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.
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.
--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.
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."
--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.
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.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--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.
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.
SERIES HISTORY: 30th meeting. The Chiefs lead the series 15-11-3, but the Patriots have won three straight and four of last five, including a 27-19 victory at Arrowhead Stadium last season. That was the Patriots' first win in Kansas City in 40 years - since a 31-24 decision at old Municipal Stadium in 1964. The Patriots had lost seven straight road games to the Chiefs since then. Both teams were charter members of the American Football League in 1960.
--WR Andre' Davis needs to work on his touchdown celebration. After hauling in a 60-yard bomb from Tom Brady last week against the Saints, Davis dunked over the crossbar. No harm there, except that he knocked the goalposts out of alignment. Before the Patriots could attempt the PAT, they had to wait for a member of the stadium staff to hook the goal posts with a rope and straighten them out.
"That was more of a spur-of-the-moment type of thing and waiting for the guys to get down there so I could celebrate with them," Davis said. "You get a little bit of power with the workouts we have going on. I maybe got a little bit too excited."
--K Adam Vinatieri could become the Patriots' all-time leading scorer on Sunday. He is 10 points away from surpassing former K/WR Gino Cappelletti, an original Patriot who accumulated 1,130 points from 1960-70. Cappelletti is now the team's radio color analyst.
Vinatieri will be returning to the site of one of his rare clutch misses. In a game in Kansas City in 1999, he blew a 32-yard attempt with nine seconds left that probably would have given the Patriots a victory. Instead, they lost 16-14.
--The Patriots finally have their elusive winning streak, as modest as it is. Beating the Dolphins (3-7) and Saints (2-8) back-to-back is a far cry from winning an NFL-record 21 straight games, which the Patriots did in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. But it's a start.
"That's huge for us," tight end Benjamin Watson said. "We're not really getting anywhere (alternating) winning and losing, winning and losing. It was important for us to get two wins (in a row) under our belts, especially going into Kansas City."
Agreed defensive end Richard Seymour: "We always try to play our best ball in November and December because that's when it really counts. We just have to keep plugging away at it. We have a lot of football left, and we're going into a hostile environment."
--In his two career starts against the Chiefs - last year's 27-19 road victory and a 41-38 overtime win at home in 2002 - Brady has completed 70 percent of his passes for 725 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
That 2002 game was a wild shootout in which the teams combined for six touchdowns (three apiece) in the fourth quarter. The Patriots blew a 38-24 lead with five minutes left as Kansas City tied the game on Priest Holmes' 1-yard TD run on the final play of regulation. Patriots receiver Troy Brown set career highs in both catches (16) and yards (176) in that one. The 16 receptions were also a franchise record as well as the highest single-game total in the NFL that year.
BY THE NUMBERS: 24-36 - Combined win-loss record of the Patriots' remaining opponents.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "One's from Pennsylvania and one's from Nebraska, so it sounds a little different, I guess." - Right guard Stephen Neal on the difference between getting the line calls from injured center Dan Koppen (of Whitehall, Pa.) and his replacement, Russ Hochstein, who was born and raised in Hartington, Neb.
The Patriots' four remaining cornerbacks - Asante Samuel, rookie Ellis Hobbs and in-season acquisitions Hank Poteat and Artrell Hawkins - are all about the same size (either 5-foot-9 or 5-10 and between 185 and 192 pounds). Only Samuel has much experience as a starter, and he's only been in the league since 2003. So don't expect the Patriots to deviate from their season-long plan of not matching their corners against specific receivers.
"I think if you have an imbalance in corners, that's probably to your advantage to match up" with specific receivers, coach Bill Belichick said. "If you have corners that are pretty well balanced, then what's the advantage of matching up? They're basically putting the same player on the receiver regardless of which guy it is, if that's the way you feel about it.
"If you have a big, physical corner that can really get up and play against big, physical receivers, and you have another guy that has a different style of play and you're playing against a big, physical receiver, then you know who you want on him. (Or) if you have a guy that you think can really shut somebody down and you want to roll the coverage away from him, that's another way to do it."
Nick Saban had some explaining to do after making a comment that raised questions about whether the Dolphins coach had given up on the 2005 season with his team at 3-7 entering Sunday's road game against Oakland.
