A playoff-worthy team should have little trouble disposing of a club vying for one of the top two or three overall picks of next year's NFL draft.
Such was the case with the Buffalo Bills' 34-11 pounding of the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in Orchard Park.
"I thought we made a statement today," coach Wade Phillips said after his team's first AFC East series sweep of the season. "Most games are going to be close anyway, no matter who you play. To have one where you win by a bigger margin, certainly, and control the whole game, I thought was an important step."
An important step to a destination that, at the very least, could be a wild-card spot in the playoffs, and, at the very most, could be a division championship.
At 7-4, the Bills are still tied with the New York Jets for second in the AFC East, but that could become a three-way tie for first if Miami loses tonight's game in New England.
The Bills are one of the hottest clubs in the NFL, winning seven of their last eight games. They have also won three of their first four outings in a five-game division stretch that ends next Sunday in Foxboro.
With five games left in the season, the team that once seemed to have no playoff hopes after an 0-3 start has its sights firmly set on winning the AFC East championship for the first time since 1995.
"It's in our own hands right now," said wide receiver Andre Reed, who was spectacular in catching six passes for a season-high 108 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown. "Your whole goal is to win the division and then, if you get in the playoffs, it's a whole new season. I've been through this before and we know how important it is to win these division games.
"It could come down to a tiebreaker, and then you're left out."
At 2-9, the Colts were never in the playoff hunt. They played about as woefully as they have for most of the season, handing the Bills 17 points off turnovers and never really putting up much of a fight.
"That was a very poor exhibition of football on our part in all phases of the game," Colts coach Jim Mora said. "It was just bad football by the Indianapolis Colts against a good football team, and they got after us real well."
As expected, Buffalo's running game was as dominant as it was on Oct. 11, when the Bills scored a 31-24 victory in Indianapolis. The Bills ran for 187 yards Sunday, 11 more than they had in their earlier encounter with the Colts. Running back Antowain Smith ran 23 times for 107 yards, an average of 4.7 yards per carry, and two touchdowns. Rookie Jonathan Linton chipped in 46 yards on six carries, while Thurman Thomas had 26 yards on five tries.
For the second week in a row, the Bills held the ball for 37 minutes.
"We went out there and stayed on top of them," Smith said. "We weren't going to let them back in the game. We knew, as an offensive unit, we had to keep going out there and putting it on them.
"The more times I carry the ball, I get into a groove and the better I feel. We're getting better every week. We're still making mistakes. We can still do better. But the offensive line is getting better and we're getting better as a team."
Doug Flutie, who is 5-1 as the Bills' starting quarterback and 6-1 overall, was back to the impressive form he showed before his last two outings. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns, and threw no interceptions. In two games against the Colts, he was 43 of 56 for 443 yards and four TDs with no interceptions.
Reed and Eric Moulds had their way with struggling Colt cornerbacks Jeff Burris, a former Bill, Monty Montgomery, and Tyrone Poole. They combined for 11 receptions, 10 of which accounted
for first downs. The Bills were 5 of 6 in the red zone with three touchdowns and two field goals. Before that, their last 11 red-zone trips had accounted for only one TD, seven field goals and three turnovers.
"I think, overall, this was just a very efficient game for me," Flutie said. "We hit a couple of big plays . . . I was being careful, but when we had shots, I went after it and we made some plays."
So did the Bills' defense, which intercepted two passes by rookie quarterback Peyton Manning -- one by cornerback Ken Irvin, his first of the season, and the other by free safety Kurt Schulz, his fourth of the year.
After allowing the Colts to take a 3-0 lead on their opening drive and losing a fumble deep in Indianapolis territory, the Bills turned the game around when Irvin picked off a Manning pass for Marvin Harrison and returned it 43 yards to the Colts' 1. That set up a touchdown throw from Flutie to fullback Sam Gash, igniting a 24-point second quarter that also included a 4-yard TD run by Smith, Reed's score, and a 35-yard Steve Christie field goal.
On Irvin's interception, Harrison fell and Manning delivered a wobbly pass that the cornerback jumped to grab. Television replays showed that Irvin stepped out of bounds at the 15, but the officials didn't see it. He did appear to reach the end zone, but the officials marked him down at the 1.
"It was the turning point in the game, but it wasn't me individually," Irvin said. "The guys up front did a tremendous job putting pressure on the quarterback, and he wasn't able to put much on the ball. I thought I got it in the end zone. If I stepped out of bounds, maybe it shouldn't have been a touchdown anyway."
The Bills would add 10 more points -- on a 24-yard Christie field goal and a 5-yard TD run by Smith -- before the Colts closed the scoring late in the fourth quarter on a 30-yard Manning TD throw to Marvin Harrison.
Running back Marshall Faulk, the Colts' lone offensive threat, had 85 yards rushing and 102 receiving (on a game-high eight catches). But he never did any damage, especially in the red zone.
The only negatives for the Bills were their 10 penalties for 64 yards (the Colts were flagged six times for 41 yards) and the crowd of 49,032, a far cry from the 74,096 average of the first five home games.
Two of Buffalo's penalties -- an ineligible receiver downfield on center Dusty Zeigler and a holding call on offensive guard Ruben Brown -- wiped out of touchdowns.
Phillips was particularly happy that the Bills were still able to dominate defensively despite receiving less crowd-noise help than usual.
"I thought our team reacted well in that there wasn't a packed stadium and didn't depend on the 12th man to help them win the game and control the game," Phillips said. "The crowd helps, too, but I think there was a point there where you could just depend on the crowd rather than your team. So I thought our team stepped up that way."
Stepping up was the theme of the day in the Bills' dressing room. Winning would not have been enough. Almost to a man, the players knew there was no excuse for them to struggle against the Colts.
"That's what we were supposed to do today," offensive tackle Jerry Ostroski said. "I mean, we were playing an opponent that we should have put away like we did. I'm not taking anything away from the Colts. They played hard, they didn't give up, they didn't lay down. But we needed to go out there and have a strong performance offensively like we did.
"I think the team made a definite step forward today."