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PLAYOFFS FOR BILLS? IT'S POSSIBLE

ouldn't it be something if it all came down to the final game of the season, Bills versus Steelers? Mike Mularkey and Tom Donahoe going against their former organization. Two old manufacturing towns slugging it out on the second day of 2005 with enormous stakes on the table.

Improbable, for sure. But not at all impossible.

I started out writing a temper-your-enthusiasm column, putting the likelihood of the Bills in the playoffs right up there with a Mike Williams hunger strike.

But four paragraphs in, while crunching the numbers yet again, I came to the realization that this is no time to write off the Bills, to dismiss their revival as nothing more than a blow to the draft plans of Bill Parcells and Jerry Jones. The race isn't over. There's still a hint of magic in the air.

We begin with the premise that the Bills rip off four more victories and run their winning streak to six. They can beat Miami, Cleveland, Cincinnati and San Francisco. Better yet, they should beat those teams. They'll be favored in three of the games with Cincy a toss-up. But I'm thinking that they don't ride into Cincinnati on a four-game winning streak and then lose to the Bengals. I'm thinking Takeo Spikes makes 35 tackles before he suffers the indignity of having his first shot at the playoffs squashed by his former club.

San Francisco? There are some danger signs there, especially with kickoff coming the day after Christmas. Mularkey will want to make sure the cheeseburgers are cooked to perfection. Throw in a team walk along Fisherman's Wharf and the Bills, acutely focused, win in a romp against an organization hoping to find Matt Leinart under its tree.

But the problem was never getting the Bills to 9-6. Surely most everybody in town can see their way to 9-6. The question was whether 9-6 would be at all meaningful. Could it thrust the Bills into the Steelers game with a playoff berth within their reach? It might.

The Bills need to bypass three teams to finish sixth, with Baltimore, Denver and Jacksonville being the closest of the three. The 7-4 Ravens offer the greatest resistance because they're two games up and own a win over the Bills, a victory that will factor into most tiebreaker scenarios. Chances are the Bills will have to be clear of the Ravens in order to pull this off.

Baltimore has road games remaining against Indianapolis and Pittsburgh, so it's no stretch to see the Ravens at 9-6 with a game to play. The trouble is that game is at home against Miami, and everybody knows that -- even in their good years -- the Fish don't bite in December, or in this case January. Therefore, the Ravens must lose one of their other two -- to the Bengals this week or the Giants one week later. If the Ravens tank in one of them -- now there's unabashed optimism for you -- the Bills are in business. If they don't . . .

There's still a glimmer of hope. The Bills would need to reel in one of the three 8-3 teams. The Jets are a better candidate than the Colts or the Chargers. New York must visit Pittsburgh and entertain New England, which could produce losses No. 4 and 5. So the key game becomes Sunday's tussle with visiting Houston. This is vital because the Jets already own six conference victories with the Bills capable of no more than six. If the Jets beat Houston they're sitting pretty come the tiebreakers even if they lose one of their other two, against Seattle or at St. Louis. Unless, of course, the Bills and Jets finish in a two-way tie for the final wild-card spot, in which case records against common opponents outweigh conference record, with the advantage to the Bills.

Complicated? You bet it is. But who'd have thought we'd even be bothering? Guess that J.P. Losman-for-quarterback campaign was more than a tad premature.
e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com