"We are building the team for the future, so where we are this season doesn't really matter," Saban said during his Monday news conference the day after a 22-0 loss to Cleveland. "It doesn't really matter. We want to see guys compete so we can know whether they need to be here. We want them to be here if they are the kind of people we want. That is what we are trying to find out.
"The record doesn't really matter, the result doesn't matter and the score in the game doesn't matter. Does that make sense to anybody besides me?"
It didn't for many who saw the comments, which prompted Saban to try to clarify what he said Monday night.
"The big picture is we're not focused on outcomes, but we're trying to get the process right so we could be more competitive, win more games and get the corner turned," Saban said in a conference call with South Florida beat writers. "For someone to say the season doesn't matter, that's not it at all.
"We're all working our tail off here to get the players to play the way they need to play to get the corner turned."
Still, the statement drew criticism from NFL analysts who couldn't believe what they had watched.
"I see what he's saying," ESPN's Mike Ditka said. "You build on what you've got. You've got to find out character-wise, intensity-wise, effort-wise who you want on your (team). I agree. But when you say wins and losses don't matter, I know what you're trying to say, but the way it comes across doesn't sound right."
Said fellow ESPN analyst Eric Allen, "I think that's crazy. What if you're a veteran and this is your last year? ... You want to make sure your team is trying to win games because they're keeping score."
The reality is the Dolphins are winding down a season that can currently be considered a disappointment. Miami had a legitimate chance to compete in a downtrodden AFC East, but the Dolphins have lost six of seven games after a 2-1 start.
Still, the locker room is solidly behind Saban as he tries to turn around the franchise's fortunes.
"It's not that he's saying the score doesn't matter," tight end Randy McMichael said. "He's saying we've got to get better to get the score to where we want to get it. I agree with him. It's all about how you perceive it. He told us exactly what he meant."
SERIES HISTORY: 27th meeting. Oakland holds a 15-10-1 series lead, although the Dolphins have won the past five regular-season contests. The last meeting between the squads was a 23-17 Dolphins victory on Dec. 15, 2002. Miami lost its final two games to miss out on the playoffs, while Oakland went on to play in Super Bowl XXXVII.
--The Dolphins have won 17 of their 20 past games against AFC West foes, although Miami did drop a 30-20 decision last month to visiting Kansas City.
--Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor has a legitimate chance of catching Michael Strahan for the most sacks in the NFL since 2000. The New York Giants defensive end has 73 sacks in that span, while Taylor and Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice each have 69.
Taylor is tied with Kevin Carter for the team lead in sacks with four apiece. The Dolphins, though, didn't get to the quarterback for the first game this season against Cleveland.
--Reuben Droughns' 75-yard touchdown run on Cleveland's first offensive snap marked the eighth time in 10 games Miami has surrendered a score on an opposing team's opening series.
--The Dolphins have committed a turnover in 19 consecutive games, with Sage Rosenfels throwing two interceptions against Cleveland.
--Miami's lack of offensive success has placed added strain on the defense. The Dolphins have been on the wrong side of time of possession in three consecutive games and eight of their last nine.
The only contest Miami has won without having an advantage in time of possession was when the Dolphins held the ball for 27:47 in a 27-24 victory over Carolina in Week 3. Cleveland held the football for 35:28, maintaining possession in most of the second and third quarters when the game's outcome was decided.
BY THE NUMBERS: 17 - The most points scored by Oakland against the Dolphins in their past 10 regular-season matchups. Miami has an 8-2 record in those contests.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "In the NFL - you hate to say it - sometimes you just have bad games. I have been through it. Some years you never have them, and some years you have one every now and then. That is what it was. It was a bad game." - Dolphins quarterback Gus Frerotte on the offense's performance against Cleveland.
The Dolphins lost their top two linebackers against the Browns. Junior Seau (calf/Achilles tendon) was placed on injured reserve Wednesday, and Zach Thomas is out for at least two games with a separated shoulder.
Seau had tried playing through a tendon injury despite the risk of a rupture, but an MRI test after the Browns game prompted the Dolphins to end the season of the 16-year veteran.
"In this game, we do not have time to sit back and allow anything to heal for more than two or three weeks," said Seau, who had only eight combined tackles in the past three games after missing the previous three because of the injury. "After that, you've got to go one with someone else."
Seau, who turns 37 in January, will end his second consecutive season on injured reserve. Seau tore a pectoral muscle in 2004.
