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BILLS ABSENT FROM MNF ONCE AGAIN

For the last three or four years, Monday Night Football play-by-play man Al Michaels and I have played the same game during news conferences in Los Angeles.

I ask if he thinks there is any deserving NFL team that is missing from the Monday night schedule and he assumes I'm referring to the Buffalo Bills.

After the Bills finished 2003 with a 6-10 record, I wasn't about to ask the question in 2004. But Michaels assumed I would and began answering before I could ask a different question.

This July, the question of why the Bills aren't on the NFL's biggest stage is relevant.

The Bills and another 9-7 small-market team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, are the only NFL teams with above .500 records a year ago that won't get the Michaels-John Madden treatment. It is the first time in Bills history since MNF began that the team hasn't made the schedule after a winning season.

Meanwhile, St. Louis and New Orleans -- both 8-8 -- and sub-.500 teams Washington, Carolina, Kansas City and Dallas (6-10) with Drew Bledsoe are on the schedule. Washington and Dallas are MNF mainstays and ratings draws. But the other clubs are no more deserving of a MNF game than the Bills, whose consolation prize was two prime time ESPN games.

Despite the sub-.500 teams, ABC appears to have a strong schedule. Of course, appearances often can be deceiving in today's NFL as evidenced by the surprising runs of the San Diego Chargers, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers a year ago.

In the last year of its current contract with ABC, the NFL has loaded the MNF schedule with last year's playoff teams. ABC, which lost a reported $100 million on MNF a year ago, is balking at paying a rights fee boost in a new deal. That has led to speculation that Fox and NBC may pay up and take the package away. Strong ratings in the early part of the season could jack up the price and big-market teams usually help ratings.

Happy talk moment of the week: Channel 4 anchor Jacquie Walker asked sports anchor Paul Peck the question on just about everyone's mind about the Bills schedule. Noting the Bills have a prime-time home game on Dec. 17 against Denver, Walker asked: "What were they thinking?"

Of course, the NFL doesn't think about how cold the fans in the stands might be. They're just thinking what great pictures snow could provide for those sitting at home.

Cindy Miller update: The Silver Creek golf pro won another immunity challenge in the Golf Channel series, "Big Break 3: Ladies Only," last week after playing three holes of regular golf. This Tuesday, she is in the final three.

Haslett, Mularkey become promo stars: You have to love those NFL Network promos for its draft coverage that feature former Bill Jim Haslett and current Bills coach Mike Mularkey. Haslett dryly notes that his signing bonus when he was drafted by the Bills was a plate of chicken wings. Mularkey, a late-round draft choice, puts himself in the class of some legends who came out of the same draft. "Elway, Marino, Kelly, Mularkey," he deadpans.

Tiger roars for Channel 4: WIVB-TV's ratings for Tiger Woods' playoff victory over Chris DiMarco Sunday in The Masters were tied for the fourth-highest among TV markets with a 13.3. The rating hit a high of 23 during the playoff.

McDonald is a winner: Next year when I pick my NCAA bracket pool I'm going to pay more attention to Canisius College coach Mike MacDonald. During appearances on Channel 7's 11:30 p.m. Sunday show, MacDonald predicted West Virginia might make the Sweet 16 (they made the Elite Eight). He also had the entire Final Four, the final two and had North Carolina beating Illinois in the title game. "And he helped our ratings, too," said Channel 7 News Director John Murphy.

Van Pelt back in booth: Unable to get a regular coaching job in college or the pros, Bills radio analyst Alex Van Pelt has told Murphy, his play-by-play partner, that he is returning to the booth this season. Van Pelt is coaching Frankfurt Galaxy quarterback Akili Smith in NFL Europe this spring.

Sylvester joins Sabres: Former WGR-AM morning man Kevin Sylvester will soon join the Buffalo Sabres as the director of amateur athletics. Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn said he'll be in charge of developing college and high school events like this weekend's Bowman Cup. Sylvester's freelance WGR golf show with local pro Gary Battistoni begins at 8 this morning.

e-mail apergament@buffnews.com