The Bills need to stop the Miami Dolphins' strong running game, powered by veteran Ricky Williams and rookie Ronnie Brown, to have any chance of winning in Miami on Sunday and keeping their slim playoff hopes alive.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, stopping the run isn't their only concern these days. Once a strength, the Bills' own running game, led by Willis McGahee, went south weeks ago and now ranks 17th in the NFL at 108.9 yards per game. Buffalo has just four rushing touchdowns.
McGahee, a candidate to top 2,000 yards when the year began based on his big season a year ago, is struggling to top 1,000 with five games left. Ever since proclaiming himself the NFL's best running back, he has topped 100 yards only once in the past five games, averaging 53 yards in the other four.
The Bills are 1-4 in this stretch, and their playoff hopes are fading fast.
So what happened to the team's ability to run the football?
"Well, it's a combination of a lot of things," coach Mike Mularkey said. "I think up front, we're not pushing the line consistently like we had earlier. We're getting it at times, it's not like we're not trying, but we're not getting the movement like we had. And Willis is sometimes hitting it and sometimes he's got a little bit of a skip-step. But when he's hitting those things hard and we're getting movement there (on the line), we're making positive yards. Obviously, we'd like to be consistent running the ball, because it's what we do best."
The Bills are 9-2 when McGahee tops 100 yards; they're 0-4 this year when he has fewer than 20 carries. On the year, he's fifth in the AFC with 948 yards and a 4.0 yards-per-carry average.
One factor in his recent slump is that Buffalo has faced three consecutive top-five run defenses in Kansas City, San Diego and Carolina. But that can't be an excuse, Mularkey said.
"It's a grind," he said. "We know most teams are trying to stop the run, but we're not going to stop trying."
Buffalo's best commitment to the run came in a 20-14 victory over Miami in Week 5. McGahee gained just 86 yards, but his season-high 31 carries allowed the Bills to control the clock for 35 minutes and set a tempo. He did snap off a 54-yard run in the closing minutes that would've allowed Buffalo to run the clock out, but the play was called back on a holding penalty on teammate Josh Reed.
"It gets frustrating, but you can't let it bother you," McGahee said when asked why he hasn't been able to get on track lately. "I don't even know why, to tell you the truth. We need to work together (better) as a team and trust each other, know what everybody is supposed to do and do it."
After last Sunday's 13-9 loss to Carolina when McGahee was held to 53 yards on 21 carries, a game where the Panthers played just a regular front with seven men in the box, Mularkey seemed outwardly disappointed that McGahee didn't take over the game at some point.
McGahee gained 7 yards rushing on six carries in the red zone and he also committed a chop block penalty to wipe out a 9-yard pass completion from Losman to Eric Moulds to the Carolina 1-yard line. Buffalo wound up settling for its second of three field goals on the day.
Mularkey seemed to imply that McGahee needed to take his role as the Bills' main offensive catalyst more seriously.
"Part of that (running the ball) is having an attitude about it," Mularkey said. "You have to force the issue sometimes. We've got to do a good job up front, we have to call the play to get it done, and he's got to hit it. We were sporadic (vs. Carolina), really sporadic.
"(Willis) has to understand his role here and know that our success here, a lot of it is riding on what he does. He has to understand that and we're still trying to get to that phase."
On Wednesday, Mularkey said he wasn't implying that McGahee needed to be more mature and he wasn't questioning his work ethic, which is strong.
"If I gave that impression, I was wrong," Mularkey said. "I don't know if it's about maturity as much as it is about experience, consistency. I'm not sure if there's a guy who works as hard in practice and in the weight room as he does. If I gave the impression it was immaturity, I wasn't trying to."
McGahee is known to be a free spirit.
On Wednesday, for example, he played basketball in the corner of the team's field house for nearly all of his hour-long lunch break, ignoring his scheduled news conference. He eventually met with reporters for two minutes before running off to a meeting.
When asked if he was diligent enough at his job, McGahee replied: "I'm good. I'm good."
Is he a serious enough for this coaching staff?
"He is," Mularkey said. "He doesn't give that impression the way he carries himself sometimes. He has fun. This is still a game to him. I hope it's a game to a lot of these guys. Sometimes you press yourself, put so much pressure on, it's too much of a business. He has fun playing. He is very into it. He asks more questions on the practice field than anybody. So I don't have a problem with it. As long as it doesn't affect the team and his play, that's just him. I'm not going to change his personality."
--The Bills are mathematically alive in the AFC East Division title picture but among the contenders, they easily face the toughest remaining schedule. Buffalo's final five opponents are a combined 29-26, and three of them lead their division (New England, 6-5; Denver, 9-2; Cincinnati, 8-3). The Patriots' final five opponents are 19-36 and Miami's are 22-33.
