Visions of playoff plums must have been dancing in the heads of the Buffalo Bills here Sunday.
With nothing to gain from beating the Washington Redskins, the concentration of the Bills strayed a bit in a 29-14 loss before 52,397 at RFK Stadium.
The Bills turned the ball over four times, a season high for them, to make it easy for the Redskins, who were not nearly as impressive as the final score would indicate.
Chip Lohmiller kicked five field goals, tying a Washington team record, to account for the first 15 Redskins points.
The Redskins finally put the ball in the end zone twice in the fourth quarter, but only with a lot of help from the Bills.
They cashed in on two interceptions thrown by backup quarterback Gale Gilbert for their only touchdowns.
Gilbert, making his first regular season game appearance in his two seasons with the Bills, threw touchdown passes to Kenneth Davis and Steve Tasker for the Buffalo touchdowns. Gilbert played the entire second half in place of starter Frank Reich and completed 8 of 15 for 106 yards. Reich was 7 of 14 for 88 yards.
The Bills, who have a week off to get ready for their first playoff game, substituted liberally, more liberally, it should be pointed out, than the Redskins, who begin their playoff schedule in an NFC wild-card game against the Eagles in Philadelphia.
In addition to Reich, running back Thurman Thomas did not play in the second half and starting receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton were used very little in the second half.
Clearly, the Bills' chief objective was to get through the game without losing any front-line players to injury.
"We would like to have won the game, sure," said Bills coach Marv Levy. "Turning the ball over as we did in the first quarter was hurtful."
The Bills did lose defensive end Leon Seals after he suffered a left knee injury with 32 seconds remaining in the first quarter. The injury is not believed to be serious.
"For the most part, particularly if Leon is OK, I feel very good that we came out healthy," Levy said. "I'm glad to see that we could get playing time for the players who needed it," Levy said.
The Bills coach dismissed a suggestion that his team did not play hard in this meaningless game.
"No, the effort was fine. Our defense stopped four drives, stiffened and forced field goals," Levy said.
Besides the loss, which left them with a final 13-3 regular season record, three Bills missed out on individual honors.
Thomas came into the game leading the NFL in rushing but ended up with zero yards in five attempts. Former Oklahoma State teammate Barry Sanders passed him to take the individual rushing title, 1,304 yards to 1,297.
But Thomas caught two passes for 22 yards to give him 1,829 scrimmage yards. Sanders rushed for 23 yards and caught a pass for 15 yards to finish at 1,784 scrimmage yards.
"It meant more to my offensive linemen than it meant to me," Thomas said of losing the rushing title. "The most important thing for me right now is my health and how far we can go in the playoffs."
Reed led the AFC with 71 receptions coming into the game. That's what he ended up with. Only three passes were thrown in Reed's direction. One resulted in a 33-yard pass interference penalty against Darrell Green of the Redskins, another was knocked down by Green and Reich misfired on the third.
And the Bills did not sack Mark Rypien, which meant defensive end Bruce Smith finished the season with 19 sacks, one less than linebacker Derrick Thomas of the the Kansas City Chiefs and three short of the NFL season record.
"We'd like to have them get it," Levy said of the individual milestones. He told the players involved, "If the situation is right we'll give you a shot. . . . but the statistics aren't going to be primary.
"If Bruce Smith would have come in there and got two or three sacks in the first quarter we might have said go all the way to see if you can break the all-time record. I'd like to see them all lead the league, Andre, Thurman and Bruce. They were pretty understanding," Levy said.
The Bills were lucky to come out of the first half trailing only 9-0 because Washington began its first four possessions in Buffalo territory yet managed only a pair of field goals by Lohmiller, from 37 and 24 yards.
The Bills, on the other hand, didn't cross midfield until the third quarter. They were forced to punt on their first series and tight end Keith McKeller and Thomas lost fumbles to end the next two, which started off looking promising. It was Thomas' first fumble since the Denver game, he handled the ball nearly 250 times in between fumbles.
The Bills stayed pretty basic with the offense while the Redskins came with a full defensive package.
Since the Bills didn't use their no-huddle offense, the Redskins had time to get defensive calls in from the sideline and they used a variety of defensive fronts and stunts.
The Redskins tacked on a third Lohmiller field goal with a minute left in the second quarter, this one from 19 yards, to go into the halftime with a 9-0 lead.
It became 9-7 on Buffalo's first series in the second half when Gilbert hit Davis in the left corner of the end zone with a perfectly thrown pass lofted over A.J. Johnson from 13 yards.
Buffalo had gained possession on the only Redskins turnover of the game. Rypien, who had an erratic day and was constantly booed by the home fans, threw an interception right into the hands of Bills safety Leonard Smith.
Lohmiller came back with field goals of 43 yards and 32 to make it 15-7 and join Curt Knight and Mark Moseley as Redskins who have kicked five field goals in a game.
The play that broke the game open was a 60-yard interception return by safety Alvin Walton of the Redskins. Gilbert telegraphed a throw to tight end Pete Metzelaars on a short hook pattern and Walton jumped in front and made the interception. Only a hustling play by Davis, who chased Walton down from behind at the Buffalo 6, prevented it from being a touchdown. Two plays later, however, Gerald Riggs scored on a 3-yard run.
On the next Buffalo possession, Gilbert overthrew his receiver and Martin Mayhew, a former Bill, picked it off. The Redskins cashed in on the turnover when Rypien hit rookie Stephen Hobbs on an 18-yard scoring pass. On the play, the Bills missed two tackles, one on Rypien behind the line, the other on Hobbs after the catch.
A 47-yard run by Davis set up the final Buffalo score, which came on a 20-yard Gilbert pass to Tasker with 1:22 left.
Now the Bills wait to see who survives the first round to see who their opponent will be in their first playoff game.
"It's going to be tough from here on out," Thomas said. "The guys were saying after the game: 'It's a one-game season right now. If you lose you're out. If you keep on winning you can get where you want to get.' "