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The Buffalo Bills' players can sense how badly the team's fans want it to happen.

They get reminded all the time ?when they're out in the community.

"When you talk to them, they always have a story about a particular game," says Bills safety ?George Wilson. "Season-ticket holders always let you know how long they've been season-ticket holders. They tell you about beloved family ?memories from the Rockpile to a particular game. Our fans have been very supportive over the years. We can feel their excitement. ?You can sense they're just as excited about the upcoming season as we are."

Twelve years.

It's been 12 long years since the Bills last made the playoffs, a drought that weighs ?on the franchise. Will major investments in defense help lay the streak to rest?

Everyone who follows the Bills knows the streak. It's the longest in franchise history, the longest current streak of its kind in the NFL.

A dozen years without a playoff berth.

Finally, the Bills and their fans think they have their best shot to return to the postseason since their last berth, in 1999.

"There's only so long where you can just be the Old Bills, just getting beat 'round in this conference," said receiver Stevie Johnson. "It's time to turn it around and take over, and I think we've got the team that can do it this year."

The Bills' "victorious offseason" has been fully documented: a $100 million contract for defensive end Mario Williams, the $36 million re-signing of Johnson, the $27 million deal for edge rusher Mark Anderson, the promotion of Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator.

The logic is straightforward: Give one of the most experienced defensive coaches in the league a major talent upgrade for a unit that ranked 26th in yards allowed, while an offense that ranked 14th but was decimated by injuries last season gets healthy and, presumably, better.

Sounds like a plan.

>The opponents

There are planets in place that could line up to work to the Bills' benefit if they're good enough.

The Bills and the rest of the AFC East have an advantageous schedule crossover this season, facing the AFC South and the NFC West.

Forecasting strength of schedule is an inexact science. A December game that looks easy in September might turn out very hard, and vice versa. Washington went 5-11 last season but beat the Super Bowl-champion Giants twice. The week Buffalo faced the Redskins, Washington's offensive line was in shambles and the Bills won, 23-0.

Nevertheless, history says the AFC East is catching a break this year.

The AFC South features Jacksonville and Indianapolis teams that are rebuilding with new coaches and new or inexperienced starting quarterbacks. Tennessee went 9-7 last season (with the easiest schedule in the league) but has a first-time starter at quarterback. Defending AFC South champion Houston figures to be strong. The other three in the South are not elite teams.

The NFC West is led by last year's conference runner-up, San Francisco, and the Bills' game ?at the 49ers looks like an "L." The 49ers went ?3-1 against the AFC last year. But that was the first and only time since 2007 that an NFC ?West team had a winning record against the AFC. ?Seattle is 4-12 against the AFC the past four years. St. Louis is 3-13. Arizona is 7-9. Any of those three teams could prove to be a tough test this year. It's hard to imagine any of them being elite, or as good as any of the top three teams in the NFC East.

This is just the third year that this specific crossover AFC South and NFC West has been in effect. Each of the last two seasons, an AFC team that had this crossover made a big turnaround and qualified for the playoffs.

Two years ago, Kansas City went from 4-12 to 10-6 and won the AFC West. The Chiefs went 8-2 outside the division and 6-2 against the NFC West and AFC South.
Last year, Cincinnati went from ?4-12 to 9-7 and earned a wild-card berth. The Bengals went 7-3 outside their ?division and 6-2 against the NFC West and AFC South.

Of course, the other three teams ?in the AFC East have this crossover as well. Based on last year's records, ?New England has the easiest schedule ?in the league. Buffalo's is tied for third easiest. The Jets' schedule is tied for ninth easiest. Whichever team is the ?second best in the AFC East presumably the Bills or the Jets will be ?wasting a great opportunity if it ?does not earn a wild-card berth this season.

>The quarterbacks

No matter what one thinks of Ryan Fitzpatrick as the Bills' starter, it's obvious the Bills face an underwhelming list of quarterbacks this season.

Who are the elite quarterbacks on the Bills' schedule? New England's Tom Brady is one. Houston's Matt Schaub is very good and might be considered elite. San Francisco's Alex Smith is a former No. 1 overall pick. But he ranked 19th in passing yards last season, the best season of his six-year career. St. Louis' Sam Bradford is a former No. 1 overall pick. He could become elite.

Buffalo plays only four games against quarterbacks that ranked in the top half of the league in passer rating last year (Brady twice, Schaub and Smith). Buffalo plays only four games against starting quarterbacks that ranked among the top 14 in passing yards in either of the last two seasons (Brady twice, Schaub and Bradford).

ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski concurs. Only three of his top 16-rated QBs (Brady, Schaub and Smith) face the Bills.

>Overdue

Of course, just because the Bills are overdue doesn't mean wins will fall into place for them. The players say they are fully aware of this.

"You can go in that locker room and ask any guy," Wilson said. "Nobody thinks we've arrived. Just because we invested money in free agency and had a nice draft to add some depth to our team, the New York Jets are not going to lay down for us in Week One. The New England Patriots are not going to make it any easier on us. The Chiefs are going to come in and try to dominate us on our home turf in Week Two.

"Nobody's going to give us a break because we have some nice names on the roster," Wilson said. "We have to go out and execute and convert it from paper to the playing field. That's something we've always said. Nobody's going to let up off their pedal because we know how we started last year and how we ended the season. We cannot allow a repeat performance."

"The front office put the team in place," receiver David Nelson said. "Now it's time for us to go and do it. It's time for us to prove that we belong here and we're capable of winning football games."

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com