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What will be the toughest game on Bills' schedule?

By Tim Graham

What will be the toughest game on the Buffalo Bills' schedule this year?

That was the question Bleacher Report writer Erik Frenz wanted to explore on his AFC East blog. I was my usual long-winded self in trying to come up with an answer.

I mulled over the opening day game against the New York Jets because of two time-honored sports truisms: 1) The most important game always is the next game; 2) Opening day sets a tone for the entire season. Then there's the idea that a victory over the Jets could send the Bills to a 3-0 start, with games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns to follow.

I also considered the second of the arduous, back-to-back West Coast games. The Bills will play the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals in Weeks 5 and 6. The Cardinals wouldn't nearly be considered the toughest foe on the schedule, but the circumstances are rugged.

But my final answer was Week 10 against the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium, where the Bills never have won. Here is what I wrote:

That game is more than just a win or a loss for Buffalo, it's a psychological hurdle. Buffalo seems to be turning the corner from hoping to win to expecting to win, and New England is the mountaintop. The Bills could have swept the Patriots last season, winning in Orchard Park and then jumping to a 21-0 lead in the rematch, but they fell apart and couldn't close out what could've been a symbolic victory.

Frenz admitted he agreed with me and offered up a counterpoint -- and a darn good one -- for the sake of discussion.

But if you were to poll the Bills' roster right now and tell them you could guarantee a victory in any single game on the schedule, the response would be nearly unanimous: over the Patriots in Foxborough.

What does Las Vegas really think of the Bills?

VegasSign

By Tim Graham

Last week, a minor skirmish broke out on my Twitter feed over what Las Vegas thinks of the Buffalo Bills' win total for 2012.

The problem is that too many people view an over/under number as a prediction of reality.

Actually, it's a prediction of money.

While some online sites started the Bills out at 6.5 wins, Las Vegas Sports Consultants opened the Bills at 7. LVSC is the world's most influential oddsmaking operation, setting lines for a vast majority of legal sports books.

To further illustrate the concept that win totals aren't based on reality, consider that LVSC has posted early point spreads for every 2012 NFL game except for Week 17 (because many teams bench their starters to get ready for the playoffs). The Bills are favored to win eight of the 15 games forecasted, and probably would be favored at home in Week 17.

So why wouldn't LVSC peg its win total for the Bills at 8.5?

I called LVSC for expert insight to share on the Press Coverage blog. The oddsmaker who answered the phone? Joel Staniszewski, a Sloan native who graduated from St. Joe's and Buffalo State.

What are the odds of that? I should have asked him, but we were too busy talking about Bills wagers.

The first thing to consider about win totals is that they're posted before the free-agency period begins. Buffalo was assigned its 7 without knowing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson were on the way.

"The number is put up based on what oddsmakers think will get the most bets on both sides," Staniszewski said. "A team like the Bills that's traditionally poor, they're going to get a lower number because oddsmakers know that people are going to bet them under.

"The only people that are going to bet them over are homers who want to bet the Bills, which are few and far between."

The perfect scenario oddsmakers shoot for is an equal amount of money on either side. That's guaranteed money because they keep half the wagers plus a built-in commission commonly referred to as "the juice."

To that end, oddsmakers must account for all those people who view the Bills as a perennial doormat and the scarcity of Bills fans who will wager big money to show their confidence.

So when the Bills do make dramatic moves to improve their defense, why doesn't the win total then shoot upwards to reflect how much better their roster is?

"You let the people who are betting determine where you're going to move the number to," Staniszewski said. "You don't want to move the number too much. You've got to be smart with the number, assuming who's going to bet what."

Subtle movement protects the sports books. Suppose the Bills opened at 6.5 wins before free agency and then they signed two of the best defensive free agents on the market, whipping fans into a frenzy and making seven victories seem super attractive.

Sports books couldn't simply switch the win total to 7.5 or 8 because bettors who previously took the over would also bet the new under. And if the Bills finished 7-9, then books would face the possibility of cashing out an inordinate amount of tickets.

Sports books, therefore, must move their lines slowly and based on the money coming in to protect themselves.

And the money -- wiseguy money, even -- has been coming in on Buffalo. The LVSC win total for Buffalo now is at 7.5 wins and creeping toward 8. Money on Buffalo also is reflected at the Bovada.lv online casino, where the Bills' odds to win the Super Bowl have shrunk from 60-to-1 to 50-to-1.

