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BILLS WIN IN SPITE OF THEIR OFFENSE, NOT BECAUSE OF IT

Any time an NFL team wins a big game, you can count on the media to attach one of its favorite labels to the performance.

We're all familiar with "statement games," where a team supposedly "sends a message" to the rest of the league. At some point during the year, we hear about a team "defining itself." Then there is the ever-popular moment when a team "takes its game to another level."

Late Sunday afternoon, after the Bills had escaped this charmless old stadium with a 13-10 overtime victory, the players were besieged with questions about this being a "character win" for the team. Not everyone was buying it.

"It's easier to call it character when you win," said tight end Jay Riemersma, who caught six passes. "But we were a little fortunate, too."

You really have to hand it to an athlete who bites into one of our cliches and spits back something approximating the truth.

Riemersma was right. There was a lot to admire about the Bills' performance on a bitter, blustery day at Foxboro Stadium. Good teams make the most of their opportunities, and Buffalo did what was necessary to eke out a win and move a step closer to clinching a playoff berth.

It's a stretch to give the Bills high marks for character, though. They were lucky to get out of here with a win. It was a gift, with Adam Vinatieri playing the role of Buffalo's secret Santa. How much character is required to snatch it out from under the tree and unwrap it?

If Vinatieri had made either of his potential game-winning kicks, no one would be carrying on about the Bills' character today. The more critical fans would be clamoring for Wade Phillips' head, or for the immediate ascension of Rob Johnson to starting quarterback.

The Bills won the game, yes. But it was yet another dubious offensive showing in a season filled with them. For most of the day, the attack was inept, sloppy and unimaginative. The featured back of the moment, Jonathan Linton, couldn't gain yards or hold on to the ball; there was no downfield passing game to speak of.

Doug Flutie was remarkable in the clutch, completing his last 12 passes and throwing 35 times without an interception. I'm sure he'll consider any criticism of the offense another violation by us uninformed media who never played the game and lack his stunning football intellect.

But I'm sorry. This isn't good enough, and the weather is no excuse. The Patriots were a team on the verge of quitting, a team that already had been eliminated from playoff contention, a team without its star receiver (Terry Glenn) and its star cornerback (Ty Law). If the Bills had jumped on them early, the crowd would have booed them unmercifully and they might have packed it in.

Instead, the Buffalo offense sputtered and turned in a forgettable performance for the first, oh, 52 minutes.

It was a game the Bills deserved to lose, and the type of game they assuredly would lose if it had happened in the playoffs. Anyone who thinks this level of performance will get it done against a playoff team -- on the road -- is suffering from delusions.

They have to play better than this to advance in the postseason, and they know it.

"Oh, yeah," Riemersma said. "Oh, yeah. Up here the crowd wasn't really a factor. You get on the road in the playoffs and all of a sudden it becomes a factor. If we don't play better and take teams out of the game early, we're going to struggle."

If they struggle offensively in fairly benign settings -- at home against the Giants and in Arizona, for instance -- how can they hope to be productive in a hostile playoff environment against a quality defense?

"We definitely have to play better," said Eric Moulds, who didn't catch a pass until the fourth quarter. "That's the main assessment, I think. In order for us to be where we want to be, we have to play better on the road.

"I mean, we have to put points on the board. We have a great defense and we have to score points and give them an opportunity to get off the field and get some rest."

The defense played its typically sound game, but it seemed worn down in the fourth quarter. Terry Allen, who had averaged 35 yards a game for the previous six weeks, had 126 yards. If the unit couldn't shut down a recycled back like Allen, what will it do against an Edgerrin James, or Eddie George or Fred Taylor?

The Bills still don't know who their featured back is after 15 games. Thurman Thomas had his best game in two years Sunday. No doubt, people will be clamoring for him to be the lead back. But he's more effective as a spot player.

The passing game is still a work in progress. Peerless Price had a good game and has established himself as the clear second option at wide receiver. But what about Andre Reed? He had no catches. Is this the time to bury him altogether, two weeks before the playoffs?

Do I dare suggest this is a team still searching for its offensive identity, five days before the new millennium?

"I think we need to play better each game," Phillips said. "But this is another important win for us . . . I told our guys it's not going to get easy, and it wasn't easy."

Now, starting with the Colts, things get really difficult. There's nothing but quality teams awaiting them now, and you have to wonder if the Bills are quite up to it.

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