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BILLS SHOULD TRUMP THE CARDS OR FOLD PLAYOFF HAND

Overview

Buffalo Bills fans will be on the edge of their seats tonight.

The Bills are clinging to the sixth and final AFC playoff berth and desperately need to beat Arizona to avoid becoming a long-shot playoff hopeful.

Fans, however, should rest easy. Relax those white knuckles. Enjoy the game.

The Bills should beat the Cardinals. We're not certain they will. But they should. Arizona is 6-7. Its offense is 30th in the NFL. Its quarterback has been a basket case both physically and mentally (at least from a confidence standpoint) all season long.

So if the Bills can't beat Arizona, then they are a bona fide playoff pretender. If they can't beat Arizona a week after not beating an inferior Giants team, then does it really matter if they squeak into the playoffs or not?

When the Bills have the ball

The Cardinals' defense is a little bit like that of the New York Giants -- except not as good. Like the Giants, Arizona has some great individual talent among the front seven.

Right end Simeon Rice, left end Andre Wadsworth and defensive tackle Eric Swann look like an awful matchup for the Bills' offensive line. Rice was the third overall pick in the '96 draft and has 13.5 sacks. He will give left tackle John Fina fits. Wadsworth was the third overall pick in '98. He may make life hell for Marcus Spriggs. Swann was the sixth overall pick in '91. (See what kind of talent a team can stockpile when it stinks every year?)

The good news for the Bills is neither Swann nor Wadsworth is 100 percent. Swann has a sore knee. He's only being used in limited passing situations. Wadsworth also has been hindered by a bad knee and was eased into the lineup on passing downs last week. He may not play much on first and second downs.

The Bills, obviously, need to avoid third-and-long situations against these guys.

Arizona ranks 30th against the run and was gashed by Washington's Stephen Davis for 189 yards last week. Rashod Swinger and Jerry Drake, their defensive tackles, are undrafted journeymen. Davis ran right at them. The Cards have two pretty good linebackers in Rob Fredrickson and Ronald McKinnon. Once again, persistence with the ground game will be key for the Bills.

The Cards are vulnerable to the pass if you can throw before the sackmasters converge.

Aeneas Williams is one of the NFL's best corners. But Tom Knight has been victimized. The safeties are very ordinary. Doug Flutie needs to hit a few big ones against these guys.

When the Cards have the ball

Jake Plummer is having a Trent Dilfer-type season -- 18 interceptions and six touchdowns. Sheesh. Plummer has some valid injury excuses. He has been hurt almost non-stop -- thumb, groin, ribs, finger -- since preseason. But he also has shown terrible decision-making. He makes things happen out of busted plays on the run. He's a fine athlete. But the jury's way out on whether he has the mental makeup to be great.

The Bills' defense should shut down the Cards' ground game and make Jake air it out. Arizona's offensive line is weak when it's healthy. This week it's all beat up. Even if Bruce Smith can't play, the Bills should feast. Smith or Marcellus Wiley will face left tackle Matt Joyce, a guard who was undrafted and has a bad back. Backup James Dexter will make his third start of the season at left guard. Right guard Chris Dishman has a bad elbow. Arizona ranks 28th in rushing yards, and its best back, Michael Pittman, has a bad turf toe injury. Taking his place will be Adrian Murrell, a very good runner who fumbles a lot.

Jake has been picked off in 20 of his last 24 games. This week looks like a great opportunity for the Bills to get an interception. The Bills need to get a pass rush, because Arizona has a super receiving corps. Frank Sanders, Rob Moore and David Boston are all big, strong and fast. It's hard to believe Arizona is 28th in passing yards with those three receivers. That's an indication of how little time their quarterback gets to throw.

Audibles

Vince Tobin is 0-7 against the AFC East and 2-12 against the AFC overall in his four-year tenure. . . . The Bills' kick coverage units need to be on their game. They were sensational against the Giants. Mario Bates ranks third in the NFC in kick returns. Mac Cody is sixth in punt returns. . . . Plummer has 11 fourth-quarter "comeback" wins (leading his team from tied or behind) in 34 career starts.

Outlook

The Bills had to do a long series of things wrong to lose the Giants game. The same thing applies tonight. The defense will keep the Cards under wraps. No turnovers by Flutie will be key. Bills, 20-17.

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