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THE HARD WAY <br> Monday billboard

Big picture: This one was painful all the way around. Not only did the Bills lose, 24-16, but they lost linebacker Takeo Spikes, the heart of the defense, for the remainder of the season with an Achilles tendon injury. Quarterback J.P. Losman and the Bills' passing game took a step backward, as did as the rush defense, which has been hammered in back-to-back weeks.

Player of the game: Take your pick among the Falcons' Michael Vick, Warrick Dunn or T.J. Duckett. They combined for 236 yards rushing and an average of 6.6 yards a carry. But let's go with Vick, who was 15 of 27 for 167 yards and two touchdowns while playing on a tender hamstring.

Play of the game: On third-and-10 from the Bills' 39 in the fourth quarter, Vick took off, wriggled past two Bills defenders, including safety Troy Vincent, for a 27-yard gain that led to a 12-yard touchdown run by Duckett and the final score of the game. Said Vick: "I almost hurt my ankle trying to do too much."

Hit of the day: After Spikes went down, Atlanta went at his replacement, Angelo Crowell, until Crowell laid out Dunn with a 3-yard loss in the third quarter. After that, the Falcons went back to their original game plan.

Unsung hero: The Falcons' Brian Finneran finished with four receptions for 57 yards, but two were third-down completions and one led to a touchdown.

Two of a kind: Bills coach Mike Mularkey and Falcons coach Jim Mora share the same birthday: Nov. 19, 1961. It's believed Sunday was the first time in league history that two coaches with the same birthday competed against each other.

Game Balls: Are there enough to go around for the Falcons? Vick, Dunn and Duckett for sure. Let's give out a few to the offensive line for helping gash the Bills' defense, and the patchwork secondary for not giving away anything deep.

Zebra report: Were the refs protecting the quarterbacks? It sure seemed that way early when the Bills were whistled for two roughing-the-passer penalties and the Falcons got popped for one. Only one call was reversed: a nonfumble by J.P. Losman following a 19-yard scramble.

Quote of the day: Mora on Vick: "Mike is such a great competitor that if somebody challenges him, whether it's in the media or a player from another team taking a shot at him like we had on the first drive, I think that gets him going a little bit."

Counting the house: The Bills announced a sellout crowd of 72,032 in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Coming attractions: The Bills look to move up to .500 on the road when they take on the New Orleans Saints in San Antonio.

GRADING THE BILLS

Runnning game (B ): Willis bounced back and brought the hammer. He ran hard. Bills ran ball against Atlanta's seven-man fronts.

Passing game (F): J.P. missed opportunities to exploit hobbled DBs. He only threw for 23 yards in second half. Evans, Moulds didn't get ball enough.

Run defense (F): Bills are missing old No. 93. Bills got gashed too often up middle. Leaving too many gaps on slants. Now Spikes is out. Ugh.

Pass defense (D): Instead of keeping Vick in pocket, Bills blitzed him out of pocket. He converted 7 of 12 third downs. Kelsay got key interception.

Special teams (B ): Forced a turnover on punt return to keep hopes alive. Pinned them at the 3 on a punt. Lindell made three more FGs.

Coaching (D): Gray's blitzing didn't contain No. 7. Couldn't exploit suspect secondary. Margin for error slim with a young QB.

GRADING THE FALCONS

RUNNING GAME (A ): Bills won't want to watch a replay of this DVD. Dunn, Vick, Duckett all averaged 6.3 a carry or better.

PASSING GAME (B ): Enough with the talk of Vick's passing troubles. The guy is a thrill ride. He made some tight throws, ran wild.

RUN DEFENSE (C-): This still is an area of some concern for black hats. But Falcons were tough enough in red zone to force FGs.

PASS DEFENSE (A): Falcons shut down Bills with combination of Deion Jr. (Hall), plus Curly, Larry and Moe. Rod Coleman was a force.

SPECIAL TEAMS (C ): Falcons have sound special teams units across board. Had touchbacks on two kickoffs. Didn't give up big play.

COACHING (A): Nice bounce-back from emotional letdown in Seattle. Offensive play-calling was good, and Vick makes coaches look good.

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