ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Miami Dolphins were the team featured on “Hard Knocks” last summer. Funny, the Buffalo Bills haven’t needed a TV series title to define their past 12 seasons.
This year in Buffalo so far has been no different. Defying the high preseason expectations, the Bills have bumbled their way into an all-too-familiar position of challenging to be the AFC East’s least for a fifth consecutive season.
That’s right, it’s the same spot supposedly reserved for the Dolphins after their shortcomings were exposed to HBO’s national cable audience.
Bills linebacker Nick Barnett wasn’t paying attention then. And he couldn’t care less about the projections now.
“I don’t make money judging expectations and things like that,” Barnett said, before turning his attention to the state of the Bills. “I think in this locker room, we would definitely not have foreseen us being in this predicament and the record we have.”
The Bills (3-6), with the offseason addition of high-priced defensive end Mario Williams, weren’t supposed to be this bad. And the Dolphins (4-5), with rookie coach Joe Philbin, rookie quarterback, Ryan Tannehill and many holes to fill, weren’t supposed to be this good.
Jim Kelly versus Dan Marino this is not. But on Thursday night, the prime-time lights will once again shine on these two longtime division rivals in a game that will determine who stays in the postseason picture for at least another week.
The Bills haven’t given up hope, despite a 1-5 stretch that’s put them in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a 13th consecutive season, the longest current streak in the NFL.
“It only takes a spark to start a fire, and that spark is winning one football game,” defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “If we win one, I think guys feel good about making a run here at the end of the year.”
The Dolphins understand what’s at stake, too, and are eager to rebound from a two-game skid that included last weekend’s sloppy 37-3 loss to Tennessee.
“I don’t think by any means are we ready to shut this thing down,” Tannehill said. “Our guys are resilient. We’re realists. We know we didn’t play well. We know we didn’t perform like we’re capable of. But we’re ready to move forward.”
Moving forward is key for Tannehill, whose development suddenly regressed Sunday after throwing three interceptions to match his worst outing he had three picks in a season-opening loss at Houston.
Tannehill bounced back from that game; Miami win four of the next six, although Matt Moore was behind center for most of the victory over the Jets when Tannehill was hurt early on. The Dolphins are confident the No. 8 draft pick out of Texas A&M can get them back on track.
“Ryan is very poised,” running back Reggie Bush said. “I told him these types of games build character. These games are going to come and go, make us stronger in the long run.”
Bush needs to rebound, too. He was benched after losing a fumble six minutes in against the Titans.
“I think we’re all a little happy to have this game on Thursday, because it gives a chance to erase this last game and get back to football very quickly,” Bush said. “I know that I’ve bounced back before. I’ll bounce back again, and we’ll be OK.”
It might help Bush’s outlook knowing he had a career-best 203 yards rushing and scored on a 76-yard run in a 30-23 win at Buffalo last December.
The Bills’ defense isn’t much better this season despite the addition of Williams, who signed a six-year, $100 million contract in free agency. Buffalo has allowed 285 points, fewer only than Tennessee — no one is giving up more than the Bills’ 36.6 points per game — and 1,473 yards rushing, while Williams has hardly made a dent in improving the pass rush. Williams has 4 1/2 of the Bills’ 20 sacks, which is five ahead of where they were at this point last season.
“The biggest thing for us is to make a stand,” Williams said. “Definitely, it’s got to start some time. We’ve got seven games, but if you don’t start it sooner than later, then we’re basically just spinning our wheels.”
The Bills have spent plenty of time stuck in neutral. And it’s become difficult to keep count the number of times they’ve been asked how important it is to win the next game.
“As we continue to lose, people keep asking that question. I feel like we had to have them all,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “We’re disappointed. We’re not where we want to be. But we’ve got to start winning at some point, and this is a great week to do it.”
The Bills are coming off a 37-31 loss at New England, which once again exposed their inability to compete against division rivals. Buffalo’s lost eight straight against AFC East opponents, and is 4-23 in division games since 2008.
“Our backs are against the wall,” Barnett said. “We have to win every game, I feel. And it starts with this game.”