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SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS IS ON SCHEDULE

There's a great scene in the new movie, "Fever Pitch," where the character played by Jimmy Fallon gets together with his friends for an annual spring ritual -- opening the package of new Red Sox tickets and deciding who gets to attend which game.

Fallon rips opens the envelope and passes the sheets around to his pals, who take turns admiring the tickets and smelling them. Finally, one of them sniffs the tickets, smiles and says, "This is the year."

That's how Bills fans must feel when the NFL schedule comes out. For years, I never understood the fascination. You knew most of the games in advance. Home-and-home in the division. Four pre-arranged crossovers against the NFC. Why the fuss? It's only a schedule.

Maybe I've lived here too long, but I get it now. The Bills' schedule is our most vital public document, a fixture on our civic refrigerator. Once the dates, times and sites are official, we move forward and plan our lives from September to January.

No one obsesses about it the way we do. Is it a tough schedule, an easy one? Did we get any prime-time games? Does the league hate us? Do we have to play the Bengals every season? Can they be 3-1 out of the gate?

There's not a lot to cheer about in Buffalo these days. But the schedule offers us a clean slate, a chance for glory. Sniff it, go ahead. New season. New quarterback. New era. New hope. It's wonderful to know a slate of games can provide hope for so many. I never thought I'd say this, but I like the schedule.

Four of the first six at home is a nice way to start the J.P. Losman era. They don't play an AFC East game until Week Five. It'll be like college for Losman, where you play four nonconference games to get ready for the more important stuff.

Atlanta and Michael Vick come to town for Game Three. You can't complain about an early home game against the most exciting -- if overhyped -- player in the NFL. By then, we'll be mired in our annual debate over whether the Bills' defense is as good as its reputation.

Surely, no one is looking forward to another Sunday night in New England, but look on the bright side: Losman can't look any worse than he did up there a year ago -- or for that matter, than Drew Bledsoe in his annual Foxboro disasters.

At least the Bills get to host a prime-time game for the first time in five years. If the Bills are still in the playoff hunt, their Dec. 17 game against Denver could be a Saturday night to remember at The Ralph.

Critics wonder why the league couldn't give Buffalo an early-season night game. Why mid-December, when we could be buried in snow? Why make it tough for fans who make the trip down from Canada or over from the Rochester area?

Because that's how the NFL views us. Cold and snow make for good footage. America doesn't care about our sun-splashed September afternoons. They want us bundled against the cold, with a bare-chested knucklehead thrown in for effect. Bad weather defines us as a football city. We might as well embrace it.

The Bills play at Cincinnati on Saturday, Dec. 24, so we don't have to worry about trudging to the stadium on the day before Christmas. Presumably, there will be no shortage of TV sets at the malls, so you can monitor the game while picking up that last pair of socks for Uncle Billy.

Check out the date for the finale: Jan. 1 at the Jets. This is a nice break for Buffalo fans. You won't have to worry about making the trip to the stadium after all that New Year's Eve revelry. You can simply fall out of bed at 12:55 and crawl to the living room for the opening kickoff.

With any luck, the final game will be as meaningful as last year's finale here. We're halfway between the '04 finale and the start of training camp. The schedule is out, and the season can't be far behind. You can almost smell it.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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