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Buffalo Bills set to duplicate Florida Gulf Coast's Cinderella run

Associated Press
Florida Gulf Coast turned the sports world upside down. Can Stevie Johnson (right) and the Buffalo Bills follow suit?

A No. 15 seed made the Sweet 16 for the first time in the history of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on Sunday. The story of Florida Gulf Coast University is absolutely epic, transcending sports. It's historic, captivating and breathtaking.

It also makes me wonder, is there a team in the NFL that could star in its own version of the out-of-nowhere, rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale of FGCU? Which NFL team would count as a legit No. 15 seed, capable of shocking the world?

I've written about the Arizona Cardinals making a run this season. Their defense is legit. I love what the Kansas City Chiefs have done; they will win at least six more games this year. Jeff Fisher, meanwhile, has the St. Louis Rams trending. But none of those squads are flying under anyone's radar. if you want to follow a potential Cinderella story, you have to find the dark horse. Look for a team so low, no one can see it.

The potential NFL equivalent of FGCU is the team with the longest playoff drought in the NFL: your Buffalo Bills.

Of course, tradition-steeped Buffalo has a higher profile than FGCU. But the Bills haven't made the playoffs since the 1999 season, when they were victimized by the Tennessee Titans' "Music City Miracle." From that point on, they've been breaking the hearts of their die-hard fans on a consistent basis. Boys and girls who root for Buffalo still have nightmares about Week 17 of the 2004 season, when an unknown third-string running back on the Pittsburgh Steelers named Willie Parker gashed the Bills -- and dashed their playoff hopes.

Ask any fan or anyone who covers the NFL for a quick, one-word answer to the question, "Will the Bills make the playoffs?" Conventional wisdom says 100 out of 100 people will scream, "No!"

But if the Bills were to somehow make a run, they would captivate the nation, starting with their amazing fan base. Thanks to the four straight Super Bowl losses they suffered in the 1990s, they also generate a wonderful amount of sympathy and have a healthy bandwagon. Finally, of course, we all love an underdog, and Buffalo definitely counts.

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While that might seem like a hypothetical scenario, I think the Bills are in position to shock the world this year with a legit playoff push.

Buffalo made a significant change by rightly firing overmatched coach Chan Gailey and smartly plucking Doug Marrone from Syracuse to replace him. Marrone is an NFL guy (a former assistant with the New Orleans Saints and New York Jets) who did a superb job getting the Syracuse football team back on track. As I wrote shortly after the hire, this was a great move by the Bills.

Moreover, Buffalo has some talent; the cupboard is not bare. The Bills simply needed someone like Marrone to maximize it. The new coach told me he wants to "smell the breath" of his players, making sure they are focused solely on winning. You have to love that.

One year ago, after signing Mario Williams in free agency, the Bills were an en vogue pick to win about 10 games. I thought the Bills' defensive line was good enough to be one of the best in the NFL. That prediction bombed, and so did Buffalo. Williams felt pressure to live up to the gigantic contract and dealt with injuries. Williams' fellow lineman, Marcell Dareus, lost his brother.

Both Williams and Dareus should bounce back brilliantly this year under Marrone, a no-nonsense coach who will get his players to achieve. Also, Marrone was smart enough to pick Mike Pettine as his defensive coordinator. Finding an experienced defensive coordinator with a great reputation was key, and Marrone nailed the hire. Pettine will help Mark Anderson, who failed to make an immediate impact last season after coming over from the New England Patriots as a free agent. Having a refocused defensive line will boost the entire unit.

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After rightly cutting ties with Ryan Fitzpatrick, a major underachiever, Buffalo is going to draft a quarterback. I still believe Marrone finds a way to pluck his former Syracuse signal-caller, Ryan Nassib. Nassib knows the offense of Bills coordinator Nathaniel Hackett -- whom Marrone brought from Syracuse -- backwards and forwards. He's also gaining traction as a top quarterback in the run-up to the draft; Greg Cosell recently called him a "young Drew Brees." I love the fit. As I argued in January, the Bills should take Nassib with the eighth overall pick, critics be damned.

Of course, whether Buffalo takes Nassib, Geno Smith, Matt Barkley or someone else, whoever's under center will certainly be better than Fitzpatrick. Buffalo can run the ball with authority with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Stevie Johnson is a legit No. 1 receiver, though they need some depth behind him.

The New York Jets are rebuilding. I think the Miami Dolphins are over-hyped. The Bills can split with the Patriots, provided Buffalo can generate a pass rush and run the ball. All of this means that the Bills can easily go 4-2 in the AFC East.

A Bills run would make them the stars of a riveting Cinderella story.

Here's hoping -- for the long-suffering Bills fans -- that it happens.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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