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By David Staba

So much for the playoffs.

On Sunday in New Jersey, the Buffalo Bills didn't mathematically guarantee spending Christmas with their families, but then, I've never been very good at math.

In the course of getting trampled 31-13 to fall to 5-6, the Bills weren't very good at anything.

And even if the Bills manage to correct the defensive passivity and offensive malaise demonstrated through their season-long three-game losing streak and win on five straight Sundays, it likely won't be quite good enough. With a 1-3 divisional record and a 2-6 conference mark, Buffalo falls short of the three teams ahead of them -- the Jets, Miami and New England -- in the AFC East.

"Five in a row?" mumbled one Cocktail Bob's patron when a television announcer pointed out the statistical realities. "How about one?"

So what happened? How did the National Football League's most exciting team over the first half of the season come so thoroughly unhinged so quickly?

Blaming the offense provides an easy answer -- over the past four games, Buffalo's once-unstoppable attack managed precisely one trip into the opposing end zone each week. That's not close to good enough, even for team with a decent defense. That team, they demonstrated quite clearly once again on Sunday, is not the Bills.

But we knew that all along. The Bills' offensive disintegration presents a much more disturbing development.

The second Bills drive ended when a Bledsoe pass bounced off mitts of the the normally sure-handed Jay Riemersma and into the clutches of New York safety Sam Garnes.

On Buffalo's next possession, Aaron Beasley snatched another Bledsoe throw, largely because Peerless Price didn't feel like running his route, turning what should have been a sharp, short post into a leisurely trot through the Jets secondary.

Both interceptions led directly to New York touchdowns, providing all the scoring the Jets needed.

Over the first half of the season, the offense usually scored enough points to overcome mistakes made by the defense and special teams. Now Drew and the boys are regularly screwing up on their own, with no one remotely capable of smoothing things over.

In the second half, desperately needing a stop in order to make the game competitive, Buffalo's defense failed miserably.

Again demonstrating their basic inability to tackle, Buffalo's defenders missed Curtis Martin. When New York's franchise back got tired of picking up first downs, they whiffed on Lamont Jordan. And with one last chance to keep the game within reach early in the fourth quarter, linebacker Eddie Robinson (brought to Buffalo by coach Gregg Williams ostensibly to lend veteran stability to a young unit) got faked off his feet by a novice quarterback.

Chad Pennington's 3-yard touchdown jaunt closed out the scoring, leaving the assembled masses to focus on the beans and wieners and scalloped potatoes Bob served up at halftime while seeking conversational distractions, such as the relative merits of the Canadian Football League. Pennington's run also effectively ended Buffalo's playoff run before Thanksgiving.

That can't be good news for Williams, who one month ago was riding the wave of a 5-3 start and getting praise from around the league from turning a 3-13 team around so quickly.

As painfully demonstrated in nine of Buffalo's 11 games (the Miami and Detroit wins aside) the Bills simply lack the defensive raw materials to legitimately compete this year. Buffalo's November skid, though, highlighted other shortcomings for which the head coach and his acclaimed staff must answer.

BILLS MVP: Tough choice, after such a homogeneously lousy performance, but Travis Henry produced nearly half of Buffalo's offense with 126 all-purpose yards, including seven receptions for 43. And he didn't fumble. All that after getting his bell rung by ex-Bills linebacker Sam Cowart in the first quarter and adjourning to the sideline to recover his equilibrium.

THE OTHER GUYS MVP: The Jets offensive line dominated all day, again pointing up the woeful inadequacy of Buffalo's front wall.Martin, hobbled during the season-opener in Orchard Park, gutted what passes for the Bills' run defense nearly every time he carried, which was often. Tough to win when you give a guy nearly six yards a shot on 21 carries.

WEIRDEST TELEVISION SEGMENT: CBS sideline reporter Bonnie Bernstein spent at least 20 seconds gushing over Pennington's status as a remarkably poised young quarterback, but moreover, an all-around terrific human being.

BillStuff likes him too, but, geez.

STAT OF THE DAY: Buffalo has come up with one total turnover in its six losses, that coming on Opening Day against the Jets.

AT LEAST HE DIDN'T SCORE: Chad Morton, whose two touchdown returns in Week 1 allowed New York to sneak home with a largely undeserved victory, didn't reach the end zone this time around. But Buffalo's heretofore improved coverage units yielded an average of 35 yards a return, regularly cutting the field in half for New York.

Giving up Santana Moss' 32-yard punt runback didn't help, either.

WING REPORT: Goodfella's delivered ample-sized, slightly undercooked, well-spiced mediums. This is a fine point of wing judging -- some people like them a little less well-done, some burnt to a crisp. The standard here remains juicy, but not soggy. These leaned a little to the latter, but tasty sauce and the accompanying bag of baby carrots provided definite pluses. Grade: A-.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Travel arrangements prevented Pete from making it to Niagara Falls on Sunday, but the native Western New Yorker made it home from Florida to visit friends and family, and shoot at deer, over the weekend.

Transplanted in Boca Raton, Pete said he and his fellow expatriates overcome the hardships of gorgeous weather and lush surroundings by following every Bills development via the Internet, including weekly doses of BillStuff (which experts highly recommend for all natives forced to endure living in sunny splendor).


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 26 2002