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BILLS' PAIN IS SUPER-SIZED <br> CHARGERS LEFT STANDING AFTER HEAVYWEIGHT CLASH

It turns out Ralph Wilson called it last spring.

Sunday's Buffalo Bills-San Diego Chargers game WAS like a Super Bowl. In fact, it was better than most Super Bowls.

And it ended just like a Super Bowl for the Bills: It was a heartbreaker.

After a week of pregame hype that surpassed any prizefight, the Bills' 27-24 loss to the Chargers managed to exceed all expectations. It was a game that begged for grand comparisons.

The grudge match between quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie was like a heavyweight title fight. Each went toe-to-toe by making a barrage of great plays.

And the ending was painfully similar to the Music City Miracle loss to the Tennessee Titans the Bills suffered two years ago.

Just when Johnson looked like he was going to be the hero by leading the Bills to a 24-20 advantage with 1:30 to play, the Bills' special teams let the game slip away.

San Diego's Ronney Jenkins returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards. Flutie made a dramatic scramble 13 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Johnson brought the Bills back down to the Chargers' 27. But San Diego blocked the 44-yard field-goal try by Jake Arians to preserve the win.

The Bills' locker room was devastated afterward.

"Games like this hurt so much," fullback Larry Centers said. "We should have won this game. This is one that got away."

"Disappointing. Heartbreaking. I don't know what else to say," said center Bill Conaty.

"It's very tough, it's hard to swallow," said a teary-eyed Peerless Price. "This is the toughest loss by far I've ever had."

The outcome kept the Chargers pointing toward the playoffs at 5-2 and dropped the Bills to 1-5.

For once, both Flutie fans and Johnson fans had to be satisfied with their favorites regardless of the result.

"Near the end of the game, I was thinking that this is what we had in mind when we went out and got these two guys for the Bills," said Chargers Assistant General Manager A.J. Smith, the former Bills pro scout. "It went haywire, of course, because of circumstance. But this was two very good quarterbacks out there going at it."

Johnson completed 24 of 37 passes for 310 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. He rushed for a team-high 67 yards on 11 scrambles and got off the turf despite several colossal hits.

Flutie completed 21 of 33 passes for 254 yards with one touchdown pass to go along with his decisive TD run.

"We got after him but he made great plays," Chargers defensive end Marcellus Wiley said of Johnson. "He threw for 300 and ran for about 500. We were chasing him but he's elusive. I hope his confidence is rising because he's getting better and better every week.

"And Doug, man, he is special. Memories like today and the Jacksonville game a few years ago, they make you realize that if you just stay in contention, Flutie will capitalize in the end."

Johnson persevered despite the fact the Bills' offensive line was outperformed by the Chargers' defensive front. The Bills' O-line is barely holding together at the moment. Left tackle John Fina was hobbling on a sore knee and had his hands full with the Chargers' Raylee Johnson. Right tackle Jon Carman, on the practice squad a few weeks ago, was playing in place of injured Jonas Jennings and struggled against Wiley.

So Johnson had to use all his speed to get out of the pocket.

Johnson's remarkable day included:

A 46-yard strike to Price to set up the Bills' first touchdown after Buffalo fell behind, 13-0.

An interception early in the fourth quarter forced by a pass rusher that Chargers safety Jason Perry returned 37 yards for a touchdown to put San Diego ahead, 20-10.

A 61-yard TD pass to Price on the next play after the interception.

A 68-yard drive over 5:06 that culminated with a 3-yard Travis Henry TD run that gave the Bills their 24-20 edge.

That drive would have gone down as one of the Bills' all-time greats if they had won the game. Johnson sprinted for a clutch 6-yard run on third-and-6 from the Bills' 36 and took a huge hit on the sideline. He threw a 31-yard pass to Eric Moulds on a play in which Moulds tipped the ball out of a Charger safety's hands and caught the rebound.

Then Johnson scrambled for 4 yards on third-and-goal from the 10 but took another huge hit near the sidelines. A defensive holding call on the Chargers gave the Bills a first down and set up Henry's run.

"He showed a tremendous amount of courage," Centers said. "I think he showed the Bills kept the right quarterback."

Flutie, however, stole some of Johnson's heroics after the Chargers' kickoff return. Jenkins broke it straight up the middle to the Bills' 26, then San Diego got 13 more yards on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Brian Moorman at the end of the play.

"The kicks just didn't get off their blocks," coach Gregg Williams said of the return. "We had guys that ended up going to the ground. They lost their feet."

On first down from the 13, Flutie looked like he was going to be sacked by defensive tackle Shawn Price. But Flutie slipped under Price's grasp and bolted up the middle into the end zone.

"Everybody was in man coverage," said Hansen. "The four defensive linemen were accountable for the quarterback on that play. Shawn Price had a great move and was right there."

Johnson drove the Bills 37 yards in the final 1:02, but UB product Ed Ellis jumped up the middle of the line and blocked Arians' attempt to tie the game.

"After the kickoff return, I wasn't thinking about Tennessee," said Wiley. "I was thinking Jacksonville (the game Flutie won in '98) because I was rooting for Flutie."

"The Bills brought their A-plus-plus game but we just had a little more," Wiley said.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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