The League

Doug Farrar
Writer

Doug Farrar

A FootballOutsiders.com staff writer

Bills/Titans Yes, Broncos No

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I had the Bills pegged as a surprise team before the season began, because they never gave up in 2007 despite a horrible string of injuries. Still, their 3-0 start has me surprised. That's not to say it's not for real -- in fact, my only hesitation about the Bills came from the strength of the team at the top of the division. After Tom Brady's season ended prematurely, the AFC East became just about anyone's division. The Bills have an efficient young quarterback in Trent Edwards, an offense that works consistently, an intense young defense, and the best special teams in the business. This is a tough team of underrated grinders that reflects the personality of its head coach, Dick Jauron.

There are two trends that Football Outsiders puts forth as improvement indicators -- injury luck from year to year, and third-down efficiency from year to year. The Bills put 17 different players on injured reserve in 2007 -- just about a full third of an NFL roster. No team can be expected to survive that kind of roster purge, but Buffalo set a team record for fewest penalties and finished the season with some really tough losses that could have gone either way.

In addition, Buffalo's third-down efficiency, as measured by Football Outsiders' DVOA statistic, was far worse than on first or second down. We have discovered over the last few years that teams which regress on third down one season will have a big bounceback improvement the following year. The Bills saw a third-down drop last year on offense and defense. Really, everything points to the improvement you see now.

The Titans have all the ingredients to go deep into the playoffs, as well. High-quality defense, great coaching, a diverse and productive rushing attack (especially with the addition of rookie Chris Johnson), and a tough mindset that's the product of surviving the wars in what was the AFC's best division in 2007. Tennessee also had third-down lags in productivity on offense and defense last season.

The two questions surrounding the Titans were: Will Vince Young either lead, follow or get out of the way (answered), and can defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stay healthy (so far, so good)? With Kerry Collins under center and Haynesworth bringing what he does to that defense -- they're a completely different team without him -- the Titans can beat anyone.

I'm not as convinced with the Broncos. They remind me of the 2007 version of the New Orleans Saints, the team they beat on Sunday afternoon. An explosive offense, heavily dependent on the passing game and the specific excellence of one receiver, but a limited run game and a defense full of holes and questions -- especially pass defense. This is the kind of team impresses early, but tends to slide later in the year as the weather turns and toughness becomes a prime commodity.

Right now, the Bills and Titans seem better-equipped to handle the late-season truth.

By Doug Farrar  |  September 22, 2008; 1:31 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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