--WR Eric Moulds on Buffalo's playoff chances: "I think we still have a shot, but we have to go out and play well these last five games. I think we're going to need a little help, but we have to go out there and play hard."
--Buffalo's play in the red zone has sunk to embarrassing depths. The Bills have scored touchdowns on just 11 of 30 red-zone trips (36.6 percent). Last year, Buffalo converted at a 46.7 clip. "It's been a thorn in our side all year," Mularkey said of his team's red-zone woes. "There have been chances and we have not capitalized. I wish I could explain it, but it's not like we don't have open guys or the ability to run the ball down there." The Bills were particularly wimpy in the red zone against Carolina, gaining a mere 9 yards on 10 plays inside the 20. Earlier in the game, Mularkey called a toss pitch on third-and-1 at the Carolina 8-yard line to the left for RB Willis McGahee that lost 4 yards. Star defensive end Julius Peppers had switched from the left to the right side and was there waiting for McGahee with three of his teammates. "They made a good play, gave us a different look than we anticipated," Mularkey said of the Peppers' play.
--QB J.P. Losman is finding media and fan criticism a little too hot to handle. The Bills have lost four out of five games to fall to 4-7. "I'm upset at the way certain newspapers are writing articles about how we need to look to the future and the season's over," said Losman, visibly irritated during his news conference Wednesday. "It's ridiculous. We have five games left, and if somebody's going to give up, we don't want our own papers, our own fans, to be the ones. They look at us and say, 'Why are you giving up?' Well, you guys are turning your backs on us first. We go out there every day to win."
Veteran guard Chris Villarrial smiled when told of Losman's comments. "You know, when you're 4-7, you deserve everything you get," Villarrial said. "At 4-7, you're not proving anything to anybody. You've got to take it. In order for us to get them (critics) to step back, you have to start winning. That's just the way it is."
--Bills free safety Troy Vincent, president of the NFL Players Association and a resident of Pennsylvania, questioned why Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chose to speak out on Terrell Owens' suspension by the Philadelphia Eagles for conduct detrimental to the team. Specter threatened a Senate investigation into whether antitrust laws were violated, then backed off. "I don't know how politics got into it," Vincent said. "I guess it was the perfect time for someone to get his face on camera and his quotes on TV. I'm happy it's over, to be honest. The results weren't what we expected from the union's standpoint, but there's too much good going on in the NFL for us to keep talking about the T.O. saga. The arbitrator made a decision and we all have to live with it and we all have to move on."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think it's everybody. I know everybody is frustrated and not just talking about players and coaches, it's the whole organization, the community. Everybody is frustrated and disappointed. But I think within this building, everybody would say they would take a share of why we are where we are. It's the same if you win a championship. It goes to the whole organization, and I'd say the same thing in regards to where we are right now. But we're not out of it." - Coach Mike Mularkey when asked who's to blame for the Bills' 4-7 record: management, coaches or players?
The Bills used a lot of no-huddle offense in their 20-14 victory over Miami in Week 5 when Kelly Holcomb made his first start, and they are expected to have J.P. Losman operate the hurry-up scheme with regularity in Sunday's rematch.
Losman has demonstrated a good feel for the no-huddle, using it during certain stretches of three scoring drives last week against Carolina, each resulting in a field goal.
"It gives the quarterback options," Losman said. "I'm up there at the line and I can see what they are doing and counterattack. If you are in the huddle and you call a play, you think you know what they are going to do and you kind of run a play from that point."
Rather than audible out of plays in a conventional huddle mode, the no-huddle allows a quarterback to audible into plays. Allowing Losman such freedom is a strong sign of the coaches' faith in the first-year starter.
"It's all on me. I was calling the plays," Losman said of last Sunday's game. "The coaches give me the checks during the week, tell me what to look for. But the way they teach it here is to give the quarterback full rein to go. It was nice to see that we got ourselves into the right plays."
Fifteen years ago, the Bills and QB Jim Kelly became the first team in the NFL to use the no-huddle as their base offense, riding the attack to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
These are areas the Dolphins are sure to test early and often. Miami had four pass plays of 22 yards or longer in the year's first meeting with the Bills.
Buffalo has few options beyond Greer and Wire. Eric King, a rookie, is the only other reserve corner with Kevin Thomas (knee) on reserve/PUP. The Bills could shift FS Rashad Baker to strong safety, but he's undersized and would be mismatched against Miami's Randy McMichael.
One week after Miami coach Nick Saban was chastised for saying "we are building the team for the future, so where we are this season doesn't really matter," Miami finds itself with something to play for in 2005.
Miami (4-7) enters Sunday's game against Buffalo (4-7) with renewed hopes of making the playoffs. The Dolphins posted a 33-21 road victory over Oakland last Sunday and AFC East-leading New England (6-5) suffered a 26-10 loss to Kansas City.
