ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) -Donte Whitner is a confident player, one who has the conviction to say what he believes and is fearless in backing it up.
So when the Bills strong safety proclaims - no, make that guarantees, with a capital ``G'' - that Buffalo is going to make the playoffs this season, he does it without hesitation.
``It's a guarantee. You can't take it back and I won't take it back. I'm 100 percent sure,'' Whitner said during training camp, repeating the proclamation he's been making to most anyone who cares to listen.
``It's on me and I'm not afraid. I'm not backing down,'' he said. ``So at the end of the year, when we're going into that 17th game, it'll feel good. And then it's on me, too.''
Arizona.
Why now?
``Because it's time,'' said Whitner, entering his third season. ``Because that's what I believe.''
And the Bills are ready to back him up.
``I can't be mad at it,'' receiver Lee Evans said. ``He made the statement and now you've got to play up to it. And I think that's the mind-set and the talent we have. We feel like we have a chance, so we've got to go get it.''
First-year chief operating officer Russ Brandon is also on board.
``We certainly have high expectations,'' said Brandon, who took over the team's daily operational duties in January after Marv Levy stepped down as general manager. ``The next step for us is getting to the playoffs. And we feel we're poised to take that next step.''
There is a palpable sense of hope emanating out of western New York that the Bills - remember them? - are finally ready to make a splash on the football map, and not only because they're in the midst of changing that landscape by becoming the first NFL franchise to begin playing annual regular-season games outside the United States.
The franchise's immediate hopes are not tied to a five-year series of games to be played in Toronto, starting this year with a game against AFC East rival Miami on Dec. 7; though the move north is part of the team's bid to generate additional revenue to secure its future in Buffalo.
The reason for optimism is that the Bills appear to finally have a semblance of a plan after years of mismanagement and bad luck that resulted in one winning season (9-7 in 2004) this decade.
Coming off consecutive 7-9 finishes, the Bills have patiently built around a core of players: Of their projected 22 starters, 15 broke into the NFL in Buffalo.
They've bolstered a porous defense, which finished 31st in yards allowed last season, by adding defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, and linebacker Kawika Mitchell. And they've addressed their most important need on offense by drafting James Hardy in the second round, counting upon the 6-foot-5 receiver to make an immediate impact by drawing coverage away from Evans.
Add in the return of several starters from injuries (linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Ko Simpson) and a number of reserves who received plenty of playing time last year, and the Bills also have depth.
``This is it. This is as high of an expectation as I've been around,'' defensive end Chris Kelsay said. ``Everything looks good on paper. Now we just have to prove it on the field.''
There are a few question marks, beginning at quarterback, where 2007 third-round draft pick Trent Edwards enters the year as the unchallenged starter after winning the job ahead of J.P. Losman midway through last season.
``There's no way to dance around the quarterback question, it's always crucial,'' coach Dick Jauron said, referring to Edwards' 5-5 record last season. ``I really have a lot of confidence in him. ... He's always pushing. He works at it. I feel very good about the situation.''
Another question mark is Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, who has refused to report to training camp because of a contract dispute. Peters, who is being fined by the team more than $15,000 for each day he misses, has three years left on his contract but considers himself underpaid and is holding out in an attempt to force a new deal.
The Bills haven't budged, demanding that Peters play out at least this year of his contract before they consider negotiating a new deal.
Whitner isn't budging from his guarantee, either, and is certain he'll be the one having the last laugh come the new year.
Just don't expect him to say, ``I told you so.''
``We're just going to go ahead about our business,'' Whitner said. ``Now it's our time to go out and show people that we are for real.''
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