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At the halfway point, a look ahead at the Bills season

Halfway through their 2014 schedule, the Buffalo Bills have positioned themselves to earn their first playoff berth since:

• Fans were debating the relative merits of Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson in the present tense;

• Dominik Hasek was starring in national credit-card commercials; and

• Hopes for downtown revitalization hinged on grandiose plans by the owner of the Sabres.

Fifteen years later:

• No one is arguing over who should start at quarterback for the Bills (this week, at least);

• Much of the general public would be hard-pressed to spell, or even come up with, the name of either Sabres’ goalie; and

• Hopes for downtown revitalization are already fueled by actual construction financed by the owner of the Sabres (and, this being Buffalo, helped along by $57 million in tax breaks).

Coming out of their bye week at 5-3 and off of their most impressive win of the season, the Bills could inspire the sort of local hysteria over the next two months that leads employers to re-institute “Bills Fridays” and inspires radio stations to record awkward fight songs.

Or their playoff run could be effectively over in a week, before you can even find that pair of red, white and blue Zubaz you stored away in the basement back in the ‘90s.

Buffalo hosts one of the AFC’s three other 5-3 teams when Kansas City visits Sunday, then travel to South Florida to take on another four days later.

By the end of the Thursday-night game against the Dolphins, Buffalo’s lone scheduled prime-time appearance of the season, it will be clear whether these Bills are actual contenders for the postseason, or if their record is the product of good timing, fortunate breaks and lousy opponents.

The Chiefs and Dolphins—who have looked nothing like the team that got swamped 29-10 by the Bills in Week 2—have each won three straight and four of their last five since their respective shaky starts. Their quarterbacks are playing well, their key offensive weapons remain ambulatory and their kickers are not horrific, eliminating the built-in advantages Buffalo has enjoyed throughout the Orton Era.

Which is just as well. Getting to 5-3, even given the softer first-half schedule, has been an accomplishment given the offensive turmoil brought about by injuries at running back, upheaval at quarterback and ineptitude along the offensive line.

At least the same record will be required to grab one of the AFC’s two wild-card berths (we’re not even going to discuss the division title until and unless the Patriots start playing like humans again). The Bills have to get significantly better if that’s going to happen.

In all, six of the final eight opponents have records equal to or better than Buffalo’s. Assuming wins over the Jets and Raiders (which is admittedly presumptuous, even if they are a combined 1-17), three more victories need to be found among the Chiefs (5-3), Dolphins (5-3), Browns (5-3), Broncos (6-2), Packers (5-3) and Patriots (7-2).

Any improvement starts with the offensive line, to this point the worst of any AFC playoff contender.

The running game was dismal, even before Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller went down against Minnesota in Week 7. Buffalo is 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 22nd in yards per attempt. And those substandard rankings get a boost from the few long runs the Bills have broken—a 53-yard sprint that ended with Spiller writhing on the turf, his collarbone broken; Jackson’s 39-yard romp to set up the game-winner in Chicago; and Dixon’s 47-yarder against the highly permissive Bears.

Without those three runs, Buffalo’s runners have averaged 3.2 yards per attempt, with even that feeble number trending downward. The Jets may be otherwise in complete disarray, but Buffalo was able to scrape out just 2.1 yards a carry in the blowout.

The pass protection has not been any better, with Orton absorbing 17 sacks in four games since replacing E.J. Manuel, who was dumped six times in his four starts. Again, the line regressed in New Jersey, permitting four sacks and forcing its highly immobile quarterback to scramble twice among 23 drop-backs.

Despite the blocking issues, Orton is playing at least as well as he ever has, thanks largely to Sammy Watkins becoming the breakout star of this year’s rookie class.

With Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams dominating up front and rookie Preston Brown ably filling in for Kiko Alonso, Buffalo stands eighth in run defense and 13th against the pass (a deceptive ranking, since the Bills are No. 1 in both interceptions and sacks per game).

All of which won’t mean much if they can’t start blocking at least nearly as well as they have been tackling, starting Sunday against Kansas City.

For more Bills coverage, including a look back at the first half of the season, check out and Dave Staba has been writing about the team, among other topics, for local and national publications since 1990.

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