GameScout: Buffalo

A year ago, the Buffalo Bills finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs by a single win. This year, with six games to play, they are already within a game of matching last season's loss total, and a brutally tough opponent visits Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers (7-3).

If there's a silver lining in this scenario for Buffalo (4-6), it's the fact there's a little more wiggle room in the AFC East than there was in 2004.

Last year, New England ran away with the division with a 14-2 record on its way to successfully defending its Super Bowl title. The New York Jets also were a playoff club at 10-6.

This year?

The beat-up Patriots still lead the division, but with only a 6-4 mark. The Jets, who have had all three of their quarterbacks hurt, are 2-8 and working toward earning the No. 1 pick in the draft. The Miami Dolphins have slumped to 3-7 after getting spanked 22-0 by Cleveland last week.

The competitive/sorry state of the AFC East has helped the Bills mentally regroup this week after last Sunday's embarrassing 48-10 loss at San Diego, the club's worst defeat in 20 years in a non-strike game.

"What I laid out (for the team) is that it's a six-week season and there's no room for error," coach Mike Mularkey said. "We have to lay it on the line and come in prepared. There are things with other teams that we have no control over. But it comes down to these last six weeks. It won't be easy. We put ourselves in this position, now it's a question of how hard are we going to work to get out of it."

When Buffalo made its playoff push a year ago, it was able to reel off six victories in a row. But that was with experienced quarterback Drew Bledsoe in charge on offense, a defense that had Takeo Spikes, and an inviting schedule. At one point, Buffalo played three consecutive games against teams that would pick in the top three in the draft (Miami, Cleveland, San Francisco).

No such luck this season.

Four of Buffalo's final six opponents currently lead their divisions: Carolina (7-3), New England (6-4), Denver (8-2) and Cincinnati (7-3). Overall, the six teams they will face are 33-27.

New England, on the other hand, faces only two teams with winning records from here on: Kansas City (6-4) and Tampa Bay (7-3). The Patriots' final six opponents are a combined 24-36.

The Bills' mantra: Take care of their own business first and see where the football drops.

"It makes it harder being two games out with six left. However, we still play them (New England) at home, and they have some tough games left," linebacker London Fletcher said. "We know this division won't be decided until the last couple of games, maybe even the last one. But we've got to rebound from this."

Last week, San Diego scored touchdowns on five of its first six possessions, led 35-0 and cruised.

By the end, Buffalo's defense had allowed a season-high 478 yards and 28 first downs, tumbling to 21st in total defense after ranking second overall the past two seasons. The offense was unable to hold onto the football, converting just three of 13 third downs to finish with 202 total yards, putting the ball back in Chargers quarterback Drew Brees' hands time and time again.

The Bills spent little time with the Chargers game film. After blowout losses, it's always best to forget and move on as quickly as possible.

"They beat us, that's all I can say," guard Chris Villarrial said. "We have to get it out of our system, let it go and get on with it. We're still not out of this thing (playoff race) and we're confident enough that we can bounce back from this and win."

"It's bitter, we have a bad taste in our mouth, but there's nothing we can do about it now," defensive end Chris Kelsay said. "I don't know how many times I have to say this, but we have to look forward."

Looking at how this season has unfolded, Mularkey is most concerned about the lack of consistency his team has shown. The Bills have won back-to-back games only once. They are 0-5 on the road.

"We've been consistent at home with some solid, good play, but away, we haven't been," Mularkey said. "At New England we played good enough to win, but we didn't finish. I've seen it (good play), but I haven't seen it consistently."

He added: "Our team has always responded when we've played poorly. I feel these guys in that locker room will do the same thing."

SERIES HISTORY: 4th meeting. The Bills lead the series 3-0, winning 31-9 in 1995, 30-14 in 1998 and 25-24 in 2001. The '98 victory featured a 282-yard passing day by Doug Flutie, who hit Eric Moulds with five passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. The '95 encounter at home vs. the then-expansion Panthers was more surreal than competitive. Suiting up for Carolina was QB Frank Reich, one of the most popular Bills in history, who had signed with the Panthers as a free agent. It was not a happy homecoming, as the Bills defense held Carolina to 12 passing yards and six first downs.

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--J.P. Losman will start at quarterback on Sunday against the Panthers, coach Mike Mularkey announced Wednesday.

