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Jerry Sullivan: How inspired are Bills fans about the same old thing?

Rex Ryan says he has no doubt that the Bills' home crowd will be out in force on Sunday at New Era Field, that Buffalo fans will be their typically roaring, raucous selves for a do-or-die game against the Steelers.

I'm not so sure. The Bills had a great chance in Oakland to get their fans energized for a genuine playoff run -- or what qualifies for one here, anyway. Seeing their team win a meaningful December road game for the first time in 12 years could have brought the 12th Man to an emotional peak for the three-game homestand.

Now the three games at New Era promise to be less than a full-out fan frenzy. The Bills are still alive at 6-6, but we've been here too many times before. The collapse in Oakland confirmed what any objective fan suspected, that Ryan's team was just another tease, not worthy of an emotional investment around the holidays.

The Bills were 6-6 at this point a year ago and lost two in a row. At the quarter marks of the season, they were 2-2, 4-4, 6-6 and 8-8. This year, it's 2-2, 4-4, now 6-6. You needn't have nailed a perfect score on your SATs to complete that progression.

The loss in Oakland said it loud and clear. Average team. Average coach. How could it not minimize the crowd's enthusiasm for the, uh, stretch run?

"Yeah, you're definitely right," said cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. "Say we would have beaten Oakland. That crowd would have been ROCKING against Pittsburgh. It would be cold, but you'd think it's a summer day.

"Now, everyone is on egg shells. But I really believe the Bills Mafia fans, the true believers, will be with us every step of the way. You always have those naysayers and doubters."

The Oakland debacle has given doubters a chance to bail out on any of the three straight home games. The 12th Man could suffer as a result. On Sunday, there could be close to 20,000 Steelers fans at New Era. Surely, some discouraged Bills fans threw up their hands and decided to sell their tickets and go shopping.

Then it's Cleveland. Even if the Bills beat Pittsburgh and stay technically alive for the playoffs, how eager will people be to show up to watch the worst team in the NFL? To see another 6-3 game like that gem in 2009? For the possible chance to see the Browns avoid being the second team ever to go 0-16?

The third leg of the big homestand is against their faded rivals, the Dolphins on Christmas Eve day. I'm obligated to be there, but I would much rather sip egg nog and cry my way through "It's A Wonderful Life" for the 27th time than watch a 7-7 Bills team take on Miami and Ryan Tannehill for three and a half hours.

If enough people sell their tickets or sit home, the crowd could be pretty mixed against the Steelers. It could be like a Sabres home game against the Maple Leafs.

"That can happen," said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. "Pittsburgh travels well. I understand the sentiment around here. We lost to the Raiders and some people may want to sell their tickets. As a professional, you play for the fans, but that's not all I play for. I play for my teammates, my family, myself and my God.

"So I have a lot of motivation to go out and still play," Alexander said, "whether it's loud or the cheers are for us or against us."

The 12th Man is mainly a defensive phenomenon, however. If Steeler fans show up in force, waving their accursed Terrible Towels, it can mitigate the effect of the home crowd. There won't be as much of a din for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to contend with, and less chance of false start penalties.

"It gives us a positive feeling, knowing the Steeler Nation travels well and follows us all over the world," said star wideout Antonio Brown. "The fans being in the stands provides extra energy and boost for us as a team."

An uninspired fan base would present a dilemma for ownership. The next three games could be a referendum on Ryan and quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Ryan is under fire after his defense went to pieces in Oakland, the way it had in Miami earlier. Taylor is fast losing support as a possible franchise quarterback worthy of a $90 million extension.

Taylor seems to be feeling the heat. On Wednesday, he was typically unexpansive in the face of some tough but fair questions about his future. While walking away from the lectern after his weekly media session, Taylor threw his practice jersey to the ground and shouted, "I'm done talking!"

Heaven forbid he should be subjected to hard questions with $90 million and the franchise's future at stake. Taylor's lack of self-awareness in front of a microphone is surpassed only by his lack of awareness in the pocket. When a team's mental toughness is being questioned -- and Alexander called out his teammates early this week -- it's a bad look for the quarterback and reputed leader to lose his cool.

But if Taylor is discouraged, he has good reason. The Bills are fast approaching the point they were at with Ryan Fitzpatrick four years ago -- wondering if the incumbent quarterback is a true franchise guy and whether they can continue selling him to a disaffected public.

Selling hope, after all, is what the Bills do best. So these next three weeks will be critical. If they lose and the fans express their displeasure, either by booing or not bothering to show up, it might convince the Pegulas that Taylor isn't worth the investment. Even their largesse has a limit. The NFL's worst passing game is a hard thing to market.

Things could get ugly fast. The Steelers are one of the hottest teams in the league. They have a terrific offense and an improving defense that has allowed an average of only 10 points and 251 yards in a three-game winning streak.

If the Bills keep losing and playing scared the way they did in the second half at Oakland, it will reflect poorly on Ryan. A collapse could put his job in jeopardy. Remember, there was some sort of ultimatum issued to Ryan and GM Doug Whaley late last season when the team was in a similarly precarious spot. Injuries are no excuse.

Ryan is careful never to say anything negative about the Bills' fans. When his team was booed off the field at halftime of the Jacksonville game, he said they weren't booing the team, but him. He better be careful what he wishes for, because if he loses his team, he could lose his fragile hold on the fans, too.

No one was talking about "must-win" games on Wednesday. Pretty soon, we could be talking about "must-go" games instead. Who stays and who goes is the big question.

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