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Jerry Sullivan: We're getting to must-win territory for Tyrod Taylor

CINCINNATI -- There was no talk of "must-win" games this week. Head coach Rex Ryan, never lacking for a new agenda, had a fresh spin to characterize his team's desperate situation.

"We can't back up anymore," Ryan said. "We can't afford to slip up. We understand that. We recognize what's behind us, but we're moving forward."

The Bills can't back up much further in the AFC playoff race. They're 4-5 overall, but just 1-4 in conference play, with all seven games left against AFC opponents. It would be close to impossible to dig out from a loss against the struggling Bengals this afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium.

Counting tiebreakers, they stand 11th in the AFC, eighth among current wild-card hopefuls. They're a half-game up on the 3-5-1 Bengals, so a loss would back them up even further. A loss could drop them into 13th in the conference, ahead of only the Browns, Jets and Jaguars.

So it's a grim, and all too familiar, scenario. Regardless of what happens today, the Bills won't be above .500 after 10 games for the 16th consecutive season. That's right, they haven't been so much as 6-4 at Thanksgiving since Bill Clinton was still occupying the White House.

They were 5-5 in each of the last two years and failed to get in. Who knows what constitutes a true must-win with this bunch? It grows tiresome after all this time. The names change, but the games and circumstances repeat themselves. You struggle for a new angle.

But ever since Jim Kelly rode off into the sunset two decades ago, I've fallen back on one essential columnist's rule: When in doubt, write about the quarterback.

Finding a successor to Kelly has been the single, sustaining story line of the playoff drought. If you don't have a true franchise quarterback, you're selling false hope in the NFL. At some point, everything else becomes a sideshow.

So maybe we should be talking about must-win games for Tyrod Taylor. Time could be running out for Taylor in his quest to convince management to activate the next phase of his five-year, $90 million contract, which would cost them $27 million for next season alone if they decide to kick in the second year.

Taylor needs to win a big game, and soon. He needs to be the difference in a road game for the first time in more than a year. His supporters gushed about his performance in Seattle, which many called his finest game as a Bill. You would have thought they actually won the game.

Ryan said he looked back on the statistics from that Monday night loss -- 289 yards passing by Taylor, 425 yards for the Bills, 30 first downs -- and could barely believe his eyes.

"I was like “Oh my God!” Ryan said. "I guess it was better than I thought. I think Tyrod is an outstanding quarterback. I really do. Hopefully we’ll find out soon if we really have a full deck of how good this kid could really be."

But they didn't win, and ultimately, that's how Taylor should be judged. He's no kid. He's 27, in his sixth NFL season. When Doug Whaley said he needed to see more from Taylor, he specifically mentioned fourth-quarter comebacks in close games. Taylor hasn't led the Bills from behind to win in the fourth quarter since the Tennessee game more than a year ago.

The Bills have now lost their last seven games when they trailed by seven points or less at any point in the fourth quarter -- six of them on the road.

Here are Taylor's statistics in fourth quarters of road losses with the Bills trailing by seven points or less: He's 23-for-50 passing (46 percent) for 252 yards and no touchdowns.  Zero. In fact, he has thrown only one TD pass in the second half with the Bills trailing by seven points or less in his two years in Buffalo.

So despite the promising events that preceded it, the final sequence at Seattle was entirely predictable. Taylor had two chances late in the game, both in Seattle territory, and didn't get the Bills into the end zone.

Taylor was 5-of-7 passing for 63 yards. He was sacked three times, twice on the final series. He missed an open Robert Woods on his final throw. The Bills called more running plays (12) than passes on those two drives, including a dubious draw to LeSean McCoy on third-and-21. That didn't bespeak an abiding faith in Taylor's ability to bring his team back with his arm.

Maybe it's a harsh assessment, especially against a formidable Seahawks defense, but that's how Taylor should be judged. When you're talking about committing huge money to a quarterback, the standard needs to be very high. If playing well in defeat is the standard, they need to raise the bar.

Yes, he played well in Seattle. But this isn't about one game, but a persistent pattern of failure in close games. The fact that people reacted so well to the Seattle game shows how low expectations for Taylor have become. His performance would be considered commonplace for a proven franchise quarterback in the league. Late-game success is expected of them.

So if Taylor expects to be the elite franchise guy, he has to build on his performance in Seattle -- and finish the job. He has to outplay the Bengals' Andy Dalton, who has been roundly criticized but has reached the playoffs in all five of his NFL seasons and thrown for more than 20,000 yards.

Heaven knows, most Bills fans would take that from their quarterback.

I suspect that Bills management is leaning against kicking in the second year of Taylor's contract. Whaley still hasn't seen Taylor win from behind in the fourth. He will have 22 other free agents to deal with after the season. Committing $27 million to an average quarterback wouldn't be the wisest move for a GM struggling to rebuild his roster on the fly.

A win today would lift Taylor's contract hopes and give the Bills desperately needed momentum heading into the season's closing six-game stretch. Four of the next five are at home after today, so knocking off a perennial AFC playoff contender could make another 5-5 record seem like progress.

A loss would be their fourth in a row, after a four-game winning streak. As Rex says, it's time to move forward. As always in Buffalo, it gets back to the quarterback.

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