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By David Staba

By throwing three interceptions during the final 24 minutes Sunday against Oakland, Drew Bledsoe disproved the notion that he may have stopped off at the crossroads for a little dealmaking on his way from Massachusetts to Buffalo.

Buffalo's defense spent the whole day showing that even a bargain from Old Scratch might not help the Bills stuff, or even slow down, a decent offense.

"Can't win if you don't tackle," muttered one balding Bledsoe jersey-clad fan shuffling through the parking lot of a motel near Ralph Wilson Stadium that served as base camp for hundreds of rooters for both teams.

Bledsoe himself must have been thinking the same thing.

For most of the afternoon, Buffalo's defenders behaved as if they were more interested in getting autographs from Oakland's Hall-of-Fame receivers than actually hitting anyone. Jerry Rice and Tim Brown didn't do the bulk of the damage in Oakland's 49-31 win, but the attention paid to them opened things up for running back Charlie Garner and wideout Jerry Porter.

Not that it mattered much who wound up with the ball for the Silver-and-Black. Buffalo's defense surrendered six of the seven Oakland touchdowns and yielded 495 yards, most of it coming in large chunks (10 Oakland plays covered 20 yards or more).

As they have all season, the Bills defense and coaches looked to Bledsoe to counter the Raiders' multifaceted onslaught with only his arm. As it had in Denver, that game plan displayed decisive flaws.

Buffalo's inability to cope with Oakland's no-huddle pace was the most glaring shortcoming, but the Bills' failure to run the ball when needed was just as damaging. On two key drives late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, with the score still within a touchdown, Bledsoe handed off to Travis Henry four times. The second-year runner gained a total of 5 yards.

That's not even close to good enough. Particularly when against a defense geared to get at Bledsoe and not concerned with much else.

Thanks to the failure of the offensive line and Henry to create a viable ground threat, Bledsoe's protection finally wore down. He spent most of the fourth quarter either fleeing for safety or picking himself up off the plastic. He threw his last two interceptions under heavy pressure and got sacked five times.

Before the game, the motel parking lot, like the rest of the tailgater havens around the stadium, buzzed with not only the usual array of Bills fans, but a larger-than-normal visiting contingent, as well.

Like the four Sundays that came before it, the day looked and felt perfect for football. Mark, the generous-to-a-fault host, had declared an Oktoberfest theme and served up a slow-cooked combination of ribs, potatoes and sauerkraut. Bratwurst sizzled on the portable mini-grill while the faithful anticipated a fifth straight thriller.

That's just what the Bills and Raiders provided -- for a little more than three quarters, at least. With Bledsoe matching Oakland's Rich Gannon throw for throw and point for point, it started to look like No. 11's surreal start in Buffalo really could go on forever.

But when Oakland cornerback Phillip Buchanon absconded with an ill-advised Bledsoe throw and pranced 81 yards for a touchdown and a 42-31 Oakland lead with eight minutes left, the collective deflation rippled out of the stadium to the gathering at the motel, and beyond.

For the first time in more than a month, the Bledsoe-induced euphoria receded, leaving in its wake the stark realization that an even-slightly human performance by Buffalo's quarterback means these Bills wind up getting splattered.

As the realization sunk in that there would be no comeback on this day, no overtime for only the second time in five games, Mark issued the grizzled sigh of the veteran fan.

"It's never easy with the Buffalo Bills," he said, heading toward the grill to get the postgame tailgating started.

BILLS MVP: Yeah, he threw those three interceptions, but without Bledsoe's laser strikes spanning the field for the first three quarters, it would have been over a lot sooner. And you can't just ignore numbers like these -- 53 attempts, 32 completions and 417 yards.

NON-BILLS MVP: One of these games, this will go to a defensive player. I think. But for now, one of Bledsoe's receivers almost has to get it by default. Peerless Price caught seven passes, one for a touchdown and another for 54 yards to set up Larry Centers' tying touchdown run just before halftime.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Charlie Garner only touched the ball 12 times, but produced 177 total yards of offense and two touchdowns. His 69-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter guaranteed that Buffalo's defense enters this week with no self-esteem whatsoever.

MOST ANNOYING ANNOUNCER: Analyst Randy Cross seemed very proud of his "two heavyweights trading punches" analogy while the Bills and Raiders were swapping touchdowns, as he used some variation of it at least a dozen times. Never heard that one before, Randy.

STAT OF THE DAY: Bledsoe threw three interceptions Sunday. Buffalo's defense has yet to come up with one this season.

WING REPORT: There was just about every food type available in the parking lot except wings, so BS stopped to pick some up at Casa Di Pizza on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.

Well-cooked, but not excessively crisp. As always, a solid sauce. And a solid B.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Mark doled out T-shirts advertising his business, Poster Art in Buffalo, selflessly gave up his ticket so a young lass could enjoy the contest in person while he joined the BillStuff team watching at the motel, and didn't let the defeat dampen his post-game spirit.

And those German ribs were stellar.

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

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 8 2002