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Winning isn’t everything now

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – I know the Bills aren’t supposed to run for the bus Sunday. They’ll try to convince themselves the season finale is as meaningful as any other game, even though they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention and the Pats have clinched home field through the AFC playoffs.

I admire any player who truly believes that pride alone can carry you through an NFL game. But it’s no “Big Game” Sunday for me. Sure, I’ll be in the press box, going through the motions. But I’m already on the bus with my lunch box, map and reading material. I’m gazing out the window, watching the 2014 season go by, like cornfields fading into the distance.

After 15 years, it’s hard for a seasoned skeptic to attach any real significance to a Bills finale when they’ve been eliminated from the playoffs. I understand if fans feel that winning for the first time in Gillette Stadium and finishing over .500 for the first time in 10 years would represent progress. I don’t buy it.

Coach Doug Marrone clearly believes it matters. Team president Russ Brandon seemed insulted on his radio show when asked if Marrone’s job status was still an issue after the Packers win. But until we hear from new owner Terry Pegula, it’s impossible to say whose job is safe with the new owner.

“We need to play extremely well,” Marrone said Wednesday. “We need to play our best game with our best players. We need to get this bad taste out of our mouth when the season ends.”

When Marrone refers to playing his “best players,” he is mainly talking about his decision to stick with Kyle Orton at quarterback, rather than give EJ Manuel a chance to start before the end of his second season as the team’s presumed franchise guy.

Marrone believes he owes it to his players to try to win and finish with the best possible record. Maybe he feels a 9-7 record would ensure his continued employment. But would Pegula base such a vital decision on the results of a single, meaningless football game? It would be a flimsy way to run an NFL team.

It’s also hard to imagine the bad taste of that Oakland loss going away any time soon. We’ll look back on that years from now, the way we do the season-ending loss to the Steelers here 10 years ago. I doubt anyone will point back to today’s game as some kind of franchise turning point, regardless of the outcome.

But the players insist it matters. Kyle Williams bristled when I suggested after the Oakland loss that it might be hard to get up for the finale, now that their playoff hopes were gone for the 15th year in a row.

“Well, if my eyes are open and I put that Buffalo Bill decal on my helmet, I’ll be ready to play,” Williams said. “I’ll be ready to go, and as an older guy and captain of the team, it’s my job to make sure we’re all ready to go.”

C.J. Spiller said it wouldn’t be difficult to find motivation after being eliminated.

“Nah,” Spiller said. “You’re a professional. A professional. It’s what you’re paid to do. You can’t change it. If any guys want to quit or don’t want to play on Sunday, we’ll leave them behind. But we don’t have any of those guys in this locker room.”

The players dutifully mouthed the company line. The game matters and they’re not lacking for motivation. What else would you expect? But history shows that it’s not easy to stay motivated for an entire season finale when you’ve been eliminated, especially on the road.

Going back to the 2001 season, the Bills are 0-8 in season finales played outside the Ralph. The average score: 31-12. Three of those games were played in New England. They lost all three by an aggregate score of 114-41.

Maybe this year is different. Maybe the prospect of finishing over .500 and winning in New England for the first time since Bill Clinton was president will turn the Bills into a frothing, motivated gang of maulers this afternoon.

And since this is a time of modest expectations in Buffalo pro sports, how about this for an incentive: By winning, the Bills will finish within three games of New England in the AFC East for the first time in 12 years.

It’s hard to fathom, but the Patriots have finished at least four games ahead of the Bills in the division for 11 straight seasons. The Bills have been last six years in a row. But if they win and Miami loses today, they’ll finish alone in second in the division!

A winning record. Second place. Only three games behind the Pats. A win in Gillette. It’s almost enough for me to order the bus driver to pull over and let me out, so I can run back to see if the Bills can pull off a heroic run to second place in the AFC East.

Sorry to be a skeptic, but beating the Pats in a meaningless game wouldn’t mean much at all in the long run. I’ve written all that tripe about season finales revealing a team’s character and being something to build on for the future.

It’s a bunch of hollow talk. One season doesn’t carry over into the next. Winning the last game doesn’t indicate real progress. You know what would be a sign of progress for the Bills? Actually making the playoffs. Ask the Patriots if nine wins is cause for encouragement. They haven’t won fewer than 10 since ’02.

The Bills have made strides this season. But winning today won’t make it any easier for them to find a real quarterback. It won’t fix their running game, or help them re-sign Jerry Hughes, or return their first-round pick from the Browns (though it will make it a lower pick, which will make some people in management happy).

If you want to take pride and comfort in a Bills win, so be it. A true fan soldiers on in the face of relentless disappointment and withering regret. Buffalo fans have had plenty of practice.

I’m sure most fans would revel in a win over the Pats. But have you considered how it would feel to beat Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady in a three-week stretch, but lose to a 2-12 Raiders team in the middle with the playoffs at stake? Looking back on it 10 years from now, would you feel pride or regret?

If I were emotionally invested in this team, today’s game wouldn’t mean a damn thing. Because winning can leave a bitter taste, too.


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