Coach Nick Saban has no doubt that Seau will try to continue his Hall of Fame career for another season even if the Dolphins decide to go in another direction.
"The plan is I'm going to be healthy and ready to play with two legs instead of one," Seau said. "I will be back. I might not be here, but I'll be back."
--FS Lance Schulters returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's session with a sore neck. Schulters is listed as questionable for Sunday's game at Oakland but is expected to start.
--LT Anthony Alabi suffered an elbow injury during Wednesday's practice and is out indefinitely. A 2005 fifth-round draft choice, Alabi was inactive for all 10 of Miami's previous games this season.
--LB Junior Seau was officially placed on injured reserve Thursday because of an Achilles' tendon injury. Seau said Wednesday that he plans to play in 2006, although he admitted it might not be with the Dolphins.
--LB Zeke Moreno was signed Thursday to the 53-man roster to replace Junior Seau, who was placed on injured reserve with an Achilles' tendon injury. A five-year NFL veteran, Moreno appeared in four games for Philadelphia this season in a special teams role before being released Nov. 15.
--WR Fred Gibson was re-signed to the practice squad Wednesday, one week after being released. A 2005 fourth-round pick by Pittsburgh, Gibson has spent nine of the past 10 weeks on Miami's developmental squad.
--SLB Donnie Spragan will start Sunday against Oakland in place of Junior Seau, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a calf/Achilles tendon injury. Spragan lost his starting spot in the preseason with the emergence of rookie LB Channing Crowder.
--WLB Derrick Pope will start against Oakland in place of Channing Crowder, who is being shifted to MLB to replace Zach Thomas (shoulder). Pope started three games as a rookie in 2004 but has been used almost exclusively on special teams this season.
--MLB Zach Thomas was declared out for the Oakland game because of a separated right shoulder. Dolphins coach Nick Saban said Wednesday that Thomas will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis.
--QB Gus Frerotte practiced Wednesday and isn't listed on Miami's injury report for the Oakland game. Frerotte didn't start against Cleveland because of a sprained right finger.
--LB T.J. Hollowell was claimed off waivers Tuesday from the New York Jets to add depth to Miami's linebacker corps with Zach Thomas sidelined by a shoulder injury. Hollowell has appeared in six combined games the past two seasons with the Jets (2005) and New York Giants (2004).
--DT Josh Shaw was waived Tuesday when the Dolphins claimed LB T.J. Hollowell off waivers from the New York Jets because of MLB Zach Thomas' shoulder injury. Shaw has been signed and released by the Dolphins three times this season.
GAME PLAN: The Dolphins humiliated Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins in their previous two meetings, registering six interceptions and seven sacks while not allowing a touchdown pass. But Miami's pass defense is reeling, having allowed the opposition to complete at least 50 percent of its passes in eight of the past nine games. The Dolphins also will have to contain up-and-down tailback LaMont Jordan, who rushed for 101 yards against the Dolphins in one half last season while playing for the New York Jets.
Offensively, the Dolphins will have two of the NFL's best pass rushers at their respective positions to deal with. DE Derrick Burgess ranks second in the league in sacks with nine, while DT Warren Sapp is rebounding from a poor 2004 season with five sacks. The Dolphins have to find a way to generate more carries for Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown, who have combined for just 72 in the past three games.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Dolphins DE/OLB Jason Taylor vs. Raiders LT Barry Sims - With three sacks and two forced fumbles, Taylor humiliated Sims in Miami's 23-17 victory over Oakland in December 2002. But Taylor isn't as spry as he was then, as a foot injury has limited him to just four sacks. Sims also has improved since that game, with his 45 consecutive starts the most of any Raiders player.
Dolphins WR Marty Booker vs. Raiders CB Fabian Washington - Booker will be looking to start a new receiving steak after his string of 82 consecutive games with at least one reception ended against Cleveland. As a 2005 first-round draft choice, Washington has done a nice job filling in for injured starter Charles Woodson.
INJURY IMPACT: The Dolphins will have to see how their defense will hold up with a shuffled linebacking corps, necessitated by injuries to Junior Seau and Zach Thomas.
OK, now the Jets can get back to playing football without any distractions from the head coach and owner. Of course, it's not as if they were very successful before those distractions came up.
