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This finishing kick hits Bills in the guts

This is becoming an annual rite, but I have to ask the question again, the same one I asked after the Dallas game two years ago, and the Cleveland game a year ago. How much more of this can a Bills fan take?
"I can definitely imagine how they feel," Donte Whitner said Monday night after the Bills blew an 11-point lead and lost the Monday night opener to the Pats, 25-24. "They feel the same way I feel."

Whitner was crying as he said it. A tear was rolling down his left cheek. The Bills' free safety sniffled his way through his postgame interview, which ended after two minutes because he could barely get the words out.

So yes, the Bills feel your pain. They heard all the skeptics. They knew their fans were uncommonly discouraged after the upheaval at One Bills Drive during the last couple of weeks. They could even understand if people didn't believe they could compete with the mighty Patriots.

But they believed. Whitner said in the days before the game that expectations were still high within the team. Then the Bills went out on Monday night with a young, unproven offensive line, a beleaguered quarterback, a first-time offensive coordinator and a battered defense, and played their hearts out.

Once again, though, they lost in excruciating, mind-boggling fashion. When Trent Edwards hit Fred Jackson for a 10-yard touchdown with 5:32 to play, giving the Bills a 24-13 lead, you figured it was going to be different this time.

At that point, I was contemplating where this game might rank in the history of Bills upsets. Surely it would be the biggest in at least a quarter century. You had to go back to before Jim Kelly to find a more improbable, emotional win, a game where they so utterly confounded the skeptics.

Then a couple of thoughts jarred me back to reality: In the famous win over Miami in 1989, when Kelly dove in for the winning TD, the Bills had trailed 24-13 with five minutes left. Then, another jarring memory. The Dallas game at home in 2007.

"Yeah, it crossed my mind," said Aaron Schobel, who was sensational in his return from a foot injury that kept him out the last 11 weeks last season. "It did. We've got to figure out a way to finish these games, because we have the talent."

Whitner said it reminded him of the Dallas game, too. Afterward, it bordered on the macabre. The loss to the Cowboys came by the identical score -- 25-24. Again, must Bills fans be tortured to such a ghastly extent?
There's quite a chronicle of woe in just the four years that Whitner has played for the Bills. The Dallas and Cleveland losses at night, the Jets game last year when J.P. Losman fumbled. But this might be the worst of them all, because they were on the brink of such a monumental upset.

"Eleven-point lead with four minutes to go," Whitner said. "You're supposed to win football games like that. We lost it. It's tough, man. I want to shut everybody up who feels we're not a good football team. This is hard, man, because I know how hard these guys work. I know how hard I work. Nobody else is there when we're working, and it's hard to lose like this."

Considering the recent run of events -- replacing Turk Schonert, cutting Langston Walker, the horrid preseason -- even the most relentlessly upbeat Bills follower was wondering about this team. A lot of people were simply hoping they'd be competitive, that they wouldn't embarrass themselves.
Instead, they outplayed the Patriots for much of the night. They made Brady, in his long-awaited return, look like an amateur. Edwards played a mistake-free game, throwing two TD passes. He didn't throw downfield, and he hooked up with Terrell Owens only twice, but he played well enough to win.
The young offensive line held up well in pass protection. Rookie guards Eric Wood and Andy Levitre played like veterans. Demetrius Bell had his problems with penalties, but didn't play badly. Rookie tight end Shawn Nelson caught a TD pass.
The defense decided to rush four men for most of the night and got decent pressure. They forced Brady to throw underneath for the most part. But in a flashback to Dallas, they played soft with the lead and it hurt them. They allowed the Pats to march down the field too quickly and cut the deficit to 24-19.

Then, as legions of Bills fans shielded their eyes and prayed that the fates wouldn't turn on them for once, Leodis McKelvin carried the kickoff out from 2 yards deep and fumbled it away at the Bills' 31-yard line.

I imagine seasoned Bills fans were cursing the moment McKelvin made his fateful decision to run the ball out. Surely, when Brady took over at the Buffalo 31 with 1:56 to play, they anticipated the worst. Maybe the Pats would score quickly and give the Bills a chance to answer.

A few moments and one desperate lateral later, the Bills were 0-1 and back in their locker room, contemplating another nightmarish loss. You could say they deserved better, but losing teams develop losing habits.

If there's any consolation, it's that the Bills are a better team than they appeared to be in preseason. They look better than the team that finished 2-8 last year. They have a lot of young players who show promise and will have this loss to remember as they move forward.
"We know what we have," Lee Evans said, "and we know the potential we have. That's what we play for. I think we did a good job of staying together as a team. But we've got to learn how to finish games. To a man, everybody is feeling a certain way. If a loss like this doesn't hurt, you shouldn't be playing this game."

But really, how much hurt should one team, and its fans, have to endure?

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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