|David Duprey/Associated Press|
|If the season ended today, the 4-2 Bills would be a wild-card team. Can they see it through to the end?|
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The young wide receivers got the bunk beds. Third-year pro Steve Johnson headed for the basement, and the other six players divided up the couches, pullout beds and any other surface soft enough for a short night of sleep.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who asked his wife and kids to head to the grandparents' place nearby, handled the cooking, which generally consisted of taking the guys to his favorite Arizona eateries.
"But he did make a few meals," said running back Fred Jackson, defending his quarterback's attempts at cuisine.
This, without many of the frills you've come to expect from professional athletes, is where a group of no-name Bills began this year's journey: In April, at a house in Gilbert, Ariz., during a week of workouts and bonding that continues to resonate.
It'd be a visual worth conjuring -- all of these grown men crashing like summer campers -- if only you had any idea what any of them looked like. Now primed for a playoff run as Buffalo comes out of its bye at 4-2, you'd better be paying attention.
"It's just a great group of guys in this locker room," Jackson said. "I think it's hard not to be close with such an inspiring group of people."
While many players on offense talk about that week in April as the beginning of the bonding that has allowed this Bills team to surge early, it would be far too shortsighted to suggest it as the long-term starting point.
After all, this is a group of castaways and unknowns who arrived to Buffalo with chips the size of boulders on their shoulders, poised to succeed for the one organization that believed in each of them.
|Jason O. Watson / US Presswire|
|Ryan Fitzpatrick had been a journeyman quarterback before excelling as a starter in Buffalo.|
And so far, as one of the league's unexpected contenders in 2011, they're making progress toward accomplishing it.
"With the guys we have in this room, you can see why it's happening," said linebacker Nick Barnett, a former starter in Green Bay who was released in July. "It's just cool. Nobody is too high on himself, not over the top cocky. It's a lot of good people. We still have work to do, but we are making plays."
Barnett, a castaway himself, joined the Bills after he was cut. He has since recorded two interceptions, a forced fumble and three pass defenses for a team that's building a reputation as a turnover machine.
He is the among the reasons why the Bills sense it possible to push for the playoffs for what would be the first time since 1999. For a team that started last season 0-8, with very little change to the roster, it'd be a fascinating feat.
But it wouldn't surprise these players.
"Before I got here (midway through 2010), I'd only seen the record and some stats," said linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was added to the injured reserve Tuesday. "All I saw was what was on paper. When I got here, it was almost like, 'Wow.' For one, this was not a 0-7 team."
With a few minor additions, and perhaps the assistance of their bonding experience in Arizona, the Bills proved Merriman right with two big wins against Oakland and New England during the first three weeks.
Consider the résumé of the key players to help accomplish these early feats:
» Fitzpatrick, a seventh-round draft pick out of Harvard in 2005, is off to his best season yet. He has been one of the league's most consistent quarterbacks with a passer rating of 95.3.
» Coach Chan Gailey is one of only three head coaches in the NFL who has celebrated his 59th birthday. His only previous stint as a head coach in the NFL was 15 years ago -- and it only lasted two seasons (1996 and 1997) with the Cowboys.
» Jackson, an undrafted player in 2003 who spent his first two seasons in a pair of small indoor football leagues while also working as a youth counselor, is currently second in the NFL with an average of 100.2 rushing yards per game.
"I think the road that I took definitely helped me develop into the player I am today -- the hard-working, never-quit guy," Jackson said. "It was a tough road. If I could change something that would have helped me get here faster, I don't think I'd do it."
You could probably find several other Bills players who would agree. Still, they haven't reached the end of the road yet. Not even close.
The Bills have a big game coming up against the Redskins on Sunday in Toronto -- and a tough stretch that includes two more road games in the following three weeks. They've lost two of the last three, albeit by a field goal each time.
So they realize, to maintain their half-game lead on the Jets while hanging tight with several contending conference opponents in the wild-card race, a win against the Redskins would go a long way toward staying on track.
No longer is this a team satisfied with a small dose of success. They've worked too hard to rid their mouths of the nasty taste that lingered from an 0-8 start last season, a grind that many players say contributed to the recent success.
"This is definitely the best team I've been a part of in my 10 years, and the reason is that everyone is so close," linebacker Andra Davis said. "That stems from 0-8 last year. The nucleus of guys in this locker room went through that, and rather than letting it pull us apart, we allowed it to bring all of us together."
Whatever the short-term motivation as a group, the Bills have put together a roster of players equally inspired by individual pasts that include missed opportunities or no opportunities at all.
But these players are no longer worrying about the history behind them. Now, it's all about shifting their focus to the future, one they're hoping includes a successful playoff push for the first time in more than a decade.
"We've got a ton of guys on the same page," Gailey said. "It's a unique group. It's a bunch of guys that just fought their way through their whole life to get where they are, and that makes it fun. It makes it fun to be around them."
Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington