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Playoff hopes are alive, but don't get too excited

Let me apologize in advance. If you were expecting me to gush about the Bills as a legitimate playoff contender, you came to the wrong place.

Yes, they won their second straight game by double digits here Sunday, scoring all their points in the final 23 minutes of a 26-10 waxing of the Browns. They’re 7-5 after 12 games for the first time since the 2000 season.

The Browns are also 7-5. So are the Ravens and Steelers, who both lost at home, which shows you that no team is as good or bad as it appears to be in the muddle of mediocrity that is the NFL. I haven’t seen the latest computer data, but I’m sure their mathematical chances are higher today.

So if you want to jump up and down, go right ahead. You’ve suffered all these years. You deserve it. For the first time in 14 years, we’ll enter the final quarter of the season with the Bills over .500 and playing truly meaningful games in December.

I’m glad, too, because the games against Denver and Green Bay actually mean something. It’s a better story if the Bills’ defense, which is making a case as the best in the league, goes against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers with a fighting chance at the postseason.

Still, the team I saw at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sunday didn’t look like a playoff team. Resourceful, yes. Resilient, certainly. The possessor of a proud defense that can make life difficult for any quarterback who doesn’t qualify as elite? Sure.

They’re still not good enough. A playoff team doesn’t get shut out in the first half at home. Really, how seriously can you take a team that hasn’t played a complete game in its home stadium in almost three months?

Aaron Williams says the players are holding each other to a high standard. That’s a noble idea, one that’s clearly driving the members of a defense that leads the NFL in sacks and is fourth in points allowed.

Evidently, Doug Marrone holds his team to a higher standard, too. You have to admire that. He’ll stand there after a win and make it clear that he wants more. Marrone reminded us that he’s not one to get carried away by an ugly win, as he did after the Vikings game.

The first question to Marrone was about his defense. Rather than launch into a glowing oration about his D, he opened with an overall critique.

“All three phases, we didn’t play well in the first half, no doubt about that,” Marrone said.

Marrone went on to praise his defense, which ripped the game away from the Browns after Kyle Orton threw his second interception on the third play of the second half.

Kyle Williams, who so often makes the play that arouses the home crowd, sacked Brian Hoyer on a third down to take the Browns out of field-goal range. That seemed to awaken the Bills fans, who had waited three weeks for a real home game but seemed tranquilized by the 3-0 first half.

Really, who wasn’t reminded of the 6-3 Browns win here in 2009, which has become the standard against which all ugly games are measured? At 3-0, I would have put EJ Manuel on the field and resumed the process of determining if he has any future as a franchise quarterback.

That wasn’t going to happen, not as long as Orton “gives them the best chance to win.” But it’s hard to imagine Orton and that offense taking the Bills anywhere if they play the way they did in the first half.

“Very disappointed,” Marrone said of the offense’s first-half dud. “And they were disappointed in each other, too. We were all disappointed. We were 0 for 6 on third down, and that’s not good enough. We understand that. We’ve got to do a better job, starting with me on down to the coaches and players.

“We can’t afford to do that. We’ve got a lot of work to do. Even though it’s late in the season, we’re going to continue to work on it and get better.”

They can’t afford to lay an egg for 30 minutes in Denver, or against the Packers or Pats. They’d probably lose in Oakland playing that way.

The standard gets a lot higher in the next month, and Marrone knows it.

They must get better in the final quarter of the season. They went 2-2 in the third quarter, which was a letdown after they went 3-1 in the second quarter and reached 5-3 at the midpoint.

You know who needs to get better down the stretch? Orton. Over the last four games, he has averaged 5.68 yards a pass attempt, which would rank 32nd in the NFL. The main reason is he’s not getting the ball to Sammy Watkins, who did not have a catch of 20 yards in November.

That’s right. Over the critical third quarter of the season, when the Bills needed Orton to sustain his chemistry with the star rookie, Watkins had 13 catches for 105 yards over four games, an average of 26 yards a contest.

Joe Haden shadowed Watkins for much of the game. Twice, Orton tried to get Watkins out of his slump and forced the ball his way. Twice, it was intercepted. Watkins had three catches for 11 yards.

“He was targeted nine times and he had three catches,” Marrone said. “We could go back and maybe find a poor throw, maybe behind him or something like that. What do you want me to tell you? We won the game.”

Marrone said he doesn’t care what the individual stats are in a win. But if we’re talking about a higher standard, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room – that the Bills traded away next year’s No. 1 draft pick to those same Browns to move up for Watkins in the draft.

They made that deal to help Manuel and to win now, to save people’s jobs. It looks bad when Manuel loses his job and his journeyman replacement can’t get the ball to Watkins in the crucial third quarter of the season.

The Bills set a team record for field goals in a quarter when Dan Carpenter kicked four in the fourth. It’s a dubious achievement. Marrone knows the offense has to do better. Field goals don’t usually get it done against Peyton Manning.

“Let’s not fool ourselves here,” Marrone said. “We’ve got to finish. It’s the same thing. It’s the red zone. We’ve got to finish these drives.”

Not to rain on the parade, but that’s the theme of this game: Let’s not fool ourselves. The Bills are 7-5. It beats the alternative. But we’re heading into the harrowing final month of the season. If you think they’ll emerge as a playoff team, good luck to you.

There’s a bigger picture here. The Bills won. They have the tiebreaker over the Browns. But Cleveland has likely moved on from its own journeyman quarterback and is ready to find out about their future hope, Johnny Manziel. The Browns also have the Bills’ first-round draft pick.

The Bills are still alive, and they continue to believe Orton is their best chance to win, at least for now. You decide which franchise is ahead of the game, which one has the more sensible plan.


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