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It seems the Buffalo Bills actually did need a little something extra during the offseason in order to keep up with their rivals in the Eastern Division of the AFC.

They didn't get it. So Sunday afternoon in the RCA Dome they paid a heavy price, a 31-14 loss to the underdog Colts. Unless they find a fast way to reverse their fortunes, they may keep paying heavy prices.

This was the winter of the Bills' content. Management liked its team. There was no excursion into free agency, even a budget signing that might have put an experienced offensive lineman on the roster to protect against an injury, like the one starting right guard Joe Panos suffered. Or to safeguard against watching guard Jamie Nails expand his appalling girth before their very eyes.

It also might have been a good idea, since Thurman Thomas is now 33 years old and Antowain Smith never fully recovered from his groin injury of last season, to take a look at a journeyman running back.

Since Thomas got hurt on the first play of Sunday's loss and never returned, and Antoine did what he had been doing all summer -- gaining 7 yards in six carries -- the Bills have also opened themselves to second guessing for not only cutting free agent rookie Anthony Gray, but not even putting him on their practice squad. Gray showed more vision of the field and better instincts than any young runner on their roster.

Indy attacked with its new zone blitzes and coach Wade Phillips was correct when he said that passing, especially out of the empty-backfield set, is the proper antidote to the zone blitz. Yet when there is no running game, the quarterback under siege has to have a better day than Doug Flutie did in order to capitalize on the weaknesses the risky defense creates.

Flutie had a 300-yard day, but he overthrew several open receivers and underthrew a couple more. His running did allow the Bills to escape a half dozen sacks. Flutie would have been aided by a running game that at least demanded some respect.

Buffalo ran just 15 times in the game, nine in the first half. Edgerrin James, Indy's fine rookie running back, carried the ball 14 times in the first half and averaged just 1.7 yards, but the Colts kept giving him the ball and he finished with 112 yards.

That's what a contending team has to do, keep pounding. The Bills have done that in the past, including last season.

It doesn't stop with the running game.

When Flutie took over the Bills a month into last season and led a magical comeback to the playoffs, a number of serious flaws in this team were glossed over. One was the lack of a big-play factor in the Bills' secondary.

That flaw was magnified in Indy when the Colts' kid quarterback, Peyton Manning, came of NFL age. Manning converted his third-down challenges eight times in 15 opportunities, including five of his first seven, four of them passes. No one was making major plays in the Bills' secondary.

The brass did try to address this chink in the armor through the draft. Antoine Winfield, the rookie nickel back, intercepted a pass Sunday and eventually he could be a starter, but counting on a first-year man to make the necessary difference is asking a lot.

Yet unaddressed flaws were only part of the dreary outlook that this defeat produced. The Bills were depressingly undisciplined. They had a dozen penalties. Four of the linemen, all but Dusty Zeigler, were penalized. Last year the defense was among the NFL leaders in penalties called. Sunday it had five penalties and a sixth was declined.

Flutie was asked why the team was so undisciplined.

"We're not undisciplined," he replied.

It was pointed out to him that left guard Ruben Brown performed a dance in the end zone after the Bills finally scored a touchdown late in the third quarter -- even though they were still behind, 21-12, at the time. Brown had twice been penalized for holding on the same drive in the second quarter, infractions that forced the Bills to settle for a field goal. Veteran wide receiver Andre Reed caught the touchdown pass from Flutie and showed the good sense not even to spike it.

When it was suggested to Flutie that Brown's dance appeared to the naked eye like lack of discipline, he said, "that's your opinion."

Sorry Doug, a dozen penalties, two holding penalties by the same player on the same drive, two consecutive encroachment penalties that let Indy out of a third-and-14 jail and a performance of "The Losers' Shuffle," that's industrial-strength lack of discipline and the Bills can't afford it in the divisional company they keep.

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