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Sully's mailbag: Bigger playoff pretender, Bills or Sabres?

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can keep me away from the TV right now. We're in that brief, special time of the year when all four major sports are being contested for keeps at the same time. The NFL is near the midpoint, the NHL and NBA seasons are in full swing, and the Cubs and Indians are playing in the World Series.

Of course, you remember what I said last week: The mail flow is the most brisk when the local teams aren't doing well. The critics and cretins came out of the woodwork this week after both the Bills and Sabres suffered through difficult times.

I'm always willing to lend optimism and cheer to the situation. This week's mail:

@BobFranasiak asks: You actually set up the best question yourself. In your opinion, which team, Bills or Sabres, is the bigger playoff fraud?

Sully: I did use "fraud" on Twitter to tease this week's column, but its probably too strong a word. I like "pretender" more. Both Buffalo teams have a fair chance at breaking their playoff droughts, but I wouldn't bet the mortgage on either.

Neither did much to enhance its chances over the last week or so. The Bills are still very much in the hunt at 4-3, a game back of the wild card in the loss column. But the analytics site Football Outsiders dropped their playoff chances from 75.7 percent to 51.1 based solely on last week's 28-25 loss in Miami.

That tells you how quickly the national perception can change (and how frivolous those playoff calculators can be). The Bills are 1-3 in the AFC and a solid underdog on Sunday against the Pats. Their image as a contender took a hit when they got exposed on both lines of scrimmage by an ordinary Dolphins team.

That's what happened to the Sabres, too. During their uninspiring 1-3-2 start, they were exposed as a team that lacks the speed, depth and physical presence to be a playoff team. They seemed fragile in that brutal loss in Philly, and devoid of passion and belief in the early stages of a 4-0 home loss to the Wild on Thursday.

The Sabres aren't good enough on defense. Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges are nominally the top pair, but seem more like a No. 2 to me. The Sabres aren't tough to play against. The injuries to Jack Eichel and Evander Kane are a convenient excuse, but the team isn't nasty enough regardless.

They also lack a home-ice edge, which is an ongoing trend. They're 0-2 at home with one goal. They've won 43 of their last 125 at home, dating to the start of the 2013-14 season. They scored 96 goals at home last year, getting 0 or 1 goal in 15 of 41 home games.

I know it's early. Eichel is out of the walking boot and Kane could begin doing cardio work soon. But fans overestimated how close the Sabres were to being a contender. They also tend to ignore the improvement of teams competing with them in the conference.

Tyrod Taylor finds open field in the Bills' blowout win over the 49ers in October. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

Tyrod Taylor finds open field in the Bills' blowout win over the 49ers in October. (Mark Mulville/The Buffalo News)

The Bills have a grueling road ahead. They need to win two of their next three (vs. Pats, at Seahawks, at Bengals) to have a realistic chance. But while it's a close one to judge, I'll go with the Sabres as the bigger playoff pretender.
@oldschooldude78 asks: Is Buffalo up to challenge and how do we beat Brady?

Sully: The history is not promising. Brady is 25-3 in his career against the Bills, with one of the losses in a meaningless game. No division team has swept the Pats in the regular season since he became the No. 1 quarterback in 2001. The last six AFC East opponents to win the first meeting lost the rematch to the Pats -- by an average of 28 points.

Brady has been an inspired figure since returning from his DeflateGate suspension. He has all his weapons, too, which makes him virtually unstoppable. Rob Gronkowski is on top of his game and he has a scary bookend tight end in Martellus Bennett.

To have a chance, the Bills need to pressure Brady, confuse him with different looks, make him move in the pocket and get tight coverage in the secondary. They made him look ordinary in Foxborough last season, but it's still a very tall order.

Joe Zanghi asks: Bills are still in it, I just wish they would try and deal for a Torrey Smith, wide receiver is a mess. Any thoughts?

Sully: This  is a popular issue, with the Bills' wideout corps in such disarray. But they don't have the money to make a run at the Niners' Smith, who makes $7.5 million a year. General manager Doug Whaley said a deal for the Bears' Alshon Jeffrey -- a $14 million player -- was beyond their means when asked on a radio show this week.

The bigger question is, why didn't Whaley do more to bolster the position in the offseason, considering Sammy Watkins's foot injury, the fragility of Marquise Goodwin and Greg Salas, and Robert Woods' marginal abilities as a No. 2 wideout?

Whaley stuck with the modest talents on his roster. He didn't address it in the draft until taking Kolby Listenbee (who has been hurt all season) in the sixth round.

The Lions, meanwhile, signed veteran free agent Anquan Boldin to a one-year for $2.75 million. Boldin has 32 catches for 272 yards and four TDs for Detroit, which has won three close games in a row. He's the third receiver for the Lions, but he has more catches and yards than anyone on the Bills, who are 31st in the NFL in passing yards.

Ed from Amherst asks: Why are the bills so pathetic on drive starts when receiving to start the second half? I can't ever remember them getting any points, in fact they typically go three and out.

Sully: That's very observant of you, Ed. In their last four games, the Bills have received the second-half kickoff and gone three-and-out every time. Could it be that opposing defensive coaches have done a better job of adjusting at halftime than that new-found offensive mastermind, Anthony Lynn?

Maybe Rex Ryan should alter his practice of automatically deferring when he wins the opening coin toss and take the ball first. The offense does tend to start fast.

By the way, the Bills also had the ball to start the second half in their first two games against the Ravens and Jets. They drove and missed a field goal in Baltimore and scored on a 71-yard TD bomb from Tyrod Taylor to Greg Salas against the Jets.

Jeff Kupka asks: What's up with Danny DiLiberto not being in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame? The guy is in the Boxing Hall of Fame, the Billiard of Congress Hall of Fame and the One Pocket Hall of Fame. Seems like he'd be a slam dunk shoo-in.

Sully: It's a great point. DiLiberto, a city native, might be the most worthy candidate not yet in the Buffalo hall. As you point out, he's a Hall of Famer in two sports and was one of the greatest pool players ever to pick up a stick. In fact, he's still active at 81! He even bowled a 300 game once.

I've been negligent, I have to admit. Someone pitched Danny to me years ago. I have a copy of Jerry Forsyth's book on DiLiberto, called "Road Player." He belongs in the Buffalo hall and I promise to push hard for him to get in next year.

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