The soap opera began last week, when rumors about a possible move by coach Herm Edwards to Kansas City after the season began to crop up. When asked to comment about the rumors in his daily media briefing on Nov. 16, Edwards said, "I'm going to be here as far as I'm concerned. At this point right today, I'm going to be here."
But he seemed to equivocate when asked if would be happy to return with his existing contract, saying, "I don't talk about stuff like that," he said. "I'm happy to be here. I'm going to be here. ... At the end, if I'm not holding up my bargain or they feel they need to go in another direction, they've got to do that. They have to do whatever is best for the team."
Later that day, Edwards took the unusual step of calling several writers and making further comments, clarifying his loyalty.
"As the Jets Turn" quieted down for a few days, until the Jets' offense and defense were quite silent in a 27-0 loss at Denver. After that game, owner Woody Johnson did his best not to defuse speculation about Edwards' job situation when he briefly answered reporters' questions and said the Jets' players "didn't quit," but declined comment when asked about Edwards' status.
But Wednesday before the Jets (2-8) were to face the Saints (2-8), Johnson had what was easily his longest session with reporters this season. And Johnson did his best to squelch the rumors once and for all.
"I think he's performing fabulously," Johnson said when asked about Edwards' performance in his job. "I mean, we're not winning, but he's doing everything he can to win, and I think the team is doing everything they can to win."
It didn't appear that way, at least on the part of some of the players, against Denver. Versus the Broncos, the Jets turned in their most listless effort of the season. Although they all denied afterward that the week of speculation and rumors about Edwards' 2006 plans affected them, it's hard to believe it didn't, especially considering everything this injury-ravaged squad has been through in 2005.
Johnson added, "Herm's not leaving. It's a free world, but I don't want him to leave."
But when the owner was asked if he would give Edwards an extension beyond the 2007 season, when the coach's current contract runs out, he declined to answer.
"We're not going to talk about that," Johnson said. "He's got two years left. The answer to the question is that he wants to be here and I want him to be here."
When asked to respond later in the day, Edwards said he appreciated Johnson's words.
"He didn't have to do that," Edwards said, adding, "We've had a relationship for five years, a very good working relationship. Our relationship was formed on one thing and one thing only - trust. We both trust each other, we both understand what we're trying to do here."
OK, so now that's settled, for the time being, anyway. And perhaps the Jets can approach this week's game with a different frame of mind.
"Anytime you take away the unknown, it takes away some distraction in the locker room," center Pete Kendall said, although he added, "It hasn't been a big issue in here amongst the guys; it's been a big issue in the media the last couple weeks. When the owner's stance is for the team and he vouches for the coach, then it gives the guys a sense of security. I think that will be a good thing for this team."
SERIES HISTORY: 10th meeting. Jets lead series 5-4. The Jets won the last meeting in 2001. Prior to that, the Saints had won three straight.
--QB Kliff Kingsbury currently is No. 2 on the depth chart, coach Herm Edwards said. And with starter Brooks Bollinger listed as questionable with a concussion, although he figures to start, Kingsbury is very close to being the guy behind center.
"I've been trying to prepare like a starter," Kingsbury said. "I'll just get ready, and if my number is called, hopefully go in there and try and give them a chance to win."
He realizes he's the insurance policy.
"They brought me in here for that reason," said Kingsbury, who went 1-for-2 for 17 yards in relief of the injured Brooks Bollinger and Vinny Testaverde against Denver. "To go in there if something should happen, make plays, try to get a win, and I think I can do that."
He said he's not all that surprised at his current status, given how many injuries the Jets have suffered at his position.
"Yeah, the way things are going, I think anything is possible," he said. "I just came in, they did a great job of prepping me and trying to get me into the offense, and we'll go from there."
--S Oliver Celestin can empathize with what the vagabond Saints are going through. His immediate family, longtime residents of New Orleans, also were displaced by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. They've relocated to Long Island for now, not far from the team's training facility.
The positive is that it will be rare chance for him to be with his family on Thanksgiving.
"I'll come in and get my work done on Thursday," he said, "go home and enjoy Thursday night with my family (and) just relax for a moment."
When asked if his family goes to the home games, he replied, "My dad has been to a couple of them, but my mom isn't really a big football fan. Me being her only son, she never really pushes that issue at all. She just accepts it and encourages me more than anything. My dad, nephews and brother-in-law are the football fans. They'll be at the game week in and week out."
