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The big difference in the Eastern Division of the AFL this season is that the Buffalo Bills should be a better club than they have been for the past few years. That is not the sort of news that will cause much pleasure among the four other Eastern teams who have had to scrabble about in the debris the Bills left while passing them up. Buffalo won AFL championships in 1964 and 1965 and the Eastern title in 1966 with a club that was carried by its defense. This season the Bills ought to have a superior offense as well, and there is no Eastern challenger in sight.
Buffalo's defense is still good. After winning by two points in an exhibition game in which Buffalo had a long touchdown pass called back, Detroit Coach Joe Schmidt, one of the finest middle linebackers the NFL ever produced, discussed his admiration for the way the Bills played defense. "Their defensive line and linebackers work together as smoothly as any NFL team I have seen," said Schmidt.
The Bills leaped into the trading market after losing the championship to Kansas City last season. Defensive End Tom Day, backup Quarterback Daryle Lamonica, Split End Glenn Bass and Defensive Tackle Dave Costa—all quality players—were peddled away. In return, Buffalo got Quarterback Tom Flores and Split End Art Powell from Oakland, Running Back Keith Lincoln from San Diego and Kicker Mike Mercer, who was involved in a complicated deal with Kansas City. Those four have the ability to help bring the offense up to the defense, which is at a level no other Eastern club has been able to reach.
Buffalo's weak point is its injuries list. Split End Bobby Crockett, a regular as a rookie last season, is lost for the year because of torn ligaments in his left knee. Offensive Guard Billy Shaw, the team captain, is out for half the season with torn ligaments in his right knee. Out, too, is Offensive Tackle Dick Hudson. Running Back Bobby Burnett, AFL Rookie of the Year in 1966, was limping during the training season from a hip bruise. Tight End Charley Ferguson has had a sprained ankle. But Powell can replace Crockett and Lincoln can replace Burnett. Only the absence of Shaw and Hudson from the offensive line will hinder the Bills much—unless, of course, other injuries occur.
To adjust for his losses in the line, Coach Joe Collier, at 35 the youngest head coach in the league, has moved Stew Barber from left tackle to left guard and has put a rookie, Dick Cunningham of Arkansas, at left tackle. In exhibition games the Buffalo running attack was sloppy. As Cunningham progresses, so will the Bills' running backs.
The passing should be distinctly improved. Buffalo has never had a receiver as consistently brilliant as Powell, who has been trying for years to get himself traded closer to his home in Toronto. The presence of Powell will take much of the attention off the other wide receiver, Elbert Dubenion, who has fine speed but has been upset by a fairly steady menu of double coverage.
Quarterback Jack Kemp, one of the league's smarter operators, was handicapped last season by tennis elbow in his throwing arm. His arm apparently has healed, but Kemp was not very sharp in the early exhibitions. Flores, however, came in to throw three touchdown passes, including the one that was called back, against Detroit and started the following game against Boston. Flores is a very accurate drop-back pocket-style passer who is reluctant to run with the ball. Kemp has a more powerful arm, when it is well, and does not hesitate to scramble. Between the two, Collier ought to be able to find one who can get the Bills' offense going any given day.
Lincoln, who frequently has been hurt and has not had a really good year since 1964, is returning to the scene of his most spectacular injury. In the championship game of 1964 at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium, Lincoln had just caught a swing pass when he was interrupted by Linebacker Mike Stratton, who smashed a couple of Lincoln's ribs. When he is well, Lincoln is an outstanding runner and good receiver. At San Diego he was forced to play fullback, a position he never preferred. At Buffalo he will go in both at fullback and at running back, occasionally teaming with Fullback Wray Carlton, a fine pass blocker and short-yardage runner, in a power backfield. With Lincoln at fullback and Burnett, when he fully heals, at running back, the Bills have a pair with the speed to go outside.
Defensively, there has been one change. Remi Prudhomme, a swing man last year, has moved in at end in place of the departed Tom Day. The rest of the line is its old stubborn self. Tackles Tom Sestak and Jim Dunaway are two of the best in the AFL. Marty Schottenheimer is pushing Art Jacobs for one linebacking job, and Charley King and Booker Edgerson are pressing Art Janik and Butch Byrd at the corners. Otherwise, this is the same Buffalo defense that has won championships.