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DASH FOR DIVISION COULD END IN DEAD HEAT

Six weeks ago, the Oakland Raiders rolled into Ralph Wilson Stadium with a 3-0 record, rolled over the Buffalo Bills, 49-31, and left as the team to beat in the AFC. About the same time, the New York Jets were left for the vultures with their playoff aspirations stuck somewhere between fantasy and hallucination.

In today's NFL, every team remains in the playoffs until further notice -- or at least until all mathematical possibilities are exhausted. The Bills have lost two games after teasing fans with three straight victories. Now they hit the most critical stretch of the season with six games remaining.

"This is the time teams start to separate," tight end Dave Moore said. "You keep yourself close in September and October, but you need to get hot in November and December. To get into the playoffs and where you want to go, you have to play well down the stretch. Now is when you need to catch fire."

You think the Bills will win their six remaining games? You're not dreaming, so long as you understand they might lose all six. The difference between victory and defeat is minuscule. After all, GreenBay was 8-1 before getting pummeled by 2-7 Minnesota on Sunday. At this point, anything is possible, including the Super Bowl.

The Bills are 5-5. New England was 5-5 and coming off a loss last season before winning six straight during its run to the championship. The Bills should know plenty about their playoff position in three weeks, after they play the Jets, Miami and New England.

"I've never seen it this tight before," Bills coach Gregg Williams said. "It's fun. This is why we work as hard as we work, to be in this position. It's why we work hard in the offseason, why we make the moves we make and (try) to build and assemble things. It's to be in this type of position. Now is the time to produce."

Twelve of the AFC's 16 teams have four, five or six victories so far this season. Seven teams have five victories, with Pittsburgh's tie with Atlanta throwing a filthy curveball into the playoff equation. Only Denver and San Diego have seven wins, and they are in the same division. Expansion Houston (2-8) and Cincinnati (1-9) are the only two AFC teams with fewer than four victories.

You want tight? Consider the AFC East. Miami is leading the division at 6-4, but the other three teams are a game behind. It's conceivable all four teams will finish 8-8, which would create the mother of all tiebreakers.

"If it doesn't happen this year, it's probably going to happen soon," Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe said. "If you look at the teams in our division with everybody still having to play everybody, there are all kinds of scenarios. Four teams at 8-8 is not out of the question."

The Bills have three tough divisional games before closing the season against San Diego, at Green Bay and home against Cincinnati. Miami's final six games are San Diego, at Buffalo, Chicago, Oakland, at Minnesota and at New England. New England has Minnesota, at Detroit, Buffalo, at Tennessee, the Jets and Miami. New York has Buffalo, at Oakland, Denver, at Chicago, at New England and Green Bay.

"The fact the next three games are face-to-face, divisional games and count double, we're still in the driver's seat," Williams said. "We don't have to count on anybody else."

One problem: The Jets, Dolphins and Pats are thinking the same. What does it all mean? The playoffs are up for grabs.

Parity was among the side effects the NFL was seeking when it instituted free agency, so the league has succeeded. Never before has the AFC been this tight this late in the season. In fact, it's possible for the first time in history a team could have a better record than a division winner and miss the playoffs.

"There's been good races with two teams and sometimes three, but I've never seen teams bunched up like this," Donahoe said. "You have to win your division games. Maybe it's too early, but it doesn't look good for some teams in our division on tiebreakers if they're the wild card. I don't know how it's going to sort itself out. If you win the division, you don't have to worry about tiebreakers."
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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