Veteran Kelly Holcomb, who suffered a severe concussion two weeks ago, has gotten full medical clearance to resume playing, but Losman deserves to remain in the lineup based on his play in last Sunday's 48-10 loss at San Diego, Mularkey said.

"After watching the tape Monday, I thought J.P. performed pretty well," Mularkey said.

With the Bills down by 25 points at halftime at San Diego, Losman earned praise for the way he battled despite dropped passes by his receivers and poor blocking by his line. He was sacked six times, and it could've been double that.

"There were some things we could've done to help him, protection-wise," Mularkey said. "If there were errors on his part, it wasn't always him. It's route-running, getting off the ball quicker, protection, communication, reaction, all of that. But I thought he played pretty well. I thought he made some plays, avoided some sacks. He made some good throws for us."

Mularkey likes Losman's mobility against Carolina, which ranks second in the NFL in takeaways with 27 and is led by standout end Julius Peppers.

"They're tough, physical and smart," Losman said. "They get a lot of turnovers. We need to be smart in that area like we have been, but it's going to be a battle."

--Despite their 4-6 record, the Bills aren't suffering at the box office. Sunday's game will mark the club's 10th consecutive sellout. The Bills have sold out 21 of 22 games overall and their final two homes games vs. New England and Denver are down to single seats.

--Since boasting he's the best running back in the NFL, Willis McGahee has topped 100 yards only once in four games with two costly fumbles. The Bills are 1-3 in that stretch.

Mularkey has spoken with his young star about the wisdom of providing fodder for opponents, particularly those who stop the run so well. After facing San Diego's No. 1-ranked run defense, Buffalo has drawn Carolina's No. 4-ranked unit.

"It's been at least a month ago (since he made the comment) and it won't go away," Mularkey said. "Unfortunately when you say things like that, it is bulletin board material. We use it anytime we get an opportunity ... Anytime you can find a motivating tool, you're going to use that to your advantage, and I told that to Willis. I like his confidence, I like that he believes that; you better believe that you're the best. To me, confidence is half this game. But I'd rather you do it in your play and let people see ... just don't say it."

Said McGahee, shrugging his shoulders: "I'll be quiet."

--Rookie Roscoe Parrish took advantage of a hamstring injury to Terrence McGee in last Sunday's loss to San Diego to show Buffalo is deep at the kick return position. Parrish had six returns for 176 yards, including efforts of 41 and 45 yards, the fifth-highest single-game total in Bills history, tying a mark McGee set last year against New England.

McGee had a 42-yard return on his only try of the game, making it the first time since 1996 that the Bills had two players with 40-plus yard returns in the same game (Eric Moulds, 97-yard TD; and Russell Copeland, 47). With McGee, who leads the NFL in kick return average, still not 100 percent, Parrish could remain in that role against Carolina.

"The guys did a good job of blocking for me," he said. "The seams opened, and I took advantage of it."

BY THE NUMBERS: 4 - Games the Bills have lost when Willis McGahee receives fewer than 20 carries.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It matters what happens when you get back up. There is Round 2. There is Day 2. Next week comes and we have to come back swinging. Sometimes you get beat up, so you have to get back up. Either you're a man or you're not. We'll find about our team in the weeks to come." - QB J.P. Losman after Buffalo's 48-10 loss at San Diego, the team's worst non-strike loss in 20 years.

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CB Nate Clements, the Bills' best cover man, will have his resiliency tested like never before this week. Fresh off what was perhaps his poorest game as a pro, allowing two touchdown passes in the Chargers loss, Clements will square off against Carolina's Steve Smith, who leads the NFL with 72 catches for 1,106 yards and nine TDs.

Smith, on pace for just under 1,800 yards, is treading into Jerry Rice territory. Rice is the only receiver in NFL history to top that mark with 1,848 in 1995.

"It's not going to be hard for me to shake this off," Clements said of last week's performance. "I have confidence in myself. I know I'm still one of the top corners. I feel like I'm the best. But you've got to step up and keep putting in work every week. When you get the wins, you enjoy them. When you get the losses, you've got to mourn, get over it quickly and get ready for next week."

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--QB Kelly Holcomb, who suffered a severe concussion against the Kansas City Chiefs last week, has received full medical clearance to resume playing. He'll back up J.P. Losman on Sunday at home against Carolina. "My head's not hurting anymore," Holcomb said. "I feel a lot better today than I did last week."

