Early in the year, it would have been lunacy to suggest the Bills could be a .500 team after 10 games. Give the guys credit. They've fought their way back to 5-5, putting themselves on the fringes of the AFC playoff race. But does this look or feel like a playoff team to you?
They're more like last year's team -- a tease, a billboard for NFL parity. Playoff teams are like franchise quarterbacks. You know one when you see one. The Bills are a likable young team. There's a lot to admire about them. But talent and experience-wise, they're just not ready, especially with this ceaseless run of injuries.
Maybe it's the New England loss, which is still fresh in our minds. The Pats are in their own universe, true. You can write it off, give them a mulligan. But it's not so easy for a young team to shrug off the most one-sided loss in franchise history, a game that illuminated their shortcomings for the entire nation.
"That's what I worry about the most," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "When we come in on Monday, you say you've got to let it go. But it's very difficult to let go, because your gut's hurting and your pride's hurting. But you've got a chance to go out on Sunday and see if you can get it done again."
Today, they have a chance to bury the New England debacle and justify themselves as a playoff contender. They've beaten the bad teams. They've been humiliated by the very best. Now we find out if they can compete with a legitimate AFC playoff contender. Now we find out how good the Bills really are.
They must be wondering themselves right about now. Tight end Robert Royal agreed that there's some of that with any young team, an essential doubt. When you're simply trying to make your way as a player in the league, to establish a pro career, it's hard to have a clear, objective view of where your own team stands.
"We know how good we can be," said safety George Wilson. "But we've seen how bad we can be as well. As long as we believe, that's all that really matters. Every guy in this locker room believes in the system, believes he can get the job done, believes the man next to him can get the job done.
"You have to be able to go on the road and win to be able to get into the playoffs in this league."
A win today would be the biggest of Dick Jauron's two-year tenure in Buffalo. Under Jauron, the Bills have won most of the games they were supposed to win. They're 12-14 during his tenure, not bad when you consider the franchise cleaned house of high-priced veterans, suffered all those injuries and blew a couple of games they should have won.
But I'm tired of hearing that they could be 7-3. It's not about coulds. They have no signature wins under Jauron. The only road win against a winning team was last year at the Jets -- and we see what happened to them. Winning today, just seven days after a blowout of historic magnitude, would be a big step forward for this team.
The Jaguars are a formidable opponent, the kind of team Jauron might want to emulate. They're a tough, opportunistic team with an approach that reflects its coach (Jack Del Rio). They're third in the NFL in rushing. They have a young quarterback (David Garrard) who manages the game well. They've scored at least 24 points in four straight games.
This also might be J.P. Losman's last stand as the Bills' quarterback. Even Losman suggested as much. I believe Jauron has already moved on in his mind, the organization too. They're waiting to make a smooth and politically acceptable transition to Trent Edwards. Losman has started and finished five games this year. He has played poorly in four. Time is running out.
There was no way Jauron could bench Losman after the Pats game. But this is the test. The Bills need him to play big today. Marshawn Lynch is out. Losman needs to rise above circumstances and give his team a chance. That's what franchise quarterbacks do. It's part of the job description. When the stakes are high, the position demands stardom.
This is not a very good Jacksonville defense. It is missing some key players, and it is vulnerable against the pass. You can make throws down the field. So it plays to Losman's presumed strengths. The Jags will probably score more than 20 points, so Losman has to keep up. He has to make big plays and outplay Garrard.
That shouldn't be asking too much. Lee Evans keeps telling us that Losman makes plays and wins on the road. Really? He's been the difference in a road game once -- last year at Houston. Losman has started and finished 14 road games as a Bill. He's thrown for under 170 yards in 10 of them.
We hear that the other players want Losman to be the man, but it rings more of sentiment than logic. If the team has such faith in Losman, it's time he lived up to it. The whole affair is getting tired. Poor J.P., getting yanked around by the coaches. Has it occurred to anyone that Losman's lack of progress is holding the team back?
That's why it's hard to take them seriously as a playoff team. Until they get the quarterback right, the Bills won't be a genuine contender. They've surprised us before, so maybe Losman and the Bills will rise up and play their best game of the season this afternoon. But I have a bad feeling about this game.
It's more like that the Bills will slam into another dose of reality. Not as overwhelming as the New England loss, but equally harsh and convincing, in its own way.