The Bills may teeter between opportunity and disappointment tonight in Sun Devil Stadium, but their opponents, the Arizona Cardinals, already are among the contenders for the Disappointment of the Year award.
Last season, the Cards were in exactly the same place they are now: won-6, lost-7 and struggling. They won their final three games and went on to beat the Cowboys in Dallas for their first playoff victory since the Truman administration.
That's the rub. After the success of 1998, they were the consensus choice to win the championship of the NFC East. Considering the ramshackle condition of that division, Arizona still could win it but its chances are remote. They would be far less remote if the Cards upset the Bills in their final home game of the season.
Since the "Bye Factor" no longer applies to the Bills -- they came out against the New York Giants well-rested and played as if they suffered from tired blood -- the "Must-Win Factor" kicks in.
The fight for the last AFC wild card is a free-for-all now, with Kansas City, Miami, Seattle and New England all trying to scramble over the Bills. The Dolphins and Patriots are favored today. The Chiefs won Saturday.
What tonight's game may get down to is a struggle between two struggling quarterbacks.
The horrible interception-to-touchdown-pass ratio (18 to 6) of Arizona's Jake Plummer is well-documented. He's been playing with a thumb injury similar to the one which cursed Green Bay's Brett Favre all season. It was compounded when he suffered a broken finger upon his return to the lineup three weeks ago.
"Jake has lost confidence and he's confused," admits Bob Ferguson, Arizona's general manager. "I watched him in practice the other day and he was like a golfer trying to find his swing again. He'd try one throwing motion after another."
Nevertheless, Plummer still makes the fourth-quarter comeback his signature accomplishment. He played poorly for 55 minutes against Philadelphia two weeks ago, then rescued the game in the last five minutes. Last week against Washington he played poorly for 60 minutes and the Cards were whipped.
Like Buffalo, Arizona's running game is deficient this season, putting games squarely in Plummer's damaged hand. The Cards' ground attack is far more deficient, however, and is absent more often.
The Bills' running game can't afford not to show up tonight. Only the run defense of expansion Cleveland gives up ground yardage more generously than Arizona. The enemy averages just under 136 yards a game against the Cards.
Any persistent coughing or sputtering by the Buffalo runners and offensive line or any lack of faith in the ground game by the offensive strategists will play into the strength of the Cardinals defense, the pass rush. Right end Simeon Rice leads the NFL in sacks. Tackle Eric Swann is of Pro Bowl quality, but the major worry would be the matchup between left end Andre Wadsworth, the second-year stallion who just recently returned to the lineup off the injury list, against Marcus Spriggs, the Bills' fill-in right tackle.
Spriggs had his lunch eaten by Michael Strahan of the Giants last week.
Bills quarterback Doug Flutie has enough problems with his passing game without wearing one of those pass rushers. The Bills have suffered a drop in scoring from 25 points per game last season to 17 points this season, a massive change. A great deal of that has to do with Flutie's inaccuracy and inability to consistently throw downfield.
If the Bills can't run and Flutie is forced to do more passing than is healthy for him, this game could land in the hands of the Buffalo defense. That wouldn't be such a bad idea.
The Cardinals have three fine receivers in Rob Moore, Frank Sanders and rookie David Boston, but because of his injuries, Plummer hasn't been able to get the ball to them. Then there is the Arizona running game.
"We haven't been able to run consistently all season," says Ferguson.
Consequently, this would not be a good time for Bills coach Wade Phillips to take any fourth-and-1 gambles, such as the one which backfired against the Giants last week. The Bills are better off putting their faith in their defense.