"From what I gather," Staniszewski said, "the people that have bet the over are people that would be considered the sharp bettors, the people you keep an eye on and move the line a little when they bet it as opposed to when Joe Shmoe comes in and bets it.

"Those that are really keen to it know that if the Bills' defense can get even to the middle of the pack and their offense can stay as high-powered as it was in the beginning half of the year, this team can cause some damage."

(Photo: Associated Press)

AFC East's best: No. 23 Marcell Dareus

By Tim Graham

DareusMugA countdown of my top 25 AFC East players continues, one weekday at a time ...

The choice

As a rookie, Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus led the team with 5.5 sacks. That also led the NFL for players who primarily played 3-4 nose tackle. Dareus started 10 games at nose tackle and five at defensive end.

The Bills are moving a 4-3 and will have some incredible talent around Dareus they didn't have last year. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams is back from injury. Free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson will set the edge.

That setup -- plus a year of NFL experience -- will make it tough for opponents to concentrate on stopping Dareus. ProFootballFocus.com credited him with 24 quarterback hurries, sixth in the league among all defensive tackles.

Fast fact

Dareus was named NFL defensive rookie of the week for his performance against the Washington Redskins. He notched 2.5 sacks, the most by a Bills rookie since Cornelius Bennett in 1987.

How acquired

Selected in the first round (third overall) of the 2011 draft.

Hint about No. 22

If not for injuries, he'd be considered a fantasy superstar.

Picks to date

23. Marcell Dareus, Bills defensive tackle
24. Antonio Cromartie, Jets cornerback
25. Eric Wood, Bills center

Bills roundup: Mario's mansion trickles down

By Tim Graham

New defensive tackle Mario Williams sure does make the Buffalo Bills' 53-man roster look a whole lot better.

He has made another 53-man roster incredibly happy, too.

Associated Press reporter John Wawrow explains how the $2 million mansion Williams recently purchased in Aurora will help 53 creditors who were swindled by the home's previous owner, imprisoned attorney Kenneth Bernas.

"I didn't know that anything like this would happen until I got a call that Mario had an interest in the mansion," William F. Savino, who represents the creditors, told Wawrow. "It's good news for the victims. They didn't deserve this from someone they trusted."

The sale price will send almost $500,000 to the creditors, who lost $3.1 million to Bernas.

And futhermore ...

* Will Brinson, CBS Sports senior blogger (we've come a long way, haven't we?), predicts the AFC based on over-under win totals in Las Vegas. Brinson takes the Bills and the over.

* One of Buffalo's coolest companies, New Era, unveiled its new line of NFL sideline caps Monday, and BuffaloBills.com shows off the local team's version.

* ESPN.com blogger James Walker considers Buffalo's cornerbacks a "hidden treasure." There's no mention of Leodis McKevin.

* Stu Boyar from Channel 2 catches up with Jim Kelly at the legendary quarterback's silver anniversary football camp.

* BuffaloRumblings.com editor Brian Galliford takes a closer look at defensive tackle Alex Carrington.

* Brad Andrews of BuffaLowDown.com sketches out his 53-man roster as he sees it in June.

Are earlier beer sales at the Ralph a good idea?

CrazyTailgate

By Tim Graham

The parking-lot scene around Ralph Wilson Stadium long has been a colorful cauldron. Thousands of fans -- some of whom have no intention of attending the game -- converge on Orchard Park to grill hot dogs, toss the football around and pound beers.

The way Bills fans tailgate is the reason HBO's "Real Sports" chose the Ralph as the place it would find the strongest footage for an unsettling 2008 segment on binge drinking at NFL stadiums.

In today's Buffalo News, reporter Gene Warner writes about an interesting proposal from two state senators, and the idea has struck a nerve. Mark J. Grisanti and George D. Maziarz want the beer to start flowing at the Ralph an hour earlier.

State law prevents beer sales before noon on Sundays, making parking lots the only places to drink from 9 a.m.-noon when the Bills kick off at 1 p.m. (six of their eight regular-season games this year).

Although cosponsors Grisanti and Maziarz didn't come out and say it, earlier beer sales would draw fans into the stadium earlier and perhaps draw them away from their unsupervised devices. Once inside, fans might be curbed by the lines and the prices and perhaps even get rejected by a mindful vendor. Oh, and it would bump concession and state tax revenues.

"People are hanging out, tailgating in these lots, at earlier times," Grisanti said. "If [teams] had the opportunity to open up their concession stands earlier, it could be more regulated."

As expected, Buffalo News readers have been opinionated on the topic.

