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Defense gives ringing endorsement to Bills' playoff hopes

Last weekend, Eric Moulds was hanging out at Lawyer Milloy's house, talking about the upcoming season. Two NFL veterans. Two parallel careers. They're both entering a 10th season in the league. Both have big contracts, multiple Pro Bowls. But when Moulds gazed at Milloy's hand, he remembered that his teammate has something he does not.

A Super Bowl ring.

"I just kept looking at it," Moulds said. "Then I walked around the house with it. He wouldn't let me put it on. I didn't want to put it on, anyway. I didn't want to jinx myself. That's bad luck. So I carried it around. I wanted to know how it feels to walk around with a Super Bowl ring."

It was probably fitting that Moulds did not put on that ring. Carrying a ring is one thing, but carrying a team is another. If the Bills are going to make a run to the Super Bowl this season, it is Milloy and the rest of the defense who will have to carry them.

And make no mistake, the Bills' defensive players have their sights set on Ford Field in Detroit, where Super Bowl XL will be played on Feb. 5. Sure, Milloy has said you don't feed your family with Super Bowl rings. But you feed your ego. You earn your place in football history, and the Buffalo D feels it could be on the verge of something historic.

"It's no secret," said linebacker Takeo Spikes. "Ten years from now, we want people to be talking about the 2005 Buffalo defense, and what we did as a whole to get to where we needed to go and then win it. Hopefully, it's the Super Bowl."

The Bills haven't made the playoffs for five straight seasons. There's been no postseason memory to sustain us since Home Run Throwback in the first days of the new millennium. So as the Bills prepare to open the new season against Houston today at Ralph Wilson Stadium, it's understandable if some people are hoping to simply reach the playoffs.

But the Bills' defenders aren't among those people. They have been the No. 2-ranked unit in the NFL the last two seasons. They have nothing to show for it. They believe they should have been in the playoffs a year ago. This year, they will settle for nothing less.

"We're not only looking at the playoffs," said linebacker London Fletcher, "we're looking at going deep into the playoffs. We don't feel like we're just a first-round type of team and hope what happens. We think that once we get into the playoffs, our chances are as good as anyone else's."

Fletcher is a well-worn 30. He won't have many more chances at the big game. He won a Super Bowl with the Rams five years ago. He knows what can happen when a team gets on a roll. So does Milloy, who won it all with the Patriots in 2002, and Sam Adams, who won a Bowl with the Ravens in 2001.

Time is running out for all three, who are on the other side of 30. Free safety Troy Vincent is 34. He lost three consecutive NFC title games with Philadelphia before coming to Buffalo. Do you think he'd be content to simply reach the playoffs? Spikes, who has never played in the postseason, says playoffs are the absolute minimum.

"We have very high expectations of ourselves," Spikes said. "We're in a time when good teams tend to stay together for two, three years. Coach (Mike) Mularkey told us you come through a window. Coach (Sam) Wyche did, too. As a team, there's a window of time where it's either do or die. I'd like to think that defensively, our time is now."

Their time is now. The defense has four veteran free agents who are over 30 (Vincent, Adams, Fletcher and Milloy) and a star (Spikes) in his prime. They have a star cornerback, Nate Clements, who will be command big money as an unrestricted free agent after the season and might very well be gone.

So the window is wide open and won't be for long. The window closes quickly in the modern NFL. You climb through it when you can. So it must be difficult for those Bills defensive veterans to reconcile the project under way on the other side of the ball.

They believe their time is now. Given that urgency, how patient will the veterans be with J.P. Losman, a first-time starting quarterback? They look down at their ring fingers. They hear the clock ticking on their careers. How quiet will they be if Losman stumbles and costs them games?

Tom Donahoe, president and general manager, said it's not necessarily a bad year if the Bills don't make the playoffs. The defensive players won't be as understanding. They held their tongues when the offense was sputtering with Drew Bledsoe behind center. They won't show the same deference to some kid quarterback.

Mularkey and Donahoe are talking a different approach, too. They've both said Losman might give way to his backup, Kelly Holcomb, if the kid struggles in games. They never said such a thing about Bledsoe. They know they're trying to strike a delicate balance.

Over time, you learn to interpret the words of athletes. They can't say exactly what they mean, so they tell you things indirectly. When the defensive players talk about deep playoff runs and the window of opportunity, they're saying the stakes are high this year. They're saying it's risky to trust a kid quarterback. They're telling the coaches not to allow Losman to blow their chance for a ring.

"This may be the last time I'm on a championship-caliber defense like this," Spikes said. "I hope it isn't. I hope we can run it out for two or three more years, and if I'm not here I can go somewhere else. But the chances of that are not likely, and that's something everybody needs to think about."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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