If the Buffalo Bills fall short of making the postseason for a seventh consecutive season, they can point to their lack of success against AFC East rivals as one of the reasons.
Since the division was realigned after the 2001 season and Indianapolis was shipped to the AFC South, the Bills are just 10-18 against New England, Miami and the New York Jets -- who host Buffalo at 4:15 p.m. Sunday in the Meadowlands.
In the NFL, it's all about taking care of your division and if that happens, a trip to the postseason usually awaits. Of the eight current division leaders only Dallas, which is 8-4 overall but 2-3 in the NFC East, has a record south of .500 in divisional play.
Buffalo (5-7) is 1-3 in the division with its lone victory coming on the road over Miami in Week Two. After Sunday, the only remaining division opponent for the Bills is Miami, at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Dec. 17. A loss Sunday against the Jets, who defeated the Bills, 28-20, in Week Three, all but assures Buffalo of another postseason at home.
"It's definitely frustrating because I've never been to the playoffs," said cornerback Nate Clements, now in his sixth season and one of the longest-tenured Bills along with Aaron Schobel and Brian Moorman. "It's frustrating because as a team we work hard and practice hard and not to get the results with the time and effort you put in is frustrating."
The only way to reverse the trend is to run the table, but even a 9-7 record won't assure the Bills a postseason berth. Not with teams like the Jets, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Kansas City and Denver standing in the way, all at 7-5.
"As long as you have a glimmer of hope," said wide receiver Peerless Price, "that's what you play for."
That's why divisional victories are so important but the Bills haven't found much success since 1999 when they finished 11-5, and 6-2 in the AFC East, while sweeping both Miami and New England.
Since the 2002 season, the Bills are 3-6 against the Jets and 1-9 against the Patriots. At least they're 6-3 against Miami, but the Dolphins haven't been to the playoffs since 2001. In this decade, the Bills are 13-27 against AFC East foes. They haven't finished higher than third in the East since '99.
Instability on the coaching staff could be a factor. Dick Jauron is the franchise's third coach since Wade Phillips last took the team to the playoffs in '99, but Clements said it's all about playing well early.
"As the season goes on, everyone starts to get into their groove and starts to jell," Clements said. "It gets harder every week to win a ballgame."
Maybe Price hit it right on the head, "When you think about it, that's when New England started getting good."
New England won its first of three Super Bowls in '02 and is 23-6 in the division since. When the Patriots finished 4-2 in the AFC East in 2002, it was the last season they lost more than a game to divisional opponents. The Bills have dropped their last seven to the Patriots (who are 9-3 this season), including both games in 2006. They haven't beaten New England since the 2003 season opener.
"Around 2000 was when New England became a dominant team," Price said, "Not just in this conference but in the NFL."
Thus, New England has become a postseason fixture. That's something only a few players on the Bills roster have experienced.
"As you get older, that window of opportunity starts to diminish," Price said of making the playoffs. "My first goal is to make the playoffs and that puts you in a position to compete for a Super Bowl. I'm not saying we're out of it because we still have a chance."
Bills running back Willis McGahee was able to practice Friday on his sprained ankle. McGahee had missed practice both Wednesday and Thursday. He remains questionable for Sunday's game but it appears he's going to play. Cornerback Terrence McGee (ankle) also was able to practice Friday. Strong safety Donte Whitner was not able to work and watched the practice in a sweat suit. He tweaked a hamstring muscle during Thursday's practice. Jauron said a final decision on all three will be made during pregame warm-ups.