Frank Daddario of Akron writes: "You want safety in the stadiums around the NFL stop selling beer in the stadium all together. It would give many fans a chance to sober up before they leave the stadium too. The overall violence in parking lots and inside the stadiums is an embaresment to the league."

James Kozlowski of Buffalo writes: "People are gonna drink anyway, might as well let it be in a slightly more controlled atmosphere than in the parking lot."

Jeremy Lewis writes: "I can't see people saying, "Hey, let's go in now so we can buy more expensive beer and sit around and do nothing for 2 hours."

Edward Parylo of Joppa, Md., writes: "Get real. Early opening of beer taps will do nothing. The price of beer is too high, and you will not stop drunks in the parking lots tailgating. It is all ways a few who spoil it for the rest."

Jeffrey Markowski of Round Lake writes: "Spending $10 a beer inside the stadium as opposed to drinking your own at regular prices outside? Which one do you think the average fan will choose? If you want to help with impaired drivng, how about leaving concessions open AFTER games so fans can get some food or coffee to help sober up?"

(Photo: Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

AFC East's best: No. 24 Antonio Cromartie

By Tim Graham

CromartieMugA countdown of my top 25 AFC East players continues, one weekday at a time ...

The choice

New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie gets thrown at often, but not because he's easy to pick on. Opposing quarterbacks have to throw somewhere, and the guy on the other side is All-World cornerback Darrelle Revis. So teams take their chances with Cromartie.

ProFootballFocus.com charts every play and had teams completing just 46.4 percent of their passes against Cromartie. That was tied for eighth-best among all NFL cornerbacks. But he also yielded some mediocre stats, according to PFF's data: 72.8 passer rating against and six touchdowns allowed.

Old friend KC Joyner, the inimitable Football Scientist, noted some impressive numbers from film analysis. Cromartie allowed only 6.0 yards per pass attempt that came his way, tied for 15th among all cornerbacks. On short pass plays, Cromartie allowed 3.0 yards per attempt, fifth in the league and 1.1 yards better than Revis.

Cromartie's four interceptions tied Revis and linebacker David Harris for the team lead.

Fast fact

Cromartie averaged 24.5 yards on kickoff returns and recorded the first forced fumble of his career last season. So I guess those are two fast facts.

How acquired

2010 trade with the San Diego Chargers for a conditional 2011 draft choice (second-round).

Hint about No. 23

He's the only second-year player on the list.

How the top 25 AFC East list was assembled

By Tim Graham

Whenever somebody trots out a list of the top this or all-time that, folks want to know what the criteria are. With the launch of my top 25 AFC East players Monday, I wanted to explain some of the background before we got too deep into the series.

So is it based on last year's performances or a projection of how I think they'll play in 2012?

Yes.

In general, I'm evaluating how I view these players as we head into the season. My view, of course, is heavily influenced by what they've done on the field to date. I also took injuries into consideration. Injuries impacted where I slotted Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood and defensive tackle Kyle Williams among others.

The list is subjective and based on my opinion. But others helped me tweak the list.

I assembled preliminary rankings and then shared them with four people I trust: ESPN.com and Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson (with a great Twitter feed @WilliamsonNFL), statistical analyst KC Joyner (aka The Football Scientist, whose "Fantasy Draft Guide 2012" comes highly recommended from me) and two NFL personnel men who help to keep me from looking stupid on occasion but don't want their bosses to know they talk to me.

Their opinions helped convince me to adjust a player here or there, but my name is on this thing. So if you disagree, please lodge your complaints with me.

My preference is for readers to debate the selections in the comments section underneath each article. Please consider registering at BuffaloNews.com. The more fans we have exchanging ideas here, then the better this forum will be.

But I'd also like to invite you to contact me at tgraham@buffnews.com. Fire off your questions on this series or anything you wish. I'll collect your submissions and convert them into a regular mailbag feature.

AFC East's best: No. 25 Eric Wood

By Tim Graham

WoodMugA countdown of my top 25 AFC East players starts now and runs one weekday at a time until training camp ...

The choice

It's hard to illustrate Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood's impact with stats. You can't compare the team's rushing averages with him to without him. Wood went down with a knee injury one week before running back Fred Jackson was lost for the season.

But according to organizations that grade offensive linemen, Wood was among the best centers in the NFL last year before he got hurt. Sacks allowed is a subjective stat, but ProFootballFocus.com and STATS Inc. each charted him for zero. PFF tagged him with one quarterback hit and just two hurries. He committed one holding penalty.

