INDIANAPOLIS – One of the hardest things for a Bills fan, I imagine, is the need to inflate the importance of games late in the season, to view an otherwise ordinary win as some towering achievement.
When you never play in a truly big game, beating average opposition takes on exaggerated meaning. When your team has missed the postseason for 12 straight seasons, you learn to draw hope from simply hanging on the fringes of playoff contention into December.
Today's game against the Colts is a prime example. Listening to all the pregame analysis, you'd think the Bills were about to face an NFL powerhouse, a cross between the 1966 Packers and the 1985 Bears.
If the Bills get out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a win, people will be calling it an upset, a sign that the Bills are finally putting it together and making a run. Back-to-back wins, with the Jags and Rams coming to the Ralph the next two weeks, my God, we could be looking at . . . a heroic run to 7-6!
Look, I don't mean to diminish the significance of that sort of run. They did it in 2004, after all. We knew this was where the schedule would get soft. Hang around .500 until the midway point, then make a playoff push against a dance line of mediocre teams and rookie quarterbacks.
They're only one game worse than many people anticipated. Sure, the defense has been awful at times. But if they beat the Colts, they'll be one game out of a playoff spot. We'll have a playoff race, however flimsy, with games that matter in December.
But I don't want to hear about this game being an upset. The Bills should beat Indy. They're better. Before the season, this was a game you circled on the schedule as a victory. They've done a great job of lowering expectations. In a down year in the AFC, this should have been their year to break the playoff drought. They have to be kicking themselves.
"Yeah," said defensive end Chris Kelsay. "That's what we expected, what we all were preparing for. Obviously, we've not accomplished some of the things we wanted to do early on in the season. Right now, we're in a must-win scenario every week. Our playoffs started last week."
The Bills are supposed to be ahead of the Colts in their evolution. Indy went 2-14 last year. The loss of Peyton Manning was a big factor, but they were in a downward spiral. Now, they have a new general manager, a new coach, a rookie quarterback, a rookie running back, a patchwork roster.
They're rebuilding. Yes, they have Andrew Luck, one of the most gifted quarterbacks to come into the league in years. I'd trade every player Buddy Nix has drafted here for Luck in a heartbeat. The Bills are lucky the Colts aren't in their division. We'd be looking at another Tom Brady situation.
But Luck is still a rookie. He shouldn't be able to light up the Buffalo defense.
"Well, after your third game, you're not a rookie anymore," said Mario Williams. "He has had enough experience, enough playing time, enough snaps, enough big games and wins to validate that he's not a rookie anymore."
The numbers say otherwise. Luck is 28th in the NFL in passer rating at 77.2. He has 12 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions. Ryan Fitzpatrick has more TDs, fewer picks and a higher rating. The Bills have scored more points. Fitz should at least be capable of playing Luck to a draw today.
The Colts simply are not a good team. Their defense is bad. They're 29th in average against the rush. They're vulnerable on runs up the gut. Opposing passers have thrown 18 TD passes and four interceptions, rating out to 99.8.
Their special teams are brutal. The Colts are last in the league in covering punts. The Bills lead the league in punt returns. I'm told Leodis McKelvin hitch-hiked to Indiana so he could be at the stadium early.
So this is an afternoon for the Bills to make a stand and be the team their fans expected back in August. The defense has played a lot better in recent weeks. They're healthier. Kyle Moore has given them another playmaker at right defensive end. The defensive line is finally coming together.
This is it, fellows. Time for the pass rush to be the attacking force that people anticipated when Nix signed Mario Williams to that $100 million contract. Dominate the line of scrimmage, make life miserable for Luck and force him to play like a rookie and make some ill-advised throws.
That shouldn't be a lot to ask. Mario talks as if the injured wrist was the reason he was a no-show early in the season. Fine. I think a lot of it was in his head, but if the wrist is OK, it's time to start earning the money in a big way. Be the best player on the field. Stop showing Luck respect.
The offense needs to have a big day against a suspect Colts defense. Fitz has thrown only three interceptions the last six games. He also has only five TD passes in that stretch. The Bills don't have a pass completion of 30 yards in those six games. They need some big plays today.
Chan Gailey needs to win the battle against an interim head coach, Bruce Arians. C.J. Spiller will be the featured back. Gailey has to find a way to get him the ball 25 times and generate the big plays the Bills have been lacking lately – and that Indy has a habit of surrendering.
Maybe I'm overestimating them. The Bills had to play some pretty sorry football to get to this point. But they have playmakers, and they need to produce a performance that reflects it with the season on the line. Nix said the stakes were higher this year. There are no excuses. This is the sort of game a legitimate playoff contender is supposed to win.
With Luck, the Colts will return to the elite soon enough. If the Bills can't beat them now, what hope will there be in the future? They better get them now, while Luck is still finding his way.
A loss today would extinguish all the enthusiasm that has been building over the last 10 days. A win would make them 5-6, which would resuscitate the hopes of Bills fans. It feels like we've been here many times before. You have to wonder if they're setting you up for the inevitable letdown.
At least it would breathe new life into what looked to be a lost season. It might be false hope, but it's all you've got. The Bills came into this season with a very high standard. You might as well hold them to it.