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Improving on third downs will be key tonight if the Buffalo Bills' offense is going to pull its weight and help the team secure a virtual must-win over the Arizona Cardinals.

The Bills rank 19th in the NFL on third downs, a big drop from last year, when they were fifth.

The Bills would like to control the ball tonight against an Arizona team that ranks 30th in defending the run and third-worst in time of possession.

But the Bills will need to keep drives alive to have a good offensive day against the Cardinals.

"We've looked at it, and it's a concern for us," said Bills coach Wade Phillips. "We see different things on third downs, and we haven't been as effective."

The Bills are converting 35.7 percent of their third downs. Last year they hit on 44.7 percent.

"In some cases we're getting in longer-yardage situations than we were last year," Phillips said. "That causes problems. In games where we're running the ball well, we don't get in those bad situations. So it's not just the passing game. The running game sets up the passing game."

Andre Reed and Doug Flutie both have been less productive on third down than last year.

Reed tied for fourth last year in third-down catches with 27 for 328 yards. This year he has just 13 third-down receptions for 126 yards. Over the last several weeks, he has seen his third-down plays decrease. Last week he played nine of 17 third downs.

Flutie, meanwhile, had an 84.9 passer rating on third downs last year. This year he's at 64.4. He completed 60 percent of his passes last year. He's completing 53 percent this year on third downs.

The big difference is third-and-long situations. Last year, the Bills' passing game was surprisingly effective on those downs. On third-and 8-to-10, Flutie completed 15 of 24 (62.5 percent). On third-and-11 or more Flutie completed 11 of 21 (52 percent).

Compare those numbers with this year. On third-and-8-to-10, Flutie has hit 19 of 36 attempts (52 percent). On third-and-11 or more he has hit 7 of 24 (29 percent).

"The bottom line is to keep ourselves in third-and-short situations, where your odds go way up," Flutie said.

The Bills don't want to be in third-and-long tonight. One of the few matchups in this game that seems to favor Arizona is the Cards' pass rushers against the Bills' offensive line. Right end Simeon Rice has 13.5 sacks. Left end Andre Wadsworth, who will play only on passing downs, is a premier talent.

The good news for the Bills -- they hope -- is the Cards have allowed 100 or more yards rushing nine times.

A loss by the Cardinals would virtually eliminate them from the playoffs. The Bills are clinging to the sixth and final AFC playoff spot.

"This game's obviously a big, big key for us," Phillips said.

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