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Playoff hopes vanishing, but much is still at stake If the Bills are truly a team on the rise, they need to show it over the final month

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Recently, a number of people have suggested that I rip into Buffalo fans for failing to buy out the last two Bills games and cause the games to be blacked out. I'm sorry, but it's never been my style to tell discerning consumers how to spend their shrinking, hard-earned dollars.

I'm not surprised that the Bills are no longer selling out home games. The only surprise is that it didn't happen sooner. During the Tom Donahoe regime, Buffalo fans were hoodwinked into believing they had a playoff contender on their hands. They're more wary now, less willing to invest their money and emotions.

People were willing to give Marv Levy and Dick Jauron the benefit of the doubt. But when the Bills were a wretched, unwatchable team in late October, a slice of the rooting populace turned away. I can't blame them. They had other uses for their time and money -- the Sabres, for one -- as the holidays approached.

It was unfortunate for the Bills, because they have made genuine progress since the bye week. They hit the break at 2-5 and have gone 3-2 since, with narrow losses to Indianapolis and San Diego, the top teams in the AFC. After scoring 14.3 points a game in the first seven weeks, they have averaged 22.4 a game since.

A sure sign of an effective coaching staff is when a football team gets stronger at the end of seasons and games. Jauron has had his problems (clock management, for one), but overall he has been a good leader. The Bills have improved since the break, and they have learned how to compete at the end of games.

Quarterback J.P. Losman led them to last-second victories in consecutive weeks. Last week, they were over their heads against a marvelous Chargers team. But in the fourth quarter, you almost expected they would find a way to do it again. The players seemed to expect it, too.

Now the Bills have to prove themselves in another fourth quarter -- the fourth quarter of the season. They have four games left. At 5-7, they have virtually no shot at the playoffs. But they have a lot to play for. By finishing strong, they can win back some of their fans and build a foundation of hope for next season.

Back in August, I said the season could be a success if Losman and the rookies made progress and they won six or seven games. They're close to that now. But starting with today's game against the Jets, the next four weeks could determine whether the Bills are perceived as a rising young team or a team standing in place.

Imagine if they win three of four and finish 8-8. The psychic value would be enormous. A lot of wary fans would be won back over. Two months ago, it seemed implausible that they could finish .500. It could create enough momentum to spark ticket sales next year, at a fragile time in the franchise's history.

On the other hand, think how deflating it will be if they lose three and finish 6-10. It would be a one-game improvement over a year ago. It would result in a higher draft pick, no small consideration. But it would seem like a step back after the promise of the past five weeks.

The time for moral victories is over. Fans are taking comfort in narrow losses against top teams. There's justification for that. The Bills have three losses to division leaders (New England, Indianapolis, San Diego) by two, one and three points. A few plays here or there and we'd be talking playoff race.

Still, those rationalizations begin to wear thin. Losing close games is better than getting blown out, but it's still losing. You realize how far-removed we are from the Super Bowl years when coming close is an achievement. After awhile, it's loser talk. It gets tiresome to hear about their youth, too.

"I don't believe you can be too young," London Fletcher said. "That's an excuse. I don't want to buy into that. We're 12 games into the season. I mean, it's not a young team now. There are no more rookies. It's just a matter of going out there and executing, minimizing our mistakes and just playing better."

The Bills are being held to a higher standard now. If they're truly a team on the rise, they need to show it over the final month. Young, winning teams often look back to the end of the previous season and say, "That's when it really began to turn around."

People will be watching. They want to see the defensive rookies -- Kyle Williams, Donte Whitner, Ko Simpson and Keith Ellison -- go to the next level. They want Losman to be consistent down the stretch. The refurbished offensive line should continue to make strides. Roscoe Parrish has to stay involved in the offense.

Willis McGahee is still nursing injuries. But it would be nice to see McGahee run with renewed purpose. He has one year remaining on his original contract. Owner Ralph Wilson said he is disappointed with his star running back. If McGahee really wants to be in Buffalo long-term, he can prove it in the closing month.

The Bills have two winnable games at hand -- today against the Jets and at home next week against Miami. If they win both, they'll go to 7-7 and split the season series in the AFC East. That would dramatically alter the public perception and spike interest in the final weeks.

The season's fourth quarter gets under way at 4:15 today. There's still a lot of season left to play. Let's see if they're up to it.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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