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DON'T LET OFFICIALS HIDE THE SHORTCOMINGS SHADOWING THE BILLS

By late Monday afternoon, the whining had all but subsided. Wade Phillips is smart enough to know you don't let these grievances linger for too long. When he called the NFL office earlier in the day, it wasn't to complain about the fateful pass interference call on Henry Jones, or the missed call on the sideline pass with six seconds left.

No, it was to protest that his team hadn't been called back for the extra point after New England's winning touchdown. Phillips was concerned that his team had been made to look petty when it failed to line up for an essentially meaningless conversion.

"It's a matter of integrity and dignity," Phillips said. "We do what's right. That's what the Buffalo Bills stand for."

Phillips insisted the Bills would have gone back out for the conversion if the officials had come to the locker room and asked them. All they had to do was ask. Instead, the Bills came off looking like poor losers.

It was a deft move by Phillips, playing the dignity card. It was also a welcome development after the moaning of Sunday night. There are few things more pathetic than hearing athletes, coaches and octogenarian owners crying that the referees cost them the game.

Given 24 hours to reflect on the loss, Phillips acted like a leader. He stopped blaming the officials for the 25-21 loss to the Pats and put some of the blame where it belongs -- on his players.

True, the officiating was dreadful. If one of them really said "Just give it to 'em" on Shawn Jefferson's sideline catch with six seconds left, it's sure to be come the rallying cry for everyone who believes the NFL needs instant replay. I can hear the proponents now: "Instant replay -- Just give it to us!"

At some point, however, the Bills have to accept their share of the blame. Referees make mistakes. Sometimes they make whoppers that decide a game. But great teams overcome bad calls. They make bad officiating irrelevant. If the Bills were a genuine contender, they would have found a way to win.

They never should have been in a position to lose Sunday. How much blame does Steve Christie get for missing the early field goal? How much goes Chris Mohr's way for his abysmal punting performance? What about the offensive line, which committed its usual slew of penalties and was able to spring Antowain Smith for a mere 2.8 yards a carry?

How about Doug Flutie's decision to audible to a quarterback draw on the Bills' final possession?

"That's what I tried to point out to the team to day," Phillips said. "There are things we could have done better and won the football game. ... I don't want to blame it on something else, and I don't want the players blaming it on something else, either. That 'something else' is over with."

How about some blame for the defense, which allowed Drew Bledsoe to go 28 for 43 with a broken finger, failed to generate much pass rush (as usual) in the first half, and blew key coverage assignments on New England's winning drive?

The Bills defense has its moments, but too many of them come at home, when the crowd is on its side. On the road against worthy opponents, like the Jets and Pats, they go soft and give up the big play. Just when you think they're living up to their reputation, they look overrated again.

Phillips admitted his defense failed to execute on the game's final, critical three plays. "The last three plays we could have played better and it would have changed the outcome of the game," he said.

Jefferson was probably out of bounds on his big catch on fourth-and-9. Maybe he didn't even have the first down. But the Bills didn't do a good job of covering him, or taking away the sideline with the Pats out of timeouts. Phillips said they had worked on that very situation all week in practice, but his defense failed to execute correctly.

Sure, the interference call on the Hail Mary pass to Terry Glenn was a cheap call. But let's not over look a simple fact: The ball hit Glenn in the chest. How in the world, on such a textbook, desperation play, did the Buffalo defenders allow that to happen? What was Ken Irvin doing on the play, contemplating his Christmas list?

Then there was the winning TD pass to Ben Coates, who was more wide open than the 2000 presidential race. It might have been a good idea to guard a receiver who catches more passes against Buffalo than any man alive.

Phillips said Coates goes out for passes near the goal line only when he lines up on the right. That's where he lined up.

"So we should have been ex pecting that," Phillips said, "especially since every time they'd run it on the goal line, we'd hit them in the backfield. So we didn't play those things well enough either."

Marlo Perry was supposed to cover Coates. But Sam Rogers failed to push Coates inside, which made it more difficult for Perry to follow his outside release.

The coaches bear responsibility for that play, too.

The defense was reeling when New England lined up for the final snap. The interference call was fresh in their minds. They were angry. Maybe they were thinking about the officiating when they should have been concentrating on the play.

Someone should have had the presence of mind to call timeout.

It would have given the Bills a chance to gather their wits and calm their emotions. They could have given Perry, who played a full game at linebacker, plus special teams, a rest.

And they could have been reminded to WATCH OUT FOR THAT COATES!!!

"Well, I don't know what we would have done differently," Phillips said.

They might have won the game, for one thing. Moved into a tie for first place in the AFC East, for another. They might have proven they're a contender by putting a team away on the road.

But they couldn't run for a first down on their final possession. Is this running game as good as its No. 7 ranking in the league? Every time you start to believe that, Smith gets held to 2.8 yards a carry in another big game. The defense couldn't make a big stop when it had to.

The Bills have four games left to prove they're for real. The schedule is in their favor, and their fate in their hands.

They should put Sunday behind them. Fans should, too.

The question isn't whether the officials are good enough. It's whether the Bills are.

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