As for the Saints, he said, "If anything I can probably relate to them and see how they're operating. Just by watching them on film, they seem like they haven't lost a stride."
Maybe so, but New Orleans has lost its last six.
"That's a whole different level compared to what we've had to go through," center Pete Kendall said. "The devastation down there, the uncertainty that those guys must be going through with their families and having to move their families, the distraction that must cause. Of course you'll never hear them say or cite that as an excuse."
BY THE NUMBERS: 20 - The number of offensive possessions since the Jets' last touchdown, an 8-yard pass from Brooks Bollinger to Laveranues Coles in the fourth quarter against San Diego on Nov. 6. That figure doesn't even include the two possessions that ended on fumbled kickoff returns by Justin Miller.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I probably think ESPN couldn't wait for that flex scheduling to get here soon enough." - Jets center Pete Kendall when asked if playing the Saints on a Sunday night is special.
--QB Jay Fiedler (shoulder) has been ruled out for this game, but could return to limited action shortly. Jets coach Herm Edwards said, "He's been improving, so we'll see. Hopefully he can get back."
--QB Brooks Bollinger (concussion) practiced Thursday and is expected to start Sunday against the Saints.
--RB Curtis Martin (knee) returned to practice Thursday and will start against New Orleans. Martin's ailing knee certainly had time to recuperate against Denver, as he carried the ball a season-low four times for 7 yards.
--C Pete Kendall (back) practiced Thursday and is probable for Sunday.
--FB B.J. Askew (hamstring), a key special-teamer who has missed six games this season, practiced Thursday and is probable for the New Orleans game.
--CB David Barrett (eye) will miss his third straight game since sustaining a scratched cornea against San Diego. Coach Herm Edwards said that Barrett's eye is "getting better," but not to the point where he can play or practice just yet. Rookie Justin Miller again will start in his place. He struggled against Denver.
--RB Derrick Blaylock (broken ankle) was upgraded to doubtful, although he didn't practice and it's unclear when he might return to action. He has missed five games since being injured against Tampa Bay. Edwards said that Blaylock "can walk around a little bit, but he's not ready to do a whole lot."
--DE John Abraham was held sackless for the second consecutive game, but he still is the team leader with 5.5. Abraham is listed as probable with a shoulder injury.
--QB Vinny Testaverde (ankle) was not on the injury report, even though coach Herm Edwards characterized him as "hobbling." Edwards indicated that Kliff Kingsbury would be the No. 2 quarterback this week.
--DT Sione Pouha (calf) is listed as questionable. The rookie, who is part of the Jets' rotation at defensive tackle, has five tackles this season.
GAME PLAN: As DE John Abraham said after the Denver debacle, the Jets will keep trying to win a game. They shouldn't have to try too hard to run the ball against a Saints defense that allows an alarming 4.4 yards per carry, so this should be the perfect opportunity for Curtis Martin to improve his 3.4-yard average. A strong running game also would give the Jets a chance to bring some of their play-action passes out of mothballs.
Defensively, the Jets should have a chance for some turnovers against a Saints offense that has 28 giveaways, which has resulted in a minus-13 turnover ratio, worst in the NFL. However, the mobile Aaron Brooks (6.9 yards per rush) can make plays with both his arm and his legs, and the Jets defense has had its problems against mobile quarterbacks.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Jets NT James Reed vs. Saints C LeCharles Bentley. Reed and the Jets' defensive line failed at containing the Broncos' running game, as Denver controlled the clock with two nine-plus-minute drives in the first half. New Orleans averages 4.3 yards per carry rushing.
--Jets LT Adrian Jones vs. Saints DE Will Smith. Smith leads the Saints with 5.5 sacks, and the Jets offense has permitted 35 sacks this season.
--Jets CB Ty Law vs. the officials and Saints WR Joe Horn. Law picked up two more penalties against Denver, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that he cannot alter his style of play.
QB Brooks Bollinger (concussion) is listed as questionable, although indications are that he will start. If he doesn't, first-year player Kliff Kingsbury will be thrown into the starting role. Vinny Testaverde (ankle) likely won't be the starter, in any event. ... CB David Barrett (eye) will miss a third straight game. Rookie replacement Justin Miller has impressed at times at that position, and struggled at others.
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