"That is motivation for some of the players," Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown said. "For the most part, I think we are to the point where we know what we have to do. We just have to come in and get better each week and grow together as a team.
"Hopefully, we can achieve some good things. Like coach Saban said, play each play (one) at a time and don't worry about the scoreboard. At the end of the game, you'll be on the positive side."
The Patriots (6-5) are still in control of the division and have games remaining against five teams with a combined record of 19-36, including the visiting Dolphins in the season-finale. A wild-card spot also seems unlikely for the Dolphins with four other contenders - Jacksonville (8-3), San Diego (7-4), Kansas City (7-4) and Pittsburgh (7-4) - having significantly better records at this point of the season.
But that hasn't tempered Miami's enthusiasm for a late-season run, especially with the Dolphins having upcoming home games against the Bills, New York Jets (2-9) and Tennessee (3-8). The other remaining contest before the season-finale against New England is December 11 in San Diego.
"Why not us?" said Dolphins defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday, who recently made that expression his rallying cry for the 2005 season. "You've seen teams dig themselves into a hole and come back. You've seen teams win six in a row and build into the next year. I think if we believe that, we'll be on the right track."
But for that train to start to roll, the Dolphins have to piece together consecutive victories for the first time this season. Miami was atop the AFC East entering an October 9 game at Buffalo with a 2-1 record, only to suffer a 20-14 defeat against a Bills team that had won just one of its first four contests.
Miami proceeded to lose five of its following six games before turning in an inspired effort against Oakland (4-7).
Saban is more worried about his team putting together a winning streak - albeit a modest one - than looking ahead toward what may or may not happen in the postseason. Of more immediate focus to Saban is making sure the Dolphins don't look ahead or take an opponent lightly, which are two areas the team has struggled with in his first season as head coach.
"Everybody needs to realize that if you continue to do things like you have always done them, you will continue to get the same results - guaranteed," Saban said. "Everybody has to change a little bit."
--In the last 17 Dolphins-Bills games, the winner has outscored the loser by a 145-65 margin in the fourth quarter.
--The Dolphins have rushed for at least 100 yards in their past 11 games against Buffalo but only won six of those contests. Two outings of 200-plus yards have helped raise the average to 144.2 yards in that span.
--The Dolphins have to hope Gus Frerotte's tendency to get hot as the temperatures cool continues against Buffalo. In December games since 2000, Frerotte has five touchdowns and just one interception in 146 overall attempts.
--Jason Taylor is averaging almost one sack for every game he has played against Buffalo. Taylor has 15 sacks in 16 career games against the Bills along with four forced fumbles, one fumble return and six passes defensed.
Taylor has sacked five Buffalo quarterbacks - Rob Johnson (six), Drew Bledsoe (five), Alex Van Pelt (1.5), J.P. Losman (two) and Travis Brown (.5). Taylor will be facing J.P. Losman for the first time Sunday.
--Dolphins wide receiver Chris Chambers has five touchdowns in eight career games against the Bills. Chambers was kept out of the end zone in a four-catch, 60-yard performance in his last outing against Buffalo. Chambers, though, is coming off his most productive game of the season (6 catches for 101 yards)
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have been in that situation before where we played a great game and came out flat the next week. It is a thing that we have to learn from our past. When we have gotten behind early in games, we have played catch-up, and that is not what we want to do. We want to be right there on the top and come out shooting our guns early. We seem to play better that way." - Dolphins quarterback Gus Frerotte.
Although he is listed as doubtful on Miami's injury report, Dolphins coach Nick Saban said middle linebacker Zach Thomas will not play against Buffalo. Thomas is recovering from shoulder and ankle injuries suffered November 20 in a 22-0 loss to Cleveland.
"He probably will be able to play sometime in the near future, but that is going to be determined week to week," Saban said. "As he rehabs himself and develops the kind of strength and so forth that he needs, then we will decide together with him when that time is that he is ready to play."
Rookie Channing Crowder will make his second consecutive start at middle linebacker against Buffalo.
--Defensive end Jason Taylor was voted the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Raiders. Taylor had three sacks of Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins, including one for a safety, as well as a fumble recovery.
"It is a team effort," Taylor said. "It is never an individual thing. I happened to be the one that got picked out ... The secondary and the linebackers did a great job covering."
The "Ty Law Rule" has gotten plenty of publicity this season. Now it's time for "Ty Law Week."
The ex-Patriot returns to familiar territory when the Jets (2-9) visit New England (6-5) on Sunday. To his credit, Law, who has been unable to hide from the officials, didn't duck the media, either. He confronted some burning issues Wednesday after 11 games of what has been an interesting season for him.
Although Law's five interceptions lead the Jets and have him tied for sixth in the NFL, he also has picked up a team-high nine penalties for 73 yards as officials have kept a close eye on him. Further, rumors surfaced this week that Law, who is due an $11 million option bonus from the Jets in March 2006, will likely not be with the team next season as the team goes younger (and cheaper) at the cornerback position.
