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Now comes the big game on the Buffalo Bills' schedule. A week from Sunday, the Bills head to San Diego to face Doug Flutie and Buffalo West.

And just think, last spring some were speculating this matchup between the 1-4 Bills and 3-2 Chargers was worthy of a Monday Night Football game. Hasn't MNF suffered enough this season?

Interest in the Flutie vs. Rob Johnson meeting is primarily an issue in Buffalo and San Diego. The magnitude of the game is illustrated by CBS' choice of announcers: Craig Bolerjack and Trevor Matich, who aren't exactly big names.

Of course, sports talk stations WGR-AM and WNSA-FM will be analyzing this matchup endlessly all week. At least Johnson's strong performance in Thursday's 13-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars gave them something new to talk about in addition to re-examining the talk show consensus that the Bills kept the wrong guy.

You might think that Channel 4's love affair with Flutie and the Chargers on Sundays this fall would have kept the glorification of the little quarterback to a minimum because local viewers have been able to see that he hasn't exactly been doing a Brett Favre imitation.

For the third time in four weeks this Sunday, Channel 4 is carrying the Chargers. They are hosting Denver, a game that is attracting CBS' No. 1 crew of Phil Simms and Greg Gumbel and is the Chargers' toughest test this season.

If it weren't for Flutie, WIVB-TV would undoubtedly be carrying the 1 p.m. game between AFC East rivals New England and Indianapolis. Twice this season, the local CBS affiliate has carried Chargers games over higher-profile contests between better teams.

"The ratings are indicating that people want to see Flutie," said Cathy McCracken, the director of sales for Channel 4 and Channel 23. She added that the station is getting the same 20 percent premium from advertisers for the Bills-San Diego game it gets for a Bills-Miami game.

According to Channel 4, an NFL game in the 2000 season that didn't involve the Bills or run opposite a Bills game averaged an 11 rating at 1 p.m. and a 16 rating at 4 p.m. On Sept. 30, the Bills-Steelers game at 1 p.m. had a strong 30.9 rating, making it the top program in Western New York that week. The Chargers' 4 p.m. game with Cincinnati had an 18.4 rating, which is about 15 percent higher than the average rating for a 4 p.m. game last season. And amazingly, the rating in Buffalo was close to the 21.9 the game had in San Diego.

The Chargers' last-second loss to New England on Oct. 14 in an exciting game had a 21.4 rating in San Diego. That's much higher than the 14.1 rating the 1 p.m. game had on Channel 4 on a Bills bye week, but nowhere near the ratings in the 30s that Bills games typically receive.

The Channel 4 rating for the Chargers-Pats, which played opposite a game on Channel 29 between the St. Louis Rams and the New York Giants, was about 30 percent higher than the average rating for a 1 p.m. game last season. The Rams' 15-14 victory received a paltry 4.6 rating here.

With the Bills having another Sunday off, WIVB-TV should expect its strongest rating Sunday for a Flutie game. It is a 4 p.m. start (late games get higher ratings), the opponent is strong and the Chargers are Buffalo's next opponent.

And the Oct. 28 game with the Chargers, which Channel 4 plans to promote heavily, could get a rating in the high 30s or low 40s -- as long as Flutie doesn't get hurt this Sunday.

The Bills-Jacksonville game had an overnight rating of 26.0 -- a 17.4 on ESPN and an 8.6 on Channel 51, the PAX affiliate that simulcast the game. Though researchers say it is either the lowest-rated Bills game in recorded history or close to it, the game did well considering it was competing with a Yankee playoff game (7.0 on Fox), "Survivor" (11.9 on Channel 4) and "ER" (20.0 on Channel 2).

Nationally, the Cowboys-Redskins game may have won in ratings against a deciding playoff game between the New York Yankees and Oakland A's on Monday, but locally it was a different story.

Channel 29 did slightly better with the Yankees than Channel 7 did with MNF. After halftime, the baseball game was a bigger winner. The length of baseball games these days -- Monday's lasted close to four hours -- usually drives away viewers.

ABC was smart to have fun with the idea of having a game between 0-4 football teams, opening with motivational talks from Richard Simmons, Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Jason Alexander of ABC's "Bob Patterson." It also ran clips of old Cowboys-Redskins games and pretended the old players were still playing today.

But in the end, this game was no laughing matter to the NFL. MNF is bleeding money, with ratings off 9 percent from last year to an 11.4 average after five games.

The Cowboys-Redskins game may have a profound impact when the league and ABC begin to have discussions on how to end the bleeding. The game may effectively advance the idea of giving ABC a choice of two games each week.

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