Those numbers are impressive on the surface, but then consider Wood played against these formidable fronts: New York Giants (Super Bowl champs, tied for third in sacks), Philadelphia Eagles (tied for first in sacks), Cincinnati Bengals (fifth), Dallas Cowboys (tied for seventh) and Washington Redskins (tied for 10th). He also tangled with talented AFC East nose tackles Vince Wilfork and Sione Pouha.

Fast fact

Wood was selected with the draft pick the Bills received from the Eagles in exchange for perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters.

How acquired

Selected in the first round (28th overall) of the 2009 draft.

Hint about No. 24

He's a target of ridicule for opposing fans, but quarterbacks still have to be aware of his location on every snap.

Bills roundup: Pass rush makes Buffalo contender

By Tim Graham

NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah wrote an interesting piece that explored the importance of sacks when it comes to playing championship football.

Jeremiah's premise: Teams that disrupt quarterbacks should have greater success than those geared to stop the run. He noted four of the past five Super Bowl winners finished among the top three in sacks and the past three finished in the bottom half of the NFL in run defense.

He listed the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans as teams that best addressed this issue over the offseason and are now playoff contenders for 2012.

Let's take a look at some other Bills links:

* Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com blogs about the passing of cartoonist Kevin Weil, who drew Bills game-day program covers in the AFL days.

* Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com proposes defensive tackle Marcell Dareus will have the biggest breakout season for Buffalo this year.

*Third-year pro Arthur Moats wants to be known more for his versatility than his Brett Favre hit, writes BuffaloBills.com writer Jared Kracker.

* Kalamazoo Gazette reporter David Drew writes about Western Michigan kicker John Potter. Bills special-teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven wants to "get 70 percent touchbacks out of him."

Roster depth translates to stronger special teams

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills have depth up and down their roster like they haven't had in many years -- certainly since Chan Gailey became head coach.

While chatting with Gailey last week in the Bills' field house, his eyes bulged when I asked him to consider the team's position-for-position depth this summer compared to when he arrived two years ago.

The player who wins a starting job will have earned it at every position. Not that long ago, the Bills were forced to use some players because they had nobody else.

Where this increased depth should make a serious impact is on special teams.

It's not sexy to talk about special teams, especially when there are attention-grabbers like Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Vince Young to discuss. Folks wonder about the No. 2 receiver or the starting cornerbacks -- not the punt protector or the gunners.

But general roster depth always improves special-teams play, and the Bills won't mind it.

Under assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Bobby April, the Bills always had some specialists who couldn't play a regular down if they had to. There aren't any John Wendlings, Justin Jenkinses, Josh Stamers or Jon Cortos on the roster anymore.

The absence of those kinds of players certainly was noticed right after April departed because the Bills still were building up their depth, and that takes time.

A fuller roster means special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, brought back when the Bills fired April in 2010, will have more talent to stock his units. They might not be as specialized as Wendling, but they'll have better football pedigrees.

On the opening kickoff last season, eight of the 11 Bills on the field were making their NFL debuts. Rookie linebacker Chris White caused a fumble. Rookie linebacker Kelvin Sheppard recovered it. Five plays later, the Bills scored their first touchdown en route to a 41-7 victory.

The Bills' top special-teams tacklers last year -- fullback Corey McIntyre, linebacker Arthur Moats, receiver Ruvell Martin and Sheppard -- all contributed on regular downs.

Middle-round picks such as safety Da'Norris Searcy, linebacker Nigel Bradham and cornerback Ron Brooks are expected to be important special-teams performers in 2012.

The Bills had the stingiest kickoff coverage unit last year at 20.4 yards a return, but their touchback percentage was third-worst in the NFL at 24.1 percent. So they drafted Western Michigan kickoff specialist John Potter and will need to decide whether they want to use a roster spot on him (totally counterintuitive to the premise of this article, I know).

The Bills ranked 23rd in kickoff returns because they took a while to discover Justin Rogers was darn good at it. Rogers' 28.7-yard average was fifth among anybody with at least nine attempts.

Brian Moorman's 47.6-yard gross punting average ranked fourth, but his net average of 38.1 yards was 22nd.

On punt returns, the Bills ranked third with a gaudy 12.7-yard average, inflated by Leodis McKelvin's 80-yard touchdown. But they had only 26 punt returns, fewest in the NFL. They tied for 10th with 21 fair catches.

Special teams often are an afterthought, but they're an important facet that should benefit from the Bills' competitive roster.

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | tgraham@buffnews.com


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | mgaughan@buffnews.com


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@buffnews.com

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