Bills not dead yet

With seven games remaining, it's time to forget about what the Buffalo Bills' season could have been -- or should have been -- and look at where it is, and where it's going.

Yes, the Bills have lost five of their last seven contests.

And yes, they've looked mighty pitiful in doing so.

But no, their season isn't over. Far from it.

Despite the Bills' failure to score an offensive touchdown outside of Orchard Park since summer turned to fall, their position in the playoff race isn't nearly as dire as it seems like it should be.

All the conjecture which follows is based on two very large assumptions:

1) Buffalo's defense continues playing well enough to win on a weekly basis, even kicking in with a few turnovers here and there.

2) Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride finally listens to what fans, media and pretty much anyone who knows that the Buffalo Bills play football has been screaming for since late September, and decides to a) run the ball enough to at least make defenses guess what's coming once in a while; and b) find a way to protect Drew Bledsoe, whether through shortening his drops, resisting the urge to send five receivers out on every pass play or both.

Forget a first-round bye, unless New England, Indianapolis and Tennessee all either collapse completely or withdraw from the National Football League.

Since neither is likely to happen, let's concentrate on the relatively realistic possibilities.

Since no team has reached the Super Bowl when seeded No. 5 or 6 since the six-team-per-conference playoff format was adopted, the optimal situation would be to win the AFC East title.

That won't be easy, or very likely. But it's not impossible.

New England has won seven of eight since that opening-day wipeout at The Ralph to build a commanding lead in the division. But five of those wins have come by a touchdown or less, meaning the Patriots have been leaving themselves very little margin for error.

New England has been a streaky team since Bill Belichick took over. Their Super Bowl win over St. Louis capped the hottest of streaks, but they've had at least one lousy stretch in each season under perhaps the most humorless coach in NFL history.

Belichick has been brilliant so far, masterfully managing the depth chart through a brutal run of injuries and making the call of the season to date by taking that safety in Denver.

None of that means a whole lot the rest of the way, though. The only gimmes left on New England's schedule are Houston and Jacksonville, and the Patriots have to visit the Texans. They also have home dates against Dallas and Miami and road games at Indianapolis and the New York Jets.

Even if New England slumps just a little and goes, say, 3-3 while Buffalo goes on a 5-1 run, the division title could be on the line when the Bills visit Foxboro for the season finale. Buffalo would have to win that game to catch New England under any circumstances, which would give them a season sweep and the edge in the only tiebreaker likely to matter.

That scenario hinges on an eventuality that's become as much a part of late-season football as Detroit playing on Thanksgiving Day -- Miami choking down the stretch.

The Dolphins' annual self-soiling began two weeks ago with a home loss to Indianapolis. Last Sunday in Tennessee, they were simply pathetic.

Brian Griese was brilliant in his debut with the Dolphins. But in the two losses since, they haven't been able to protect him or open holes for Ricky Williams, who didn't crack the 40-yard milestone in either game.

Miami's defense has allowed the fewest points in the AFC, but, like Buffalo's, hasn't been able to win games on its own.

The Dolphins' road itinerary includes visits to Dallas on that aforementioned football-based holiday, New England and Buffalo.

Even more disturbing for aqua-and-orange loyalists is Miami's 1-3 mark at home, where they have visits from Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and the Jets remaining.

Catching the Dolphins would almost certainly require Buffalo to beat Miami at home, giving the Bills a season split and making conference record the relevant tiebreaker. Neither team has an edge there at the moment, with both sitting at .500.

It's too early to write off nearly any team, even the Dolphins. But I'm going to anyway.

The only other team ahead of Buffalo for the final wild-card berth is Denver.

The Broncos have problems of their own - Jake Plummer is expected to return this week, but he struggled at times before getting hurt. Injuries have battered Denver on both sides of the ball, but the most costly loss is fullback Mike Anderson, slapped by the league with a four-game substance abuse suspension. Anderson, a former 1,500-yard rusher himself, was Denver's only experienced lead blocker for Clinton Portis and posed more of a threat as a runner and receiver than most fullbacks. His absence could seriously disrupt the Broncos' running game, putting additional pressure on the usually shaky Plummer.

Denver has an easier schedule than Miami or Buffalo the rest of the way, with Kansas City providing their toughest home foe and a pair of difficult road games at Indianapolis and Green Bay closing their slate.

Regardless of their personal feelings about Doug Flutie, Bills fans should be rooting for Little Dougie Touchdown on Sunday when San Diego travels to Mile High Stadium, or whatever they're calling it these days.

With a 4-3 conference record, Denver holds a half-game edge in that tiebreaker, but Buffalo has one more AFC contest left to play.

And then - and this feels very, very wrong to write in a column that has anything to do with the playoffs - there's Cincinnati.

It's no surprise that rookie head coach Marvin Lewis has the Bengals playing respectable defense for the first time in years. The shock is that the traditionally lousy Jon Kitna is playing very solid football - certainly better than Drew Bledsoe in recent weeks - keeping the Bengals in contention this late in the season for the first time since 1990.

Just as surprising is that Cincinnati has done it without prima donna running back Corey Dillon. While Dillon sits with a sore groin, the previously unknown Rudi Johnson has made like a Pro Bowler.

Speaking of Johnson, I really don't want to dwell on Gilbride's play calling this week. But I'd just like to point out here that the Bengals gave the ball to Johnson 43 times last week against Houston. He gained 182 yards. That's the team that visits Buffalo this week. And the Bengals won. None of that is meant to question Gilbride's credentials as an offensive genius. I'm just saying.

Like the Bills, the Bengals are 4-5. Buffalo's AFC mark is a half-game better, should the two teams be involved in a three-way tie for a playoff berth.

Cincinnati has a fairly tough schedule the rest of the way, starting with Sunday's home game against unbeaten Kansas City. Four of the Bengals' final six are on the road, where they're just 1-3.

Behind the Bengals and Bills is a gaggle of 3-6 teams -- the Jets, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and, in a bit of a surprise, Houston. It would take a very hot streak and some stumbling from above to get any of the four back in the race, but stranger things tend to happen just about every year.

And it is pretty odd to even be thinking about the playoffs the way Buffalo has played since the first two weeks of the season, a stretch of near-perfect football that now seems like either a complete fluke or a case of a team peaking way, way too early.

But there the Bills are - a game out of a wild-card berth with seven to play. They don't quite control their own destiny, but it's close. And as terrible as they've looked for most of the past two months, they don't need a complete reversal of form to reach the postseason for the first time since 1999.

The defense is good enough to get them there. If the offense doesn't stop them.

(David Staba's weekly predictions for the Bills and the rest of the NFL picks are available at the Niagara Falls Reporter.)

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