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By David Staba

During one of the wildest final Sundays in National Football League history, the Buffalo Bills could do little but finish their chores.

After five losses in the previous seven outings, pummeling the ever-putrid Cincinnati Bengals in the regular season finale proved just as easy as expected, but not nearly as rewarding as anticipated a couple months ago.

While the Bills went about their business in a professional, if suspense-free, manner, a look around the rest of the league showed what might have been, if not for the odd interception, missed field goal, ineptly covered kickoff or cowardly fourth-down decision.

That view was easy to find anywhere in Western New York, since Cincinnati's visit to Orchard Park missed getting on local television by about 30,000 tickets. It was even better in bucolic south-central Pennsylvania, where BillStuff found itself for the holidays.

Not that it's easy to find a sports bar, or any tavern, in the towns north of Gettysburg. But look long enough, and you sometimes find a gem. Or in this case, McKay's Cave in Carlisle, a town best known for once serving as home to the Carlisle Indian School, where Jim Thorpe gained international prominence in football and track and field.

Thorpe not only won Olympic gold medals, played pro football and baseball and was named “Greatest Athlete of the Half-Century” by the Associated Press, he served as the National Football League's first president.

It was an empty title, designed to lend celebrity and credibility to a league essentially consisting of semi-pro club teams. But even a figurehead could appreciate Sunday's spectacular array of games.

Buffalo-Cincinnati was just one of eight games on televisions ringing the dining area (one of the small ones, of course, given the competing games that actually meant something).

Baltimore against Pittsburgh drew the most attention, given Carlisle's location between the two cities and the playoff implications for both teams. Also available for viewing: Miami-New England, Atlanta-Cleveland, New Orleans-Carolina, Tennessee-Houston, Minnesota-Detroit and Dallas-Washington.

Of the eight games, five impacted playoff qualification or placement. One that didn't, the Cowboys vs. the Redskins, represents one of the NFL's great rivalries (and drew more than a dozen extremely vocal fans). Even the Vikings and Lions, both long removed from contention, went down to the final play.

Then there were Buffalo and Cincinnati. The Bills dominated throughout, posting a pair of field goals in the first quarter and a pair of touchdowns in the second. The only element approximating drama from there – would Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna take the 61 snaps he needed to pry a $1.65 million bonus from notoriously cheap owner Mike Brown?

That clause in Kitna's contract drew a bit of national attention leading up to the game, as analysts wondered if Brown (who has absolutely no business running the franchise created by Paul Brown, the legendary coach who happens to be his father) would order Kitna benched to save the dough.

He didn't, but someone should have. Kitna proved that just because a quarterback is in charge for almost 80 percent of his team's offensive plays in a season doesn't mean he's necessarily any good. Fittingly, the Bills snagged a pair of horrible throws in the final minutes to barely prevent Kitna's undeserved payday.

His counterpart, Drew Bledsoe, expertly dissected Cincinnati's defense (which didn't really seem to mind). And the Bills deserve credit for efficiently dismantling a truly lousy opponent to finish the year with as many wins as losses.

Buffalo's justly maligned defense turned in a solid outing in the 27-9 win. Eric Moulds became the first Bills receiver to grab 100 passes in a season. And Travis Henry ground out some tough yards before ending an otherwise spectacular year on a naggingly appropriate note, losing his eighth fumble of the season on his final carry.

But c'mon. It was the Bengals. And with truly meaningful, and dramatic, games abounding, it was almost impossible to watch after halftime.

Thankfully, a turn to the left provided all the reasons autumn and early-winter Sundays have become, for many, more synonymous with football than church.

There were the Steelers, blowing a lead, regaining it, and then nearly blowing it again, in an effort to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs.

When Tommy Maddox flipped an 8-yard touchdown pass to Antwaan Randle El to give Pittsburgh a 34-31 lead over Baltimore with 2:29 left, Lee leapt from his chair amongst other Steelers fans, turned to the Ravens' faithful a few tables back, and started to scream. He caught himself, ran out the front door of McKay's Cave, and let out a roar that echoed throughout the Revolutionary War-era village.

Upon his return, Lee addressed the dead-silent Baltimore fans.

"To the Baltimore Ravens: Thank you for participating in the 2002 National Football League season. See ya."

Lee was notably quiet, though, while the Ravens moved to within easy field goal range with a few seconds left. But with overtime all but guaranteed, Baltimore coach Brian Billick let his ego get the better of him, and decided to go for the win.

Which wouldn't have been so bad, except that his quarterback, Jeff Blake, thought he could get the ball through two Pittsburgh defenders by throwing as softly as possible.

Pittsburgh's Dwayne Washington gladly accepted Blake's gift, sending Lee on a victory lap during which he taunted not only Baltimore fans, but a few clad in the colors of Miami and New England (who were about to stage their own classic finish) and even a very large Green Bay fan, just for good measure.

