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With season on the line, defense comes up small

There was plenty of blame to go around after this one. That's usually the case in a crucial game with so many twists and turns, where one big play or one key coaching decision can make all the difference in a team's playoff fortunes.

You could blame the Bills' 30-29 loss on the offense for failing to convert more opportunities into touchdowns and allowing Tennessee to stay in the game. You could point to Robert Royal's failure to get his feet down inbounds on a seemingly sure TD reception from Lee Evans late in the third quarter.

You could, of course, rip into offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, who chose to run the ball only 40 percent of the time against the 30th-ranked run defense in the NFL, on a day when the Bills were getting nearly 5 yards a crack on the ground.

You could ask why the Bills took so long to run their final fourth-down pass play from the Titans' 28-yard line. Why did Dick Jauron need to look into Rian Lindell's eyes before deciding whether to attempt a game-winning field goal into the wind, when he had decided beforehand that he wouldn't do it unless

they reached the 25? Was the coach trying to throw the onus onto his kicker?

But in the end, this loss was reminiscent of so many others in recent Bills history. With a game and a season hanging in the balance, the defense came up small in the fourth quarter. The Bills' defenders would make horrible Santa Clauses because when it really matters, you can't count on them to make a stop.

Coming into Sunday's game, the Bills had gone seven straight quarters without allowing a touchdown. They were on a roll. A win Sunday would have sent them into next week's finale at Baltimore still alive for a playoff berth.

Then the defense got exposed by a rookie quarterback (Vince Young) and a running back (Travis Henry) who had been run out of Buffalo by the previous administration.

"Disappointment would be an understatement," said linebacker London Fletcher. "This loss really hurts. We battled back to get in the playoff race. I told the guys, 'Don't be surprised if every scenario that we need to get to the playoffs happens for us. But we still need to take care of business and beat the Titans.' "

They forgot to take care of business. The Bills' woeful run defense caught up to them at the worst possible time. Tennessee ran for 215 yards on 40 carries, and that doesn't include a 60-yard dash by Henry that was called back because of a penalty. On their first two possessions of the fourth quarter, when they turned a 29-20 deficit into a 30-29 lead, the Titans ran for 97 yards.

Henry had missed the team flight to Buffalo. He probably would have walked here on his sore ankle to get a shot at the Bills. Henry ran as if every Bills defender had a photo of former Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe pinned to his chest. The Buffalo defenders had about as much chance as Grandma getting run over by a reindeer.

Oh, it was a terrific game, one of the most entertaining we've seen in some time. Young was sensational. So much for that stuff about rookie quarterbacks struggling in the wintry conditions at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills' defense wasn't quite the same after Young's dazzling 36-yard TD scamper just before halftime.

But the result had to be hard to take for Bills fans, who had to be experiencing flashbacks to the home finale in 2004. That team also staged a rousing second-half run and put itself into position to make the playoffs, only to fall on its face against the Steelers in the final game of the season.

I imagine the more faithful fans were blubbering into their egg nog on Christmas Eve, knowing that the Bills had gotten them emotionally involved again, only to let them down in the end. The players weren't too happy about it, either.

"Yeah," said defensive end Chris Kelsay. "Anytime things start to fall into place and then they shatter in front of you, it's tough. That happens in football. It happens in all sports. You have to take the good with the good and the bad with the bad, and everything in-between. But we're men. This is our job. We realize there's up and downs, but this one really hits close to home."

It's no disgrace for this team to be 7-8. The Bills have come a long way this season. It was amazing that they made it to the 15th game with a shot at the playoffs. They still have a chance to finish 8-8, which is more than a lot of people expected before the season. J.P. Losman made dramatic strides and has positioned himself to be the quarterback for the immediate future.

This loss was a little stab of reality, a reminder that the Bills are still a ways from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender. You can't get away with a soft run defense forever. They need another defensive tackle. They will probably need to replace Nate Clements at cornerback.

They'll need help at linebacker, too. Fletcher has been a noble performer. He was sick to his stomach Sunday and still played. But he has been the middle linebacker for five years on a defense that has failed in big games. Asked if the Bills were setting up for a bright future, Fletcher said, "I don't know. We'll have to see."

Fletcher sounded like a man who was destined to move on in free agency. That's life in the NFL. Players come and go. No team has the same personality from year to year. A season has a life of its own, and it is always painful for a team to accept that it will not make the playoffs.

As Losman said, they don't want to hear that they're young and learning. They believed they were good enough to make the playoffs this season. Instead, it'll be seven straight years without the playoffs, and counting.

"Yeah, basically everything fell into place, and we were in a situation where we needed to beat a team at home, and we didn't get it done," Fletcher said. "I'm just . . . I'm at a loss for words about what happened today."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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