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WASTED OPPORTUNITY HAUNTS BILLS; END OF WIN STREAK PUTS END TO SEASON

Utter devastation.

That's the best way to sum up the mood in the Buffalo Bills' locker room after Sunday's 29-24 season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Riding a six-game winning streak, the Bills needed to beat the Steelers and hope the New York Jets or Denver Broncos lost for a shot at the playoffs.

The Jets did their part by falling at St. Louis, but the Bills failed to take care of their end of the bargain. As a result they saw their postseason drought extend to five straight years.

"It's going to hurt for a while because people are going to be playing next week and we're not," center Trey Teague said.

"We can play with anybody in the league. We don't fear anybody, and I don't think anybody was looking forward to meeting us in the playoffs. But we didn't do what we needed to do on our end, regardless of what happened in the other games. That's what makes this so painful."

What also made this loss so galling was it came against a Steelers team with nothing for which to play. Pittsburgh, which had home-field advantage wrapped up before the game, pulled most of its starters before the first half ended and substituted liberally the rest of the day.

Still, it didn't matter. The Steelers' offense dominated in time of possession and their defense didn't give up the kind of big plays the Bills' offense has feasted on in recent weeks.

Linebacker Takeo Spikes said it didn't matter that the Bills couldn't win against the Steelers' reserves.

"Those guys get paid the same way we do," he said. "They put on their pants the same way we do. That's just the sign of a good team.

"When you've got depth that can come in and still be efficient when the game counts, the credit goes to them."

Not all of the Bills took losing to a bunch of second- and third-stringers as well as Spikes.

"I'm pretty angry, really," quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "The bottom line is if we can't beat them with their backups on the field then we probably don't deserve to be in (the playoffs)."

In a way, Sunday amounted to a one-game playoff for the Bills. They had won six straight games, knowing that a loss in any would eliminate them from postseason contention.

The Bills of the past were known for playing their best football in January, especially in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The current Bills had an opportunity to show they belonged among the elite teams in the NFL. Instead, they showed they aren't quite there yet.

"Everything boiled down to one game, and I think in order to be the great team you want to be you definitely have to win at home," Spikes said. "We have to win the games that count, and this was one of them."

Wide receiver Eric Moulds has seen too many seasons end in disappointment. The nine-year veteran is the longest-tenured Bill on the roster, but he has been to the playoffs only three times. He's beginning to wonder if he'll ever return to the postseason.

"When I first got here, I thought we'd be in the playoffs every year," he said. "To go five straight years and not get it is a bitter pill to swallow.

"It's frustrating because I want more for myself and I want more for this organization and the fans. I'm disappointed for those guys because being in the community the whole week they were excited, and I feel like they deserved more than what we showed today."

Despite their disappointment, the players tried to look at some of the positives this season. After beginning 0-4, few people gave the Bills a chance to have a winning season, much less get into the postseason.

"Obviously, there wasn't a lot of believers outside this locker room when we started 0-4," Teague said. "But everybody hung in there and we put that run together.

"When you think about how hard the guys have fought together and stuck by each other and to get that close (to making the playoffs) and fall short -- it's as frustrating as it gets."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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