Did somebody say swoon?
The Buffalo Bills begin the longest and toughest December schedule in their history when they meet the Philadelphia Eagles this afternoon in Rich Stadium.
December may be fine for Santa, but it's been one of the gloomiest months in the history of the Bills. Once, a long time ago, they went five years between December victories. Buffalo's December record since 1985 (3-15) is the worst in the AFC. Only Tampa Bay (2-16) has a worse mark in the NFL.
Buffalo comes into the month this season with a 9-2 record, hoping to nail down a third successive AFC East championship. The Eagles, who tripped up the New York Giants, 31-13, last Sunday for their fifth straight victory, are three games behind the Giants in the NFC East and probably are going to have to settle for a wild-card spot.
The Eagles are one of four prospective playoff teams the Bills will face in December. The others are the Giants (10-1), the Miami Dolphins (9-2) and the Washington Redskins (6-5). The fifth Buffalo opponent this month, the Indianapolis Colts, are still in the playoff picture despite a 5-6 record.
Besides their December history, the Bills also are up against the perception that they do not match up well against NFC teams in general, particularly big, strong, physical teams like the Eagles.
So this is a major test, as well as an important game in the standings.
It's a matchup between the NFL's top two scoring machines. Buffalo leads the league with an average of 28.4 points per game. The Eagles are next at 25.6.
The Bills, who operate best when they can mix the pass and run, will be up against the No. 2 rushing defense in the NFL. Only San Francisco (75.9) is allowing less yardage per game on the ground than Philadelphia (77.6). It's an Eagles strength the Bills will have to deal with to win.
"If we plan on winning championship games, you have to run the football," is the way quarterback Jim Kelly puts it.
The Eagles pressure the running game with excellent personnel and their tactics. Their tendency is to blitz about one-third of the time on normal downs.
Bills coach Marv Levy says Philadelphia has "every blitz in the book."
"They blitz a lot. People think of blitzes as a device against passes, but they clog up a lot of running lanes when they blitz, too," Levy said.
"They commit a lot of people to stopping the run too, maybe a little more so than other teams....
"They take some chances on pass defense. Here's a team that has allowed the smallest pass attempts to be completed, yet they rank 20th in the league in yardage given up. Apparently there have been some big plays."
Fifteen of the 25 touchdowns the Eagles have allowed have been via the pass, while the Bills have yielded 11 aerial scores in the 21 touchdowns they've allowed.
The Bills' problem will be to keep Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham from taking over the game with his passing and running. He's passed for 21 touchdowns already and leads the Eagles with 607 yards rushing. He has 3,102 career rushing yards.
Against an elusive quarterback like Cunningham or John Elway of Denver, teams often use a "spy," a defender who has to account for the quarterback and prevent him from running with the ball for major gains.
"I can't say what we're going to do," Levy said. "I hope we have more than one (player) watching him, to tell you the truth."
Levy, however, acknowledges that Cunningham is worth paying close attention to.
"He has," Levy said, "a unique ability, more so I believe than any quarterback in the league, to run with the football, besides being a darn good passer and a very dangerous passer on the scramble while he's running.
"He's multifaceted, maybe the most multifaceted quarterback in the league."
Injury questions center on the Bills' secondary and the Eagles' offensive line.
Both of Philadelphia's starting guards, Mike Schad (toe) and Ron Solt (ankle), were listed as questionable.
Bills cornerbacks Nate Odomes (groin), Kirby Jackson (knee and hamstring) and reserve corner David Pool (knee) were listed as probable.
Defensive end Bruce Smith of the Bills also missed the major practice days during the week with a bruised knee, but there seems little doubt that he will be in the defensive lineup as usual today.
For the record, the Bills are 30-56-1 in December regular-season games since their founding in 1960, but they are 11-10-1 in December games at home and 19-46 on the road. That includes a stretch between 1967 and 1972 when they lost 11 December games in a row, and went 12 without a victory. In December playoff games, the Bills are 3-1.
Eight seasons have passed since Buffalo last posted a winning record for the month. In 1981, they went 2-1 plus a playoff victory over the New York Jets.
That long December slump will have to end if the Bills are to successfully defend their divisional title and gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.