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As team victories go, this one was the balm

As it turns out, not everything that came out of Mike Mularkey's mouth after the Denver loss was rambling nonsense. In fact, in the eyes of his players, the Bills' head coach looks like an absolute visionary right now.

"After that loss to Denver, coach Mularkey said he was confident we would come in here and respond," linebacker London Fletcher said after Buffalo's wild and improbable 37-27 win over Cincinnati. "He said no one in the world - or at least, no one in America - felt we would beat the Bengals at their place. But he never wavered."

Mularkey was right. None of us American cynics expected the Bills to put up much of a fight Saturday. You figured they'd be sprinting for the bus and the Christmas revelry against a high-flying Bengals team that had clinched the AFC North title a week earlier and was still hungry for a first-round playoff bye.

But this is what makes following sports so compelling. Just when most of their critics had written off the Bills for the 2005 season, they played their best game of the year, quite possibly their most inspired road game of the lackluster, five-year Tom Donahoe era.

For Bills fans who had been so bitterly disappointed by this team, this win was a holiday surprise, an unexpected Christmas gift under the tree. It was Ralphie getting the BB gun, George Bailey's friends and relatives showing up at his house with a basketful of money.

The fans deserved a game like this. It's only one road win. It does not change the fact that the Bills are 5-10 and the organization is in disarray. But after so many dispiriting performances, it's refreshing to know the Bills had the character to go on the road the day before Christmas and play as if something were on the line.

For the first time under Mularkey, the Bills came from behind to win in the fourth quarter. They came back three times in the game. Finally, they showed the collective will that characterized their play late last season. For once, they took a punch and got back up.

"You hit the nail on the head," said Lawyer Milloy, who had eight tackles. "Until today, when a team hit a big play or a touchdown against us, or if we had a penalty, it was like "Here we go again.' Today, we didn't have that attitude."

It's the kind of performance that could save a coach's job. Ralph Wilson isn't inclined to eat three years of a coach's salary. He was a big fan of Mularkey as of a month ago. If he was indeed wavering on his head coach, an emotional win like this - plus a win against the Jets in the finale - could swing things back in Mularkey's favor.

The Bills played and were coached well in all three phases. It was reminiscent of last year's six-game winning streak, when the defense and special teams made countless big plays. But most of all, it was a triumph for the offense, which is Mularkey's domain. He got 10 catches for 99 yards from Eric Moulds, who lived up to his promise to play with purpose after his one-game suspension. Moulds had three catches for first downs in the fourth quarter.

Kelly Holcomb was simply magnificent. Still the starter because of a dubious injury to J.P. Losman, Holcomb completed 24 of 31 passes for 308 yards. In the crucial fourth quarter, getting solid protection from his offensive line, he was 7 of 8 for 91 yards. In his last two games in Cincinnati, he has thrown for 721 yards.

Holcomb was in command from the start. He threw a 65-yard bomb to Lee Evans on the Bills' first scrimmage play and never stopped attacking. The Bills seemed to feed off him.

"He's a natural leader," right guard Chris Villarrial said. "I've said that from Day One. The confidence was back. We had our swagger today and it felt good."

Mularkey coached like a man who was desperate for a victory. If Losman was healthy enough to be the backup, he was healthy enough to start. He was listed as probable with a shoulder injury. The Patriots' Tom Brady has been listed that way for two years.

The only thing in question was Mularkey's motive. I suspect he played Holcomb for the same reason he put him in after Week Four. It was his best chance to win. When Holcomb got hurt in the Kansas City game, Losman played well and gave the Bills a convenient excuse to revert to the original plan - developing Losman. But when Mularkey became desperate for a win, any win, Holcomb was his guy again.

It's hard to blame him, but the long-term goal was supposed to be Losman's development, not squeezing out wins for an embattled coach. Sooner or later, the Bills have to decide whether Losman is the answer, and that means playing him for more than four weeks at a time.

Mularkey has a big decision to make, assuming he comes back as coach. Who will be the starting quarterback next year? If Holcomb helped save his job, how can Mularkey not have a fair and open competition next summer in training camp? How could he hand the job back to Losman and look Holcomb - and his veterans - in the eye?

"He's come in here and thrown the ball downfield and run the offense the way it's supposed to be run," said Villarrial. "You can't bring him back and not let him compete."

Losman was Donahoe's draft pick. By playing Holcomb, Mularkey has distanced himself from the kid, and from his GM. If Donahoe gets fired, Mularkey will no longer have the burden of justifying that pick. He can give Holcomb a chance and resume the "win now" mentality next season.

So we might be looking at Holcomb as the starter next year. Unfortunately, he can't play all his games in Cincinnati. He is still an average QB and he'll be a year older. Any way you look at it, the Bills' quarterback situation figures to be an unsettled and politically sensitive mess next year.

This was a great win, a big day for Bills fans. But soon the memory will fade, and the harsh reality will be there, like a holiday hangover. If the Bills are 5-10 and Losman isn't making progress, the Bills haven't come very far in 12 months. In fact, they're right back where they started.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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