Can the Buffalo Bills sustain their early-season success and snap their 14-season playoff drought?
That's the burning question halfway through the season for a team that has started 5-3 for the first time since 2011. That season, the Bills lost seven of their last eight, a collapse that mirrored similar 5-3 starts in 2008 and 2002.
If the story is different this season -- and the Bills can gain their first postseason berth of this millennium -- it will be a stamp of approval to coach Doug Marrone's surprising decision to bench second-year quarterback EJ Manuel in favor of Kyle Orton after just four games.
Orton, who has brought a steady veteran presence to the offense, is 3-1 in his first month at the helm. Along with rookie receiver Sammy Watkins and a stout defensive front, Orton and the Bills are gearing up for a second-half push to the playoffs.
MVP: Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. In truth, this award is shared by the entire defensive line, but Dareus' performance has risen above the rest. The fourth-year defender, who was in the news for the wrong reasons last offseason after two arrests, has excelled under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Through Week 9, his seven sacks are tied for eighth in the NFL and he is just a half-sack shy of his career high, set last season. Dareus is just one piece along a dominating defensive line that also includes Pro Bowlers Kyle Williams and Mario Williams, along with rising defensive end Jerry Hughes. The Bills have the NFL's second-most sacks, with 28.
Biggest disappointment: Manuel. There's little doubt about this one. The Bills reached by selecting Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft, making him in the first quarterback taken in what has proven a weak class of signal-callers. Manuel, who showed flashes of promise in between knee injuries last season, was healthy this September but regressed. His QBR fell in each of his four starts, from 59.1 in a season-opening win in Chicago to 7.4 in a Week 4 loss in Houston. The Bills surrounded Manuel with plenty of offensive weapons, and he proved too raw to take advantage of the opportunity.
Best moment: Watkins' 2-yard, game-winning touchdown catch against the Minnesota Vikings. This Week 7 moment defined the Bills' first half of the season. It was hardly pretty, but the Bills were able to pull out a win with some last-minute heroics. Down 16-10 to the lowly Vikings at home, Orton led the Bills on an 80-yard drive that looked close to ending before a 24-yard catch by tight end Scott Chandler on fourth-and-20. Several plays later, Orton found Watkins for the go-ahead score with one second remaining. Had the Bills not pulled out the win, they would have fallen to 1-3 at home and 3-4 on the season.
Worst moment: J.J. Watt's 80-yard pick-six in a loss to the Houston Texans. This might prove to be one of the final acts of the Manuel era in Buffalo. Early in the second half in Week 4, with the Bills leading 10-7, Watt pulled down a short pass by Manuel and went the distance to give the Texans a lead they wouldn't surrender. Before that play, the Bills were outscoring teams 72-52. After that Texans score, the Bills' offense wouldn't take the field again with a lead until Week 8.
Key to the second half: Running the ball. Orton and Watkins have received much of the attention in recent weeks, and for good reason: Their connection through the air looks to only be getting better with time. Yet ask Orton and he'll tell you that there must be a more balanced offensive attack. "We play in Buffalo, so obviously at some point the weather is gonna come and we're gonna have to grind out a win running the football," Orton said last week. "No doubt about that." The Bills were the NFL's third-worst rushing team in October, averaging 3.15 yards per carry. Getting workhorse Fred Jackson back from a groin injury sometime in November will help, but the Bills will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs without an improvement in the running game.