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By David Staba

The Buffalo Bills' bye week offered their players, coaches, fans and analysts a free Sunday to either dwell on or forget last week's humiliation at the hands of Drew Bledsoe's former employer, the New England Patriots.

Each of the above groups, save the guys who patched together Buffalo's miserable offensive and defensive game plans, would do well to take the latter option.

Getting undressed on national television couldn't have boosted the self-esteem of the players or their faithful, especially after a three-game winning streak and 5-3 start launched premature playoff talk. But to put things in perspective, look back not one week, but 52.

A year ago this bye week, the Bills staggered home after another loss to the Patriots, that one in New England. The 21-11 pounding dropped Buffalo to 1-7, with a blitz everyone in Foxboro Stadium could see coming, effectively ending the season for both Rob Johnson and the team he was supposed to save.

"The Bills are looking at half a season with little to accomplish beyond moral victories, operating with a quarterback who has been a career backup for very good reason," I wrote in the Niagara Falls Reporter's Nov. 13, 2001 issue.

Despite suffering the franchise's most one-sided home loss since 1983, these Bills still have plenty to motivate them. Miami's collapse and New England's revival has created a three-way tie, along with Buffalo, atop the AFC East.

That loss to the Patriots unquestionably ranks as Buffalo's 2002 low point, at least to date. But with the National Football League at as close to a halfway point as existence of bye weeks allows, BillStuff offers this look back at the good and bad of the Bills' season, as well as the taverns, house parties and motel rooms that provided our vantage points for the past nine weeks.

BILLS MVP: Dissecting the defensive contortions thrown at him by former coach and current nemesis Bill Belichick would have capped an amazing opening run by Bledsoe. That didn't come close to happening, but last week's flop didn't come close to overshadowing his first eight outings.

The numbers (a 63.6 completion percentage, 96.0 quarterback rating, 2,802 yards, 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions) are impressive enough. But they don't reflect the unmistakable spike in Buffalo's confidence level from the moment he took the field against the New York Jets on Opening Day.

BillStuff will go way out on a limb here to say giving up next year's No. 1 pick to get the guy was a pretty good deal.

BILLS NON-BLEDSOE MVP: This would be a dead heat between Travis Henry and Eric Moulds, except that Henry keeps fumbling and Moulds developed a troubling case of the drops over the last two games.

Those flaws leave an opening for Peerless Price. While this space has been somewhat viciously critical of Price over the years, you've got to say this much -- the man knows when his contract is up.

With seven games to go, he's already established a career high in catches with 60 and matched his personal best with seven touchdowns (two more than Moulds). If he keeps this up, someone will seriously overpay him when he hits the free-agent market after the season.

BILLS DEFENSIVE MVP: This one is a much more obvious pick. Nate Clements produced the only truly big game any Buffalo defender has turned in this season in Miami, with three interceptions and a touchdown return in the Bills' 23-10 win. While Clements should send some of whatever bonus he might have received for that performance to Dolphins quarterback Ray Lucas for playing catch with him so nicely, the second-year cornerback has thrived, even without Antoine Winfield on the other side or any sort of consistent pass rush to make his job a bit easier.

OBLIGATORY FOOTBALL/WAR ANALOGY: Buffalo's defense recalls that of France, circa 1940. Like the Maginot Line, if a particularly stupid or inept attacker runs directly into the fortifications, they might get stopped. Otherwise, it's on to Paris. Or in the Bills' case, the end zone.

The rules of football, however, forbid the sort of abject surrender perfected by the French. Instead, the Bills and their faithful are subjected to witnessing conquest, over and over.

MOST IMPROVED UNIT: The reconfigured offensive line has given up an unacceptable 34 sacks, but for the first time since 1998, cleared the way for a consistent running game. At least when offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride feels like utilizing it.

BS FAN WHO LOOKED MOST LIKE AN AGING COUNTRY-POP STAR: The guy at Tonawanda's Dome Stadium who eerily resembled Kenny Rogers, except a bit angrier, with a little less paunch and no obvious signs of plastic surgery, made us want to sneak up behind him and sing, "You picked a fine time to leave me ..."

Except that, unlike Kenny, he looked like he might have taken a swing.

GAME OF THE YEAR (SO FAR): The 45-39 win over Minnesota had everything except competent defense -- constant lead changes, long kick returns, and a Bills-record 463-yard day by Bledsoe, punctuated by a 48-yard touchdown strike to Price in overtime.

RESTING-ON-HIS-LAURELS AWARD: Punter Brian Moorman won AFC Special Teams Player of the Month honors for October. Then, in his first outing of November, he shanked a pooch punch (though, to be fair, he never should have been on the field on fourth-and-2 from New England's 32-yard line) and snuffed a Mike Hollis field goal attempt by bobbling the snap, then trying to pierce the turf by applying undue pressure to the ball with the palm of his hand.

WING REPORT: Amidst fierce competition, the delicacies served up by the fine folks at Judi's Lounge on Military Road stand alone among the first-half field. Like a gymnast scheduled too early in an event, only timing prevented the judges from awarding a perfect score. But with at least seven Sundays to go, they've earned another shot at that A+.

BS NOVEMBER/DECEMBER PREDICTION: With Miami, San Diego and pitiful Cincinnati traveling to Orchard Park and winnable road games against Kansas City on the Jets dominating the docket, a 5-2 stretch run for a 10-6 record and a playoff berth isn't unrealistic. But with little hope of improvement for the defense, something's going to go wrong somewhere.

Still, a postseason-free 9-7 knocks the bejeezus out of 3-13.


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 12 2002