Bills place emphasis on starting season strong

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- It's August, but April wanted to make it feel like October.

"April" would be the Buffalo Bills' enthusiastic special teams coach, Bobby April. During Wednesday afternoon's practice at St. John Fisher College, kicker Rian Lindell lined up for a 43-yard field goal try. Ordinarily, training camp field goals are attempted amid silence, but April figured why not simulate a pressure situation, so he gave the players who weren't participating a familiar scenario -- road game, overtime -- and had them simulate crowd noise. Naturally, the real fans joined in.

Head coach Mike Mularkey interrupted and moved the ball to the 30-yard line, making it a 48-yard attempt. With the "crowd" going wild, Lindell nailed the "game winner" and everyone celebrated.

Was this a sign of things to come for the Bills, who lost their first four games last season, two in the final minutes?

"We'll be a lot better in situations," linebacker Takeo Spikes promised.

The last time I'd seen the Bills, this was the situation: final Sunday of last season, playoff berth on the line, at home, riding a six-game winning streak and playing as well as any team in the league, facing a Pittsburgh team that had little to play for and would use mostly second- and third-teamers. Alas, the Bills took a 17-16 lead into the fourth quarter and lost to the Steelers' scrubs, 29-24. James Harrison and Willie Parker starred for the Steelers.

"I spent a lot of time in the offseason thinking about it," Spikes said. "Maybe it just wasn't meant to be."

Drew Bledsoe, now in Dallas, has been replaced by J.P. Losman, and the Bills return 18 of the 21 other starters from last year's 9-7 team. Buffalo only lost defensive tackle Pat Williams from a defense that has finished second overall each of the last two seasons. Willis McGahee is another year removed from the knee injury he suffered in college and already is considered an elite back. Lee Evans and Eric Moulds form a nice receiver tandem. When rookie Roscoe Parrish returns from a wrist injury, he'll add more speed to the passing game. The Bills believe their offense is better with Losman, who moves much better than Bledsoe.

So the Bills are armed. But are they ready? They have the pieces in place, but do they have what it takes to at least earn a season split with the Patriots and Jets, to not just compete but beat teams like the Falcons, Chiefs, Panthers and Broncos? Even with a young quarterback, will they mature enough to win the games championship contenders do, like at the Jets in Week 17 with maybe the playoffs or perhaps the division at stake? Can they will themselves to victory and not wilt under pressure at key moments?

McGahee, Moulds and Spikes might be the real deals, but are the Bills for real?

They believe so. And they now realize that while they were almost there last season, they weren't quite there.

"Last year we started to learn how to win," strong safety Lawyer Milloy said. "Even if we'd have gone to the playoffs, I'm not sure how far we'd have gone. Would we have been able to compete with the Indianapolises and New Englands? I don't know."

"The last game may have done us some good," president and general manager Tom Donahoe said. "It convinced everybody that they had to work just a little harder. Maybe we weren't ready to be a playoff team."

Mularkey met with his team over the two days following the Steelers loss. No team meeting; he met with every player on the roster, all 70-some-odd of them, individually. Mularkey saw then that his team had gained something in defeat: motivation.

"As a former player, I know that when the season's over, guys are ready to get out of Dodge," Mularkey said. "But they were ready to play the next day. I felt the same way after that loss as I felt after we started 0-4. I told the guys that I had a good feeling then. I told them I knew something good was going to come out of [0-4], whether it was us becoming a better team, me being a better coach, a better dad, I don't know. I told them to just continue believing in what we're doing.

"I feel it even more so now because of the commitment that I've seen from these guys all offseason. It was evident that they were here to work. I think [not making the playoffs] left a bad taste in their mouths."

This year's unofficial theme has been "unfinished business," and the Bills got right to work with offseason workouts. The goal is to start the season well enough so they don't have to play seven "playoff" games to end the year again.

Milloy said the atmosphere surrounding this team feels a lot like his 2001 Patriots. Who knows? Perhaps Losman can succeed Bledsoe as successfully as Tom Brady. On a mission to win the job from Bledsoe, Losman took a red-eye from California the night of the Super Bowl to Buffalo so he could get a head start on his offseason workouts. He showed everyone early that he at least knew what he was supposed to do. Whereas last year, offensive coordinator Tom Clements, from time to time, may have had to step into the huddle to call the play, Losman is to the point where he's correcting Clements and veteran teammates. His improvement made the Bills' decision to let Bledsoe go start elsewhere easier.

Milloy said Losman arrived at training camp better than the quarterback who left six weeks earlier after offseason workouts. Last year, Mularkey's first in Buffalo, the Bills' defense dominated the offense in practice. Now the offense is holding its own.

"Last year we had a great defense and an offense that was just trying to catch up," Moulds said. "This time we're not just going to depend on the defense."

So how far they go mostly depends on Losman, who attempted just five passes as a rookie after missing the first five games with a fractured leg. Along with its defense, Buffalo also has arguably the league's best special teams -- the Bills tied an NFL record with five returns for touchdowns last year. We all know the defense and the running game are tight.

"The only one who's unproven on this team is the QB," Losman acknowledged.

Though not all agree.

"If I recall correctly, we lost our last game of the season," veteran safety Troy Vincent said. "We watched the postseason. Sure we have potential, but 31 other clubs are saying the same thing."

The Bills showed something by rebounding from a 2-6 start and running off six straight wins. Time to show and prove.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.