Buffalo Bills were better, but not good enough in extending playoff drought to 15 years

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ORCHARD PARK, New York — The Buffalo Bills were better. In the end, they weren't good enough.

That's the message general manager Doug Whaley intends to present the franchise's new owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, after Buffalo (9-7) closed its best season in a decade, but still extended the NFL's longest playoff drought to 15 seasons.

"We're encouraged, but we're not satisfied," Whaley said. "We've got things that we can build on. But again, we can't be satisfied until we get into the playoffs."

The Bills showed signs of being relevant and having resilience in a year full of distractions — from the death of Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson in March, to a severe snowstorm that forced the team to relocate its home game to Detroit last month — in matching their best finish since 2004.

Buffalo's strength was a dominating defense that produced three Pro Bowl linemen: Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.

"More bitter than sweet," Kyle Williams said.

A sputtering offense and inconsistent play at quarterback dragged them down. EJ Manuel was benched after a 2-2 start, and 10-year journeyman Kyle Orton was erratic down the stretch after providing an early spark.

That puts Buffalo in the all-too-familiar position of having a big question mark at quarterback. Manuel will be back, but the 2013 first-round draft pick's status as a franchise player has been compromised. Orton surprised the team Monday by announcing his intention to retire.

It will be up to the Pegulas to determine what approach to take in the coming months.

Whaley and coach Doug Marrone's jobs are considered safe entering their third seasons. The Pegulas haven't ruled out adding a veteran presence to oversee the football operation, with former Bills GM turned broadcaster Bill Polian mentioned as a candidate to fill what would be a newly created role.

Here are a number of things that stood out for Buffalo, which finished second in the AFC East after six straight last-place seasons:

NOT GOING ANYWHERE: A year after defensive coordinator Mike Pettine left Buffalo to take over in Cleveland, Kyle Williams vows to put up a fight should anyone attempt to lure away Pettine's successor, Jim Schwartz.

"I'm going to chain him to a car in the parking lot," Williams said. "Obviously, we'd be happy for him. But he'd probably have to leave town with people hanging on his legs."

It's premature to tell if the former Detroit Lions coach will be considered for any NFL vacancies. What's evident is the stamp Schwarz placed on the defense in his first season in Buffalo.

The Bills led the NFL with 54 sacks, were third with 30 takeaways, and fourth in yards allowed. They made a marked improvement in stopping the run. After giving up 2,063 yards rushing under Pettine, the Bills allowed just 1,703 this season, the team's fewest since 2004.

PEDESTRIAN RUN: Injuries and inconsistent offensive line play led to the Bills finishing with 1,482 yards rushing, the team's fewest in a 16-game season.

Fred Jackson was slowed by knee and groin injuries, while co-starter C.J. Spiller missed seven games with a broken collarbone.

"We failed miserably," Jackson said.

TURNING POINTS: Two losses stand out that put huge dents in the Bills' playoff hopes.

Coming off their bye week at 5-3, Buffalo squandered a 10-point second-half lead in a 17-13 home loss to Kansas City. With the Bills leading 13-3, the game turned on their opening drive of the third quarter. Running back Bryce Brown was three steps from scoring before fumbling into the end zone, where the ball bounced through tight end Scott Chandler's hands and out of bounds for a touchback.

Then came the dud at Oakland on Dec. 21. A week after beating Green Bay, the Bills were eliminated with a 26-24 loss to the then-2-12 Raiders.

WATKINS CATCHES ON: Sammy Watkins set franchise rookie records with 65 catches and 982 yards receiving, along with a team-best six touchdowns. The trouble was his inconsistency, though he finished fourth in yards among NFL rookies.

The Bills traded their first-round pick in the 2015 draft to move up five spots to select Watkins fourth overall. Whaley defended the gamble he took, saying Watkins played to his potential in filling the No. 1 receiver spot.

FREE-AGENT WATCH: Spiller, defensive end Jerry Hughes, who finished with 9-1/2 sacks, and run-stuffing linebacker Brandon Spikes head the Bills' list of players eligible to become free agents.

Whaley intends to make an effort to re-sign Spiller and Hughes. Spikes' status is uncertain after rookie Preston Brown established himself as a starter, and with Kiko Alonso set to return after sustaining a season-ending left knee injury in July.


AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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