"That's just the way we designed it," Lee announced upon taking his seat, before returning his gaze to the big screen where the black-and-gold celebration continued. "I love those guys."

Besides Lee's virtuoso performance, taunts flew all afternoon between devotees of Dallas and Washington, as well as New England and Miami.

"It's always good-natured," said Glenn, owner and namesake of McKay's Cave, who wore a vintage Packers jersey emblazoned with Hall-of-Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke's No. 66. "We get people going back and forth across the room, and as long as it doesn't get obscene or violent, it's part of the fun."

Even before Miami finished one of the great choke jobs in recent memory, one Miami fan demonstrated such perspective.

"This game is over," he said, smiling, after Kevin Faulk's much-replayed catch put the Patriots in position for the winning field goal, but before Adam Vinatieri kicked it. "We dropped the chalupa."

They certainly did. The shots of Miami's sideline in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, while the Dolphins gave away an 11-point lead and the AFC East title, showed a team in full panic mode. And the decision to throw two passes from deep in their own territory while Ricky Williams, who had already gutted the Patriots for 185 yards, stood and watched rates as coaching idiocy of the highest rank.

Meanwhile, a few tables of Cleveland fans not only watched the former Browns, now known as the Ravens, get eliminated, they saw the franchise's reincarnation reach the playoffs for the first time. And do so with a goal-line stand against Atlanta's Michael Vick, the NFL's breakout player of 2002, no less.

Missing in action were the half-dozen Bills fans Glenn said normally occupy a table near the television showing that week's Buffalo game.

"I guess they were pretty down after last week," he said, referring to the 10-0 loss in Green Bay that officially snuffed the Bills' playoff hopes. "Must have found something else to do today."

BILLS MVP: This would have gone to a defensive player, if only the Bengals weren't so pathetic. So we'll go with Bledsoe, who led the Bills to scores on five of their first seven possessions, not including a single play at the end of the first half. He wasn't spectacular, but against Cincinnati, you don't need to be.

THE OTHER GUYS MVP: Not applicable. The Bengals didn't even run for the bus. They walked.

BEST IMITATION OF JON KITNA: After Browns quarterback Tim Couch broke his leg in the second quarter, Kelly Holcombe started out making every Cleveland fan's nightmare come true. The Browns' first three possessions of the second half ended in an interception, a fumble and another interception, helping Atlanta to a 16-10 lead. When Holcombe took a terrible sack to end their first drive of the fourth quarter, it looked like the Falcons would have to fumble in their own end zone for Cleveland to make the playoffs. They didn't, but came close enough, giving it up at their own 11-yard line. Holcombe attained competence for long enough to throw a touchdown pass, giving the Browns a lead William Green padded with a 64-yard touchdown run.

If Holcombe can remain less than horrible next week, Cleveland might have a chance in Pittsburgh. That's a pretty big if.

EX-BILLS WATCH: Two former Buffalo defensive players made game-turning plays within a few moments of each other.

First, Bruce Smith sacked Kitna-esque Dallas quarterback Chad Hutchinson, forcing a fumble that Washington linebacker Lavar Arrington recovered for a touchdown, giving Washington a lead it never lost.

Then, Sam Rogers picked up a Cleveland fumble and made at least five Browns miss on his way to a 27-yard return. That set up an Atlanta field goal that gave the Falcons a lead they would eventually lose.

Both Smith and Rogers left Buffalo as salary-cap casualties. But given Buffalo's troubles turning in such plays when not facing Kitna, Ray Lucas or Jay Fiedler, they would have looked pretty good in blue-and-red this year.

Then there was Rob Johnson, who lived up to his clippings by getting sacked once every six times he went back to pass Sunday night, yet remained ambulatory as Tampa Bay sealed a first-round bye with a 15-0 win in Chicago.

NOTE OF CONSOLATION: Buffalo's two wins over Miami ultimately sent the Dolphins home for the New Year, and, if there's any justice, meant Fiedler and coach Dave Wannstedt will be looking for jobs before too long. When you add the league's leading rusher to one of its best defenses and still miss the postseason, someone has to pay.

NOTE OF AGGRAVATION: Remember the New York Jets, who beat Buffalo on opening day solely because the Bills couldn't tackle kickoff returner Chad Morton? They're the AFC East champions.

WING REPORT: BillStuff is extremely wary of ordering wings outside Western New York. A particularly horrific experience in Nashville the night of Home Run Throwback proved the worst call of the weekend. But, a weekly column feature is a weekly column feature. And McKay's came through. They weren't what have become known nationally as "Buffalo Wings," but the wing-ding variety – breaded, rather than soaked in sauce, then deep fried. The result added a bit of fried-chicken flavor to the taste, with homemade hot sauce and the obligatory blue cheese for dipping. Fine work by the folks in Carlisle, from Glenn to Barbie (our waitress) and the rest of a remarkably attentive staff. Grade: A-.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Lee's performance was nearly as entertaining as the games around him. Somebody should put this guy in a beer commercial.


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 23 2002