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CLOSE DOESN'T COUNT FOR BILLS AFTER LOSS

Twenty-four hours apparently wasn't enough time to wipe away the anguish of the Buffalo Bills' 27-24 loss to Doug Flutie and the San Diego Chargers.

The final moments, after taking a 24-20 lead, are especially agonizing: Ronney Jenkins' 72-yard return. Flutie, the former Bills quarterback, slipping away from Shawn Price, then bolting 13 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown like a toddler running toward a new toy. San Diego blocking the 44-yard field-goal attempt by Jake Arians to preserve the win. All of it was still as raw as an open wound on Monday.

"It's pretty tough," said veteran fullback Larry Centers. "We feel like we had the game won and in our pockets. To let it slip away is especially frustrating. It's easier when you lose a game by a wide margin than the way we lost it (Sunday). . . . You like to stay away from the shouldas and the couldas and the wouldas, but we had the ball game won and had a lapse in one area, on one play and it cost us."

There wasn't much discussion about how the young Bills took one of the AFC's best teams to the wire on the road, how quarterback Rob Johnson stood tall in the pocket and was responsible for nearly 400 yards of total offense. Without a victory, the numbers are merely vapor.

"It's great that people liked the way we played, but we still lost," said Johnson, who played through a foot sprain on Sunday. "People have been patting us on the back, even though you don't feel good. . . . Right now it just put us one game further out of the playoff race. A 2-4 record in our conference would have been nice with Indy at home. It's great we played better, we still have things to work on, but we have to get wins."

Pain and disappointment, Bills coach Gregg Williams told his club on Monday, isn't necessarily such a bad thing.

"I believe that's the next growing step of being an NFL player," he said. "If you don't feel a drain, if you don't feel down about playing that hard, I question who you are today. And when you come back tomorrow, I want to see who you are tomorrow also. I want to see who you are on Wednesday morning, also. It's a tough loss and I don't want it to be a nice one. That's part of life in the NFL and these guys will bounce back from it."

But how? The Bills have the second-youngest team in the AFC and with youth comes inexperience, which was one of the reasons why they couldn't close out the Chargers on Sunday. While they have made strides over the last two weeks the majority of the players are lacking in big-game experience.

"It's always difficult to bounce back," Centers said. "Being a young team, (this) might provide more of a challenge for us because a lot of these guys haven't seen these types of situations before."

The loss is even more painful when you look at the big picture. Take away the Bills-Chargers rivalry and the so-called Johnson-Flutie feud and you have a team whose postseason aspirations are fading. Heading into Sunday's game against the underachieving Indianapolis Colts, only three teams -- Kansas City, Detroit and Carolina -- have a record worse than the 1-5 Bills. Buffalo is last in the AFC East and it still has to play both Miami and New England twice.

"Being in the situation and the hole that we're in, we have to find a way to draw all the positives that we can possibly draw from and some of the good plays that we had," Centers said. "We have to establish more consistency and eliminate those mistakes."

Fewer than 12,000 tickets remain for Sunday's game at Ralph Wilson Stadium against the Colts, which has been moved to 1 p.m. instead of 4:15.. . . . Former Bill turned Charger Marcellus Wiley on Flutie: "I'm on Doug Flutie's team! He's a leprechaun. He brought drama to us. He's the X-factor. Don't talk bad about the man. I don't care if he sells Flakes. He's The Man!" . . . Williams said the team didn't suffer any significant injuries during Sunday's game. Defensive end Phil Hansen did re-aggravate the dislocated elbow injury he suffered against Pittsburgh, but Williams said he was fine. . . . Several Bills will spend today's day off involved in a number of different community activities including defensive end Bryce Fisher, who will visit School No. 53, located at 329 Roehrer Avenue in Buffalo as part of the Buffalo Bills Target Art Program; linebacker Kenyatta Wright will be making an appearance at the Ridge-Culver Wegman's in Rochester from 5-6 p.m.

e-mail: r mckissic@buffnews.com

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