the playoffs eight times in those 10 years and went to an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls.
"Consecutive" once again has a familiar ring to it with this team. Only these days, the Bills have failed to reach the postseason 13 straight years, the longest active drought in the league. And those woes are enhanced by the fact that the team has finished last in the AFC East five consecutive seasons.
But it's a new season and that brings new hope. So here comes 2013 and we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the Buffalo Bills:
QB Kevin Kolb: A second-round pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007, Kolb has made just 21 starts in six seasons and is now on his third team after being released by the Arizona Cardinals. Despite throwing 17 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions, Kolb was sacked 57 times and lost 5-of-10 fumbles in two seasons with the Cards. He should get a lot more support from a Bills' ground attack and running back C.J. Spiller, who ran for 1,244 yards last season; 40 more yards than Arizona managed in 2012.
RB C.J. Spiller: Speaking of Spiller, the ninth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft was a bigger factor on special teams his rookie season. But he has been making up for lost time the last season or so. Dating back to Week 13 of 2011, the big-play performer has rushed for 1,635 yards and scored a total of 13 touchdowns. Be it Kolb or possibly rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, Spiller offers a lot of versatility and support from the backfield and may be indeed be primed for a career year.
WR Robert Woods: Many felt the former Southern Cal standout was first-round material in April but as it turned out, the Bills were able to grab him in the second round of the draft. In three seasons with the Trojans, Woods totaled an impressive 252 receptions for 2,930 yards and 32 touchdowns, 26 of those scores coming in the last two seasons. It may not be very long before the rookie wide receiver finds himself in the starting lineup opposite veteran Stevie Johnson.
DE Mario Williams: From the first overall pick in the 2006 draft and two-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans to big-money acquisition for the Bills, Williams begins his second season in Orchard Park and hopes to be healthy all season. Despite playing hurt during the first half of 2012, Williams still led the Bills with 10.5 sacks, six of those coming in the team's final seven games. He'll start at left defensive end in Mike Pettine's 3-4 defense but we could see him in many places this season.
ILB Kiko Alonso: The third season on the field proved to be the charm for the versatile Alonso, who totaled 81 stops (14 tackles for losses) and four interceptions in his final campaign with the Oregon Ducks. The Bills used the second of two second-round picks to grab Alonso, who should move right into the starting lineup from Day 1. Buffalo's run defense has been among the worst in the league for a number of seasons and given his abilities, don't be shocked if the rookie defenders leads the team in tackles in 2013.
So what can we expect from the Bills in 2013? Can the team bounce back from five consecutive last-place finishes in the AFC East? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? With the New England Patriots showing some signs of vulnerability, could Buffalo be one of the surprise teams in the AFC East this season?
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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