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BILLS CAN SALVAGE EMOTIONAL AUTUMN

Okay, so we could get frosty winds that might turn Chad Pennington and Drew Bledsoe into Tim Wakefields today at The Ralph. It's still been a smashing autumn, a deserving consolation prize for our squishy summer.

The only problem has been its emotional escalator, the highs and lows telescoping into one another.

The Bills found uncommon ways to lose, strangling Byron Leftwich and Jacksonville for 45 minutes in the opener then strewing their fourth-quarter path with palm fronds. Similarities came afterwards.

That was interrupted by the best baseball imaginable. You couldn't keep the heroics straight. Jeff Kent hit a walkoff homer for Houston, Jim Edmonds did the same for St. Louis. David Ortiz of the Red Sox saw them with a walkoff homer and raised them with a walkoff single. Then there was Curt Schilling's Spirit-of-'76 pitching performance followed by Derek Lowe's escape from the Boston bullpen.

Back to the lows: No hockey. I listened to the soothing voice of Harry Neale the other day but it wasn't on "Hockey Night in Canada," it was at lunch. He's unemployed at the moment, along with most of our other favorites on the sport's most enjoyable television show. Even Don Cherry, believe it our not, has been silenced. Presumably he's using the time to starch his Edwardian wardrobe.

Recently Neale visited the fifth floor of the Canadian Broadcasting Co., which normally houses the vast Hockey Night crew. "You could have held a bowling tournament up there," he said. "Most everyone has been re-assigned to other news projects."

With November came the roughest contact sport of all, the presidential election after Halloween brought the Bills' second victory of the season.

There are still 49 days left in this escalator fall and the Jets' game should be a preview of whether the highs might outperform the lows before winter officially arrives. Was the Bills' explosion against Arizona last week a turnaround in the wind or was it just the Cardinals, a team which seldom wins when it strays above the 50th parallel?

The Jets, one of the NFL's early leaders, will be a stern test. Next week it's the Patriots in what the red states seem to think is "liberal, elitist, morally challenged" New England.

After that it's the Rams at home, Seattle and Miami on the road and then home again against Cleveland. If the Bills can string four victories out of that half dozen, even if Drew Bledsoe is merely along for the ride, as he was against the Cards, he'll probably be the starting quarterback until the Bills are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. After that it's rookie J. P. Losman's ride.

But it has to start with beating the Jets, a team to whom they lost by two points in New York five weeks ago. Close doesn't count any longer. No more nice tries. I suspect that if Bledsoe plays poorly against the Jets and Patriots, the last seven games will mark the start of the NFL education of J.P.

Since NHL hockey isn't likely to surface before autumn 2005, or later, the grim prospect is a winter of our discontent.
Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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