Today's game against the Indianapolis Colts in the Hoosier Dome is the second-most important game on the Buffalo Bills' remaining schedule, second only to the Dec. 23 showdown with the Miami Dolphins at Rich Stadium.
If the Bills (10-2) can defeat the Colts today and take care of Miami in two weeks, they will win the AFC East championship and be assured the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. It would not matter what Buffalo does against the New York Giants next week and the Washington Redskins in the season finale.
By defeating the Colts and Dolphins, Buffalo would be guaranteed a 12-4 season. If Miami, currently 9-3, loses to the Bills and finishes 12-4, the Bills would have an advantage in the tie-breaker for the division title based on a superior record against common opponents.
Defeating Indianapolis and Miami also would guarantee a better won-lost record than the AFC Central champion (Cincinnati, Pittsburgh or Houston). Buffalo would come out on top on any tie-breaker for playoff seeding if the Los Angeles Raiders or Kansas City Chiefs win the AFC West with a 12-4 record. The Bills own a head-to-head victory over the Raiders and would have a superior conference record than the Chiefs.
So the Bills would seem to have all the incentive in the world for a full-bore effort against the Colts. Their destiny is in their own hands. However, a loss to the Colts today could change all that.
Indianapolis has some motivation, too. Even with a 5-7 record, the Colts have a slim shot at a wild-card berth in the expanded playoffs. Mostly, though, the Colts have hatred on their side. The Bills are the team Indianapolis would most like to beat.
That could spell trouble.
Last year, the Bills never settled down in their 37-14 loss here in which they lost quarterback Jim Kelly with a separated shoulder. The Colts outhit and outquicked the Bills, who turned the ball over seven times.
Two years ago, the Bills lost the season finale here in a lethargic effort that cost them the home-field advantage in the playoffs.
The Bills have been warned the Colts have designs on an upset today.
Colts coach Ron Meyer has been psyching his team, the Indianapolis media and the fans here all week.
Meyer has been reminding his players about the Bills' "high-five mode."
"They get a lead on you and force you to press too much," Meyer said. "They force you (the quarterback) to hold onto the ball while you try to get your receivers open.
"All of a sudden -- smack -- Bruce Smith hits you in the back of the head. Then they start high-fiving over the dead bodies. We have to keep them out of that high-five mode."
The Colts even have hinted a cheap shot by Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett knocked rookie quarterback Jeff George out of the season opener with the Bills.
George suffered a concussion and had to leave the game when he was sacked by Bennett in the third quarter of the Bills' 26-10 victory. Somehow, the Colts allege, Bennett's hand found its way underneath George's face mask.
"That's probably what did me in," said George. "But to say it was an unfair shot, I don't know."
Television replays of the hit indicate George was knocked out when his head struck the Rich Stadium Astroturf.
Insinuations aside, George has respect for the Bills' pass rush.
"The pressure is unbelievable," he said. "You're more concerned about the pass rush sometimes than you are with your own receivers running down the field."
Indianapolis had won its three previous games over New England, the New York Jets and Cincinnati before losing at Phoenix, 20-17, last week. A victory in that game would have left the Colts in solid contention with Seattle, Houston, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for the third AFC wild-card berth.
George maintains he was having his best game against the Bills before he was injured.
"I was throwing to all the right people, and doing it under pressure." he said.
Others though, think George made strides since then.
"He's performing better," Bills coach Marv Levy said. "It's obvious to us, he has, compared to the first game, a good grasp of his offense -- what they're trying to do, what receivers to go to -- much more so than we noticed before.
"He seems more poised back there. . . . It seems like he has more presence back there by quite a bit."
The Bills' object today will be to break through the rookie's poise and keep Colts running back Eric Dickerson contained. Dickerson was not with the Colts when the teams met in September.
If Buffalo can do all that, it will be a major step toward the Bills' third straight division title and an advantageous playoff schedule.
A loss opens up all sorts of other possibilities.