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By David Staba

It almost had to end this way.

Buffalo's torturous relationship with Doug Flutie looked like it would finish quietly, with the former Bills quarterback spending Sunday as he has the entire 2002 season -- standing on the sidelines, watching the other kids play.

At 40, there won't be too many more Sundays in uniform for Flutie, and with Buffalo and San Diego not scheduled to meet again until 2005, most likely no more at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Drew Brees didn't officially win the job as the Charger's starting quarterback until last summer, but realistically, Flutie's run ended the day ultra-conservative Marty Schottenheimer took over as head coach.

Yet it was Schottenheimer who made Flutie's likely farewell to Buffalo memorable, turned to Dougie Touchdown Hero with San Diego down by a field goal, 8:23 left on the clock and a postseason berth still in play.

"What's he doing out there?" asked one fan at the home where the BillStuff staff gathered Sunday (we can't name the exact locale, because, as everyone knows, watching a blacked-out game on television would be illegal). "Brees get hurt?"

The second-year quarterback may have suffered a bruised ego, but was otherwise physically fine. Brees wasn't even playing especially poorly. In fact, he was the best Drew on the field, with Buffalo's Bledsoe watching his throws hit the turf again and again.

Maybe Schottenheimer figured Flutie's years in Canada and Buffalo made him better-suited to handle the elements than Brees. Maybe, deep down, he buys into that Flutie Magic stuff. Or maybe he just wanted to screw with the Bills, and Buffalo in general.

Whatever the case, inserting Flutie had the hoped-for effect. At least for one drive. In typical Flutie fashion, his first throw got tipped by Buffalo safety Pierson Prioleau and bobbled by Curtis Conway before the Chargers wideout finally got a grip and a 47-yard gain.

Flutie hit his next pass, too, setting up Steve Christie's game-tying 53-yard field goal. But just when you expected to see Andre Reed run out on the field in a Chargers uniform, Nostalgia Day fizzled.

Flutie missed on eight of his final nine throws, including three straight when he had a chance to drive San Diego to the go-ahead points with more than three minutes left.

In typical Flutie fashion, the last two may have been the most exciting incompletions of the season, a pair of final-seconds Hail Marys that had the crowd at the stadium roaring and the gathering at the aforementioned unnamed location dead silent.

But unlike Buffalo's visit to San Diego in 2001, Flutie didn't make the decisive play this time. That honor fell to Travis Henry, in a bit of football justice. Henry, you'll recall, shimmied over the bodies of his prone blockers into the end zone for the apparent winning score last year, only to watch helplessly as a long kickoff return put Flutie in point-blank range for the victory.

This time, Henry kept the Bills' microcosmic playoff hopes alive by following perfect blocks from guard Ruben Brown and wide receivers Peerless Price and Josh Reed for a 26-yard touchdown and a 20-13 lead with 54 seconds left.

Which, once again, was more than enough time for Flutie to make it interesting.

Quarterbacks and running backs inevitably get the headlines, especially given circumstances like Sunday's. For the first time this year against anyone but Miami, though, Buffalo's defense deserves the credit for this one.

They didn't force any turnovers, but forced eight San Diego punts and stopped six drives without allowing a first down. They gave up three big plays -- Flutie's completion to Conway, Brees' 42-yard hookup with Tim Dwight and a 31-yard LaDainian Tomlinson run.

But after yielding that Tomlinson run on the first play of the Chargers' second possession, the Bills defense kept the second-year back in check and applied steady pressure on both quarterbacks. The biggest stop, other than keeping Flutie from Hail Marying it into overtime, came in the third quarter while protecting a 13-10 lead. Following Henry's weekly fumble, the Chargers took over at Buffalo's 43, and moved 20 yards before giving it up on downs.

And, as when the Dolphins came to visit two weeks earlier, the weather didn't hurt, either. The wind forced San Diego to go for it on that third-quarter possession, rather than try a field goal into the gusts. And most of the Chargers looked psyched out before the game even started, bundled up like kids going out to make snowmen.

That might have been Schottenheimer's biggest reason for turning to Flutie. Late in the third quarter and into the fourth, his team looked and played like it was ready for a long winter's nap.

But by the end, nobody was sleeping.

BILLS MVP: Henry doesn't get the kind of hype accorded to Tomlinson, but he outplayed his San Diego counterpart and made the difference in an otherwise even game. His 22-carry, 144-yard, two-touchdown afternoon marked the sixth time he's gained more than 125 yards this year, tops in the NFL. On a day when Bledsoe looked like he'd never played in the cold before, Henry deftly picked up the slack and allowed Buffalo to control the ball for almost two-thirds of the final quarter.

THE OTHER GUYS MVP: Cornerback Ryan McNeil had as much to do with Bledsoe's struggles as the wind, breaking up three passes.

He also recovered Henry's fumble, giving the Chargers a shot at tying it or taking the lead.

PENALTY OF THE DAY: Pass interference. Buffalo's Nate Clements got flagged to set up San Diego's only touchdown, but in general, the Bills got off easy, with the refs nailing the Chargers four times for the infraction du jour.

IRRITATING NFL POLICY OF THE DAY: Let's see -- tax money built Ralph Wilson Stadium and provides the Bills with $3.5 million in operating expenses per annum. But if enough of the same people who foot that bill don't also buy tickets, no TV.

It's not just the Bills. All over the country, games get blacked out if fans don't fill the stadiums subsidized by their taxes.

With an ironclad monopoly on fall and winter Sundays, the league has no real incentive to change the policy, and won't without a court order to do so. But that doesn't make it any less lousy.

MOST RELIEVED COACH: With an increasing percentage of fandom screaming for his head after a pair of embarrassing losses to New England, each marked by a questionable fourth-down decision, Gregg Williams didn't want another loss to Ralph Wilson's least favorite team on his resume. Especially if it came courtesy of Flutie, whom he and Tom Donahoe dumped a month after taking over.

WING REPORT: Goodfellas delivered a hot, tasty batch of milds that hit the spot. Good pizza, too. Grade: B+.

BS FAN OF THE DAY: The person whose technological wizardry allowed us to do an end-run around the blackout rule. You know who you are.


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 December 17 2002