"I could see why one would assume that," Law said when asked about rumors that his tenure as a Jet will end after the season finale against Buffalo, "but it's hard to look at that right now when you're in the midst of a season. I've learned to not look too far into the future because you never know what's going to happen. Is it a possibility that I'll be here and a Jet? I hope so. Is it a possibility that I'll be a free agent again? That's a great possibility, too."
Jets coach Herm Edwards didn't exactly dispel any rumors by saying that Law has played "OK" in 2005 and that "he's made some plays." Edwards also noted that Law hasn't allowed any touchdown passes, but the fifth-year coach prides himself on having a disciplined team that commits few penalties, so Law's on-the-field run-ins with the "law" are an obvious thorn in Edwards' side.
"Sometimes he forgets you just can't use your hands as much as before," Edwards said. "He's made some plays, but our margin for error is very little, so when those types of things happen, you go, 'Man, that gives them another chance.' We can't afford to give people second chances right now.
"At the end of the season, we'll have to discuss a lot of our players and which direction we're going in," Edwards said when asked about Law's potential future in green and white. "The players know it. And obviously we want to keep our good players. We'll make those decisions at the end of the year."
Back to the present, in which Law gets his first opportunity to go against the team that chose not to re-sign him after he missed the last two months of the 2004 season, plus New England's third Super Bowl run in four years, with a broken foot.
Law claims it's not a big deal.
"No, not at all," he said. "I thought about this early in the season. I've been here a long time now, so it's just like another game to me. I don't know how I'm going to feel once I get to the stadium, but it's not something I'm thinking of or something that I circled on the calendar prior to playing them. I wasn't angry at all. It was a business decision (by) both parties and we decided to go our separate ways."
--Here's some good news for the bruised and battered Jets: The Patriots actually have a longer injury report. While the Jets listed only six players, New England put 12 on its report.
But hold the celebration, Jets fans. New England released running back Mike Cloud on Tuesday, which could be a sign that either starter Corey Dillon (calf) or third-down specialist Kevin Faulk (foot), or both, will return this week. Dillon has missed the last two games and most of the previous one, while Faulk has been out for eight games.
Also consider that 10 Patriots were listed as questionable for the Kansas City game. Six of them played.
Ten Patriots are listed as questionable this week. However, left tackle Matt Light still is listed as doubtful and likely won't play.
"They've found a way," Jets' quarterback Brooks Bollinger said when asked how the Pats have survived the rash of injuries to lead the AFC East, "and that's been their trademark when they've had success. They've had to plug some guys in at some different spots and that's a credit to them. They've done a terrific job."
--Defensive end John Abraham hasn't had a sack in his last three games after recording 5 1/2 in his first eight games. But Jets coach Herm Edwards defended Abraham, who had a much-publicized holdout and missed all of the Jets' 2005 training camp before getting off to a quick start.
"He's obviously hurrying the quarterback some and he's getting doubled some," Edwards said of Abraham. "He's putting pressure on the quarterback some. Last week was tough. He couldn't get the guy (New Orleans' Aaron Brooks) down. He got away from us a couple of times."
Edwards also pointed out that down-and-distance situations, as well as game situations, haven't been conducive to sacks.
"Then the other games you look at," he said, "they were not passing games because we were behind. We were behind in the games, and (the opponents) didn't have to throw. But if they did throw, they were quick, three-step drops. Toward the end of the game they were running the ball. You look at the Denver game, they ran the ball. They didn't have to throw that much, and when they did, they were rolling out, rolling away from John."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People are going to have opinions, but I still think I'm the best cornerback in football. Especially given what I came back from. I don't know too many guys that have come back from (a broken foot) as early as I have and be as productive as I have." - Jets cornerback Ty Law
QB Brooks Bollinger finally appeared to be running an offense suited for him when the Jets lost to New Orleans. There were numerous designed rollouts and shotgun formations that allowed Bollinger to use his feet to avoid the pass rush, as well as making it more difficult for taller defensive linemen to reject the 6-foot-1 Bollinger's passes.
Undersized 286-pound NT James Reed has had problems handling opposing centers one-on-one, something that predecessor Jason Ferguson did very well. That's one reason why the Jets defense has struggled against the run. Ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham have been quiet on passing downs. Ellis hasn't had a sack in the last five games, and Abraham has been held sackless for the last three.
INJURY IMPACT: RB Curtis Martin (knee) was re-injured against New Orleans, so rookie backup Cedric Houston could get a few carries this week. He had five attempts for 12 yards against the Saints. ... CB David Barrett (eye) is probable and could play for the first time since Nov. 6. The play of rookie replacement Justin Miller has been up and down since he took over.
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