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WIN OVER CARDS IS JUST LIKE CLOCKWORK

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Buffalo Bills got back to basics Sunday night.

With the game against the Arizona Cardinals tied, 14-14, and their grip on a playoff berth hanging in the balance, the Bills' offense went back to doing what it does best.

It rammed the ball down the throat of the Cardinals' defense.

The Bills held the ball for 23 of the final 30 minutes and ground out a 31-21 victory over the Cardinals.

"We went out there and proved the point that we can still run the ball," said Jonathan Linton, who gained a game-high 81 yards on 21 carries. "Wade (Phillips) told us at halftime that champions win in situations like this. We were determined to respond and win this game."

"We felt like we could run on this team if we continued to stick with it," said tackle John Fina. "I commend the coaching staff for sticking with it."

The win kept the Bills (9-5) in position to earn a wild-card playoff spot in the AFC.

If the season ended today, the Bills would hold the fifth playoff seed, behind Tennessee (11-3) and ahead of Miami (9-5).

It was a crucial victory because of the Dolphins' triumph over San Diego earlier in the day. But the Bills still don't have much room for error, since the Dolphins and Seattle (8-6) are on their heels.

"They don't get too much bigger than this," said tight end Jay Riemersma. "We know if we win out we're in the playoffs, and that's the mindset we have to take."

"Everybody knew Miami had won," said Thurman Thomas. "We had to go out and win."

The loss, before a far from capacity crowd of 64,337 at Sun Devil Stadium, all but eliminated Arizona (6-8) from the playoffs.

The Bills outgained the Cardinals, 376 to 178, and held a 39:30 to 20:30 edge in time of possession.

Arizona's defense entered the game ranked 30th against the run. The Bills gashed them for 159 yards, 105 in the second half.

Coach Wade Phillips said the pass opened up the run.

"We couldn't run it as well the first half," Phillips said. "They were using a lot of run blitzes. But we threw it well. That got them off us, and then we got our running game going."

The Bills ran 12 straight times to open the third quarter in a drive that went 60 yards and lasted 9:16, the most time-consuming of the year for the Bills. It culminated in a 33-yard Steve Christie field goal, which gave the Bills the lead for good, 17-14.

"That drive was probably the best drive we've had all year," Linton said. "The linemen were feeling like they were in a groove and they called for the ball."

"We really got after them on that drive," said quarterbacks coach Turk Schonert. "The offensive line and the backs did a great job."

The passing game also was better than average for the Bills.

Doug Flutie completed 21 of 32 passes for 239 yards and two touchdowns. He handled the Cards' blitzes well and made good audibles.

What kept it from being a perfect day for Flutie was two interceptions on passes over the middle that killed two scoring chances.

Flutie was on fire early in the game. He marched the Bills 67 and 80 to two first-quarter TDs.

The first march included a 24-yard pass to tight end Jay Riemersma and was capped by a 15-yard pass over the middle to Eric Moulds.

The second TD drive featured three third-down conversions. The first was a 10-yard Flutie run on third-and-10. The last was an 11-yard pass to Moulds to the Cardinals' 6. Flutie read the blitz perfectly on that play and stood in the pocket to take a big hit before delivering the ball.

For the game, the Bills converted 12 of 17 third-downs, or 71 percent.

The Bills went on a 13-play, 78-yard march to take a 24-14 lead with 3:01 left.

Flutie hit Moulds on a 26-yard pass down the left sideline to the Cards' 4. That play was improvised at the line.

"They were pressing me inside, and I had told Doug on the sideline that I would signal to him for him to throw it to the outside. Doug gave me the signal that he saw it and he made a good throw."

Three plays later, Flutie threw over the middle to Riemersma for a 4-yard TD.

"It was a designed route," Riemersma said. "They got confused when we motioned the running back outside. I didn't have to put a move on anybody because they had three guys covering the flat."

Moulds had six catches for 73 yards and Riemersma five for 62.

"You can tell the difference when Jay's in there," said Phillips. "He's a big target down the middle."

Arizona answered with a score with 1:49 left.

But on the ensuing onside-kick attempt, Henry Jones caught the kick on one hop and ran 37 yards for the final score.

"The ball took a great bounce and came up to me," Jones said. "I don't think I made a play all day but that one, and it turned out to be a huge one."

The Bills' defense wasn't exactly suffocating against the NFL's 30th ranked offense. But it got stronger as the game wore on.

Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer, playing on his 25th birthday, hit just 11 of 29 passes for 119 yards.

"They did a good job on us early, but we closed up any weaknesses we had," said Phillips. "We were determined in the second half that they weren't going to run the ball."

The Cardinals didn't. The Bills did. And that's why the Bills' playoff pulse still is beating strong.

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