--QB J.P. Losman, who has been named the starter for Sunday's home game against Carolina, has been sacked 17 times in just six games. But Losman has avoided numerous sacks with his legs. Last week at San Diego, when he has sacked six times, he dodged at least that many takedowns and also had a 30-yard scramble to set up a TD.

--KR/CB Terrence McGee received only one kickoff return last week at San Diego before re-injuring his hamstring. It was good for 42 yards, helping him maintain his league-leading 31.6-yard average. McGee has been bothered for weeks by his sore hamstring and is taking limited practice reps again in hopes of being ready for Sunday's game at home against Carolina.

--T Greg Jerman, a key reserve who sat out three games with a high ankle sprain, is close to full strength and will be given the OK to play Sunday against Carolina. With struggling Mike Williams as their only backup tackle, the Bills would welcome Jerman's return for the season's stretch drive.

--T Jason Peters, a converted college tight end who made his third start last week at San Diego, had a rough outing with penalties and sacks. But he will remain in the lineup Sunday when the Bills host Carolina and pass rushing star Julius Peppers.

--TE Mark Campbell injured his hamstring in the San Diego game and is questionable for Sunday. He was not able to practice Wednesday.

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GAME PLAN: The Bills, 0-5 on the road, are a much different team at home and should put up a much tougher fight than then did in losing by 38 points at San Diego. The Panthers, however, are a versatile and formidable opponent and are coming off a hard-fought 13-3 loss at Chicago that snapped their six-game win streak. Don't look for them to have another letdown as the playoff picture comes into sharper focus in late November.

The Bills' sagging defense, which was no match for San Diego's No. 2 scoring offense, giving up touchdowns on five of six drives to start the game, has to come out angry and with a good plan or the same could happen against the Panthers' No. 6 scoring unit led by efficient QB Jake Delhomme and super WR Steve Smith, an MVP candidate with a NFL-best 72 catches for 1,106 yards.

If the Bills can find a way to neutralize Smith, Carolina will be forced to run more. The Panthers average only 88.1 yards on the ground, but Stephen Davis has 12 rushing touchdowns. Anything that slows the game down for Buffalo and prevents another one-sided track meet is to the Bills' advantage.

Offensively, this is the Bills' toughest assignment since facing No. 3 Tampa Bay in Week 2. Carolina is No. 7 in yards allowed, No. 4 against the run and No. 2 in takeaways.

QB J.P. Losman needs to stay off his back and work the ball down field in order to take some pressure off RB Willis McGahee. The Panthers have excellent special teams coverage units, but the Bills have the edge in the kicking game with their No. 2 kickoff return unit.

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--Bills RB Willis McGahee, sixth in NFL with 895 rushing yards, vs. Panthers run defense, ranked No. 4. Carolina is likely to be without star MLB Dan Morgan (ankle).

--Bills RT Jason Peters, making his fourth start, and LT Mike Gandy vs. Panthers LDE Julius Peppers, one of the game's premier players, and RDE Mike Rucker, one of the most underrated. Peppers and Rucker have combined for 12 sacks and 45 pressures.

--Bills CB Nate Clements, team's best cover man, vs. Panthers WR Steve Smith, who set a team record with 14 catches for 169 yards in last week's loss at Chicago, his seventh 100-yard game of the year. When matched one-on-one, Clements has to come through after giving up two touchdowns last week with poor technique.

--Bills defense, which has given up 15 rushing touchdowns, vs. Panthers RB Stephen Davis, who has 12 rushing TDs all by himself.

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INJURY IMPACT DT Sam Adams, who was coming off a knee injury, had his ankle roll up on him in the San Diego game. He is expected to play Sunday, but his playing time could be limited. He was not able to practice on Wednesday. The Bills are getting by with a rotation of young defensive linemen that hasn't always been effective, and Adams' health issues are compounding the problem.

KR/CB Terrence McGee, nursing a tender hamstring for two weeks, will play Sunday, but he's not likely to be 100 percent. Jabari Greer would replace him at corner and Roscoe Parrish would assume his kick return duties, if need be. Parrish had a strong game returning kicks last week at San Diego.

A hamstring injury could slow TE Mark Campbell. TE Tim Euhus did come on last week to catch his first two passes of the season and his first since ACL surgery last December.

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