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Preseason power rankings: No. 21

They haven’t been good enough to be called an average team. They haven’t been bad enough to be called an awful team. Since Dick Jauron landed in Western New York, he’s led the Buffalo Bills to three straight 7-9 seasons.

Each was marked by end-of-season nosedives, each worse than the one before.

In 2006, the Bills were 7-7 and lost their final two games. In 2007, they were 7-6 and lost their final three. Last year, finally, it appeared they’d broken through. But after a 5-1 start, the Bills lost eight of their final 10.

Had he not built up so much goodwill earlier in the season, if he were not so widely respected as a good football man, Jauron would probably be watching someone else coach the Bills this year. But owner Ralph Wilson brought Jauron back -- to the dismay of many Bills fans.

But the owner and coach won a bunch of them back in March. When so many other teams were saying, “No thanks” to Terrell Owens, the Bills said, “Yes, please.”

Despite the potential, actually, despite the LIKELIHOOD that Owens will cause friction, the Bills went for the splash move. And it had the desired effect. Spirits rose. And when the Bills offensive coordinator, Turk Schonert, installed a hurry-up offense to take advantage of the smarts of quarterback Trent Edwards and the presence of Owens, underrated wideout Lee Evans and a nice stable of running backs led by Marshawn Lynch, folks got even giddier. But the Bills have been plagued by such offensive ineffectiveness this preseason, the giddy is gone.

[UPDATE: And so is Schonert.]

Owens has been hurt since the Bills’ first preseason game (toe) and the starting offense has sputtered. Edwards has struggled. The offense will only go if the offensive line can provide chances and the still-developing group has not.

On defense, the Bills are in desperate need of a pass rush in 2009. They hoped the return of veteran Aaron Schobel from an injury-marred 2008 would help but he hyperextended an elbow midway through the preseason and has been limited. Rookie first-rounder Aaron Maybin showed up late for camp and his value as anything but a pass rusher has yet to be determined.

The defensive strong suit is the secondary, but if they can’t get pressure up front, that will be mitigated. Expect the Bills to be solid on all special teams as they annually are under special teams coach Bobby April.

Key player: Trent Edwards. With Lynch missing the first three games of the season because of a disciplinary suspension, Edwards has to provide in the passing game.

Rookie to watch: Andy Levitre. The second-round pick will likely be one of the starting guards. If T.O., Edwards, Evans and Lynch are to have an impact, young players like Levitre will have to step up for an offensive line that lost its best player, left tackle Jason Peters.

Best veteran acquisition: Owens. Generally, he behaves pretty normally (a relative term) in his first year at a new address. If he can resist throwing passive-aggressive shots at Edwards, Owens -- even at 35 -- is still one of the league’s most feared offensive players.

Key Game: Week 6, at New York Jets. This is the first game of a stretch in which Buffalo plays four out of five on the road. Buffalo will need good mojo heading into that stretch of the Bills could be out of the race by Halloween. And Jauron could be out of a job.