The scene at the AFC coaches' breakfast in Palm Beach, Fla., recently was fitting.
To my far left was New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. He was surrounded by a large group of media that wanted to know how the Jets would handle Tim Tebow-mania and whether they could bounce back from a disappointing 2011.
To my immediate left was new Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. A throng of reporters wondered what the rookie head coach had in store in his first season.
On my right was future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. He continually gave non-answers about his team as reporters tried to dig up something -- anything -- about the reigning AFC champions.
In the middle of this madness was Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey. His table was relatively empty most of the hourlong breakfast, with the exception of a few passers-by and this AFC East blogger. Few in the national media cared to know what Gailey and the Bills were up to. They're a small-market team that finished 6-10 last season and hasn't been to the playoffs in 13 years.
But by this time next year, people will be talking about Buffalo. The Bills are my sleeper pick in 2012. Here are five reasons why Buffalo will get over the hump and finish with a winning record:
Reason No. 1: Bills made right moves in free agency
Analysis: I will give myself a pat on the back. I was one of the first to note Buffalo's interest in two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams. Despite my prediction, I did not think Buffalo would be able to land the top defensive free agent on the market. But the Bills put on the full-court press and gave Williams 100 million reasons to join the Bills. Buffalo gained an elite pass-rusher and its first game-changer on defense. The Bills didn't stop there. They continued to improve their anemic pass-rush by signing former Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson, who recorded 10 sacks last year. Williams, Anderson and defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus make up one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. It's a group that can stop the run and get push up the middle while attacking the edges and pressuring the quarterback. Buffalo's talented front four will be a problem for a lot of teams next season. The Bills also retained their own key free agents. Buffalo re-signed No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson at an affordable rate they were comfortable with, as well as starting tight end Scott Chandler. There are still a few more holes Buffalo would like to fill. But the team is one of the biggest winners in free agency.
Reason No. 2: Double trouble at running back
Analysis: When they are healthy, there may not be a more dynamic running back duo in the NFL than Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. These two will be headaches for opposing defenses once Buffalo figures out how to blend both into the offense simultaneously. Jackson and Spiller could complement each other well. Buffalo's coaching staff admittedly did a poor job of balancing the two tailbacks last season. Jackson received a bulk of the carries when healthy, and Spiller finally showed what he could do at the end of the year once Jackson was injured. Now, both are hungry and want the football. Gailey called it "a great problem to have." Jackson is 31 and coming off a season-ending leg injury. That should open the door for Spiller to get more carries. Will it be a 50-50 split? Probably not. But the Buffalo offense will be dangerous if it can use Spiller and Jackson just enough to keep each fresh and productive the entire season.
Reason No. 3: AFC East is weakening
Analysis: A case can be made that the AFC East became a weaker division this offseason. The division wasn't very strong to begin with. Only the Patriots finished with a winning record in 2011. But the 6-10 Dolphins gutted their roster, getting rid of top players such as Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall and leading tackler and starting safety Yeremiah Bell. Miami also failed to land a franchise quarterback and settled on 34-year-old David Garrard as the potential starter next season. It's early, but it's hard to imagine Miami's finishing with a better record than last season. Meanwhile, the Jets are an aging team with chemistry issues. New York gave embattled quarterback Mark Sanchez a three-year contract extension and traded for popular backup Tebow, setting up a potentially explosive situation. The Jets will be on a year-long implosion watch, and their arrow could be trending downward after last year's mediocre 8-8 season. The Jets, Dolphins and Bills are all chasing the Patriots, who are clearly the favorites in the division. But the Bills, who split with New England last season, did a solid job to make up some ground.
Reason No. 4: Players are getting healthy
Analysis: I usually try to avoid the injury excuse, because every team has them. But I think it legitimately applies to the Bills. Buffalo suffered key injures last year at running back (Jackson), defensive tackle (Kyle Williams), linebacker (Shawne Merriman), offensive line (Eric Wood), receiver (Donald Jones) and even kicker (Rian Lindell), just to name a few. Bills starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also played much of the season with a painful rib injury. By the second half of the year, the Bills didn't have anywhere near the same depth they had during their 4-1 start. Most of these players are expected to be back and healthy in 2012. Merriman is perhaps the biggest question mark after his second season-ending Achilles injury. But chances are slim that Buffalo will be hit this hard with injuries again. Health will be key for Buffalo to maintain a successful run over 16 games.
Reason No. 5: Bills have a top-10 pick
Analysis: The Bills have had a very productive offseason, but they aren't done yet. They still have a top-10 pick in this month's NFL draft. This is a great opportunity for Buffalo to plug more holes on the roster. The Bills could use a starting-caliber left tackle, another threat at receiver, a cover corner and depth at linebacker. The Bills also have more than $9 million in cap room to spend. Don't rule out late signings in free agency. After years of not spending to the cap, Buffalo tabbed 2012 as the year to make a push.
All of these reasons make the Bills my ideal sleeper pick for next season. Don't forget that you heard it here first.