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Bills' Arizona misadventure has echoes of '03

Maybe it's because it's so close to Halloween, or because such thoughts belong in the "wide right/no goal" haunted house, but that stomach-upsetting loss by the Bills to the Cardinals in Arizona last week transports me back to the season of 2003.

That is not a good trip.

It was Drew Bledsoe's second season as a Bill. In his introductory year, Buffalo finished 8-8, which turned out to be the highest rung they would reach in Gregg Williams' coaching tenure here. An 8-8 record is an NFL tease. Fans' expectations are that the team will get much better and stay that way for a while. It doesn't work out that way more than 60 percent of the time.

For the Bills, 2003 began as a giant tease. Bledsoe led a 31-0 blowout of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. In its second game, Buffalo defeated the Jaguars in Jacksonville, just as it did this season. That was followed by a couple of losses, but the team seemed to right itself with an overtime victory over Cincinnati.

Then, exactly five years ago today, the Bills did exactly as they did in Arizona last Sunday, getting splattered by the Jets, 30-3, at the Meadowlands. The rest of the season was a disaster. They suffered losing streaks of four and three games during the nine-game closing stretch. Bledsoe never came close to reprising his prime. In the finale, the Patriots shut out the Bills by the identical score by which they lost the opener, 31-0.

There were a lot of things about that Buffalo team different from this year's. For one, the 2008 Bills have more talent on their offensive line. Once you got by Jonas Jennings at tackle and Ruben Brown at guard on the left side in '03 there wasn't much. Nevertheless, running back Travis Henry, currently headed for what looks like a lengthy stretch in federal prison for his part in a drug operation out West, gained 1,356 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. Considering the uneven manner in which the offensive line has aided Marshawn Lynch, he would be happy with those Henry numbers.

Maybe his bye week layoff will repair the damage done when quarterback Trent Edwards suffered a concussion on Buffalo's first possession of the Arizona game. Yet concussions are terribly tricky injuries. Ask Tim Connolly of the Sabres. One of the better ways to protect Edwards would be to mount a ground game that enemy defenses would be forced to respect.

In the last two years, Bills management has paid for that type of protection. Despite the team's 4-1 record, they haven't been getting their full money's worth. The offensive line was praised effusively for its improvement in 2007, but there has been a certain amount of sitting on their laurels despite their role in the four victories. Jason Peters' confounding holdout until the eve of the season opener was a major distraction and the distraction will remain until he rises to the level of play that made him a Pro Bowl selection a year ago.

The Bills have grown up physically in the last year or so, but mental growth is a much steeper hill to climb and they are not halfway to their target. A much more demanding portion of their schedule is approaching. It's no time for a rest break.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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