Bills will need all phases to keep up with Chiefs

As they reach the halfway point of a 2003 season that began with the highest of hopes, the Buffalo Bills have proven this much: They can beat lousy teams, so long as the game is played at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Sunday's opponent is anything but lousy, and Arrowhead Stadium is most decidedly not in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Buffalo's only road win this year came in Week 2 against a Jacksonville Jaguars team struggling to find an identity under a new head coach, operating behind fading quarterback Mark Brunell, who was working without his primary target, suspended receiver Jimmy Smith.

In their two other ventures outside the Buffalo area, the Bills have failed to score an offensive touchdown. Nate Clements' interception return provided Buffalo's only points in a 17-7 loss in Miami, and the offense mustered only a measly field goal in a humiliating 30-3 drubbing by the then-winless New York Jets.

It's going to take a lot more than that to smear the Chiefs' perfect record. Buffalo lost by only a point last year in Kansas City, but those Chiefs fielded a defense as shaky as their offense was potent, and had yet to discover the wonders of Dante Hall.

Add it up, and the Bills will have to produce their best all-around effort since splattering New England on Opening Day to avoid finishing the first half of 2003 with the same winning percentage they compiled during 2002 -- .500.

It's not that Buffalo becomes a different team when venturing outside Western New York. But the flaws displayed by these Bills wherever they play get magnified and exacerbated when crowd noise is added to the mix.

More than any other sports, home-field advantage wields an outsized impact in the National Football League.

Changing plays at the line of scrimmage becomes difficult, and often impossible. With the rest of the offense struggling to hear the quarterback's cadence, the split-second advantage blockers usually enjoy over blockees is lost, particularly if the decibel level forces the visitors to resort to a silent count. Receivers, runners and throwers also lose the edge stemming from advance knowledge of when the play will get underway. The end result is an offense playing uphill, at least until it can put together enough first downs to take the edge of the crowd's roar.

That makes it difficult enough for teams with relatively simple offenses. For the Bills, who tend more toward precision and finesse, losing even a millisecond means the ugly futility displayed in Miami and New Jersey.

The crowd at Arrowhead, with a full day to lubricate itself before an 8:30 kickoff, will be especially difficult to neutralize.

The Bills can blast crowd noise, or Metallica tunes, or whatever else they want during practice sessions this week. Visiting teams do that in preparation for playing in every loud stadium - including The Ralph - but it rarely helps.

Buffalo's best hope to do that stems from offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride dumbing down his often-ornate game plan enough to minimize the loss of that element of surprise at the snap. The more complicated things get, the more impact the crazed Chiefs faithful will have.

A combination of quick-developing runs and three-step drops like the one the Bills used last week against Washington would be an excellent start. The offensive line came out of the 24-7 thumping of the Redskins displaying more swagger than they have since that seemingly long-ago Sunday in Jacksonville.

Not that a competent, or even outstanding, offensive performance guarantees a Buffalo win. The Chiefs have also shown that they can win with defense and, of course, special teams.

The Bills defense got plenty of offseason hype after the free-agent signings of Takeo Spikes, Sam Adams and Jeff Posey, with the level of expectations escalating after the acquisition of Lawyer Milloy and subsequent trouncing of his ex-teammates from New England.

Buffalo needs them and the rest of the defense to play up to the clippings to have any chance in Kansas City.

And even that might not be enough.

Special-teams disasters haven't struck this year's Bills to the extent suffered by their predecessors, but the thought of Hall prancing untouched into the end zone is far from unimaginable. Buffalo's Brian Moorman has emerged as one of the NFL's top punters, but has occasionally out-kicked his coverage, which creates the sort of opening Hall has used to become the league's most-acclaimed return man since Billy Johnson popularized white shoes with the Houston Oilers in the 1970s.

A win in Kansas City would restore much of the buzz the Bills created during the spring, summer and first two weeks of the regular season.

But it's certainly not going to be easy.

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We'd be remiss to not mention Washington's release of Rob Johnson this week, a few days after his fourth-quarter cameo at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Johnson delivered numbers reminiscent of his days in Buffalo - six pass plays, two sacks. Perhaps to spare the franchise medical expenses for a player he figured was history anyway, Redskins coach Steve Spurrier effectively surrendered by calling three straight running plays with five minutes remaining.

Given the paucity of quality quarterbacks these days, somebody will look at Johnson's size, mobility and the beautiful ball he throws when he stays upright long enough to do so and give him one more shot.

There's no reason to feel sympathy for Rob - he's made enough money that he shouldn't have to do too much work when he moves on to the rest of his life. But you can't help but wonder if he might not have developed into something more than a footnote in Bills history under different circumstances.

And with the Bills visiting Kansas City this Sunday, it's worth recalling one of Johnson's fleeting high points wearing the red, white and blue No. 11 jersey.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, 2000, the Bills took a 6-4 mark into Arrowhead Stadium. Buffalo's 3-1 mark under Doug Flutie during Johnson's most recent stint on the injured list had stoked the controversy that marked both of their stays in Buffalo to a fevered pitch.

Making his first start in five weeks, Johnson hit on 21 of 36 passes for 196 yards and two scores, with no interceptions. He brought Buffalo from behind in the final moments, helicoptering into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

Johnson's performance made it difficult for even the most passionate Flutiephile to argue the Southern Californian wasn't the guy to lead the Bills into December.

For a week, at least.

The following Sunday in Tampa, Buffalo lost five defensive starters by halftime. Faced with the prospect of carrying the team the rest of the way, Johnson and the rest of the offense crumbled. The Bills finished 1-4 to close at 8-8, ending the Wade Phillips Era and planting doubts in the heads of fans, media and, apparently, Johnson, that he was never able to shake.


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