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No playoff vibe to this latest Bills-Chiefs encounter

KANSAS CITY, Mo.− If you want to buy into the hype, today’s game is essentially a playoff game for the Bills. That was the dominant theme in the locker room during the week. Coach Rex Ryan set the tone and his players dutifully fell into line.

“We got to beat these guys because it is a playoff game, basically,” said cornerback Stephon Gilmore. “Our record is the same, so it is a must-win for us.”Maybe I’ve been at this too long. After 15 years without playoffs, your eyes start to glaze over when the players talk about a playoff-like atmosphere and must-win situations. They said it two weeks ago before the Jets game and they’ll say it again next week when the Texans come to town.

You know what feels like the playoffs? The playoffs. Of course, it’s been so long I barely know how it feels. I miss the times when Thurman Thomas got wound up like a top because he was a few days from competing in an actual NFL playoff game.

Sure, today’s game could have serious playoff implications in a conference where nine wins might get you into the dance. The winner gets a leg up in any tiebreakers. But it’s hard to sell two 5-5 teams as some monumental sporting event. It feels like shilling for an increasingly mediocre NFL product.

It’s hard to get up for Kansas City, possibly the most dull, non-descript franchises in the league. This will be the eighth straight year in which the Bills and Chiefs meet in the regular season. They’re the only non-division foes in the league who can make that claim.

Conference teams that aren’t in the same division meet once every three years on a rotating basis. But every year, you get two random games against conference teams that finished in the same spot in the standings the year before.

So this is an accidental rivalry, an annual collision of mediocrities, two teams with similar records of futility over the past decade or so. Over the last 10 years, the Chiefs are 68-92, the Bills 63-97.

The Chiefs made the playoffs three times in that stretch. They lost a wild-card game each time. They haven’t won a playoff game since January, 1994, the week before they lost the AFC title game in Buffalo in Joe Montana’s final game. The Chiefs have gone even longer without a playoff win than the Bills.

The recent “rivalry” hasn’t exactly been filled with great games. Matt Cassel was the Chiefs quarterback for four of them. Do you have a single vivid memory of any of those games?

Of course, Bills fans would rather forget the unfortunate events of the last two years, when the Chiefs got outplayed at the Ralph and managed to win both games in crushing, eerily identical fashion.

Two years ago, the Bills were leading, 10-3, on the opening possession of the third quarter. On third-and-goal from the Chiefs’ 1, Jeff Tuel threw an interception to Sean Smith, who ran 100 yards for a touchdown. The Bills lost, 23-13, despite outgaining the Chiefs by a franchise record 260 yards.

After that loss, I wrote, “Never has a game turned so dramatically on a single, fateful play.” Yeah, not until the next year, when calamity struck once again on an apparent touchdown drive.

Last season, the Bills were again leading, 10-3, on the opening possession of the third quarter. Bryce Brown broke free for an apparent TD run, but fumbled at the Chiefs’ 5-yard line and the ball rolled out of the end zone. KC scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to win, 17-13.

That game is mainly recalled for Brown’s gaffe. But let’s not forget that Leodis McKelvin fumbled away a punt to set up KC’s winning score (and you thought it only happened against the Pats), and Kyle Orton threw four consecutive incompletions from the Chiefs’ 15-yard line inside the final three minutes.

The Bills were 5-3 heading into last year’s KC game here, looking to go 6-3 for the first time in the millennium. I imagine they started calling every conference game a virtual playoff game at that point. You can point to any number of games (Miami, Denver, Oakland) as the singly most damaging.

Rather than investing a Week 11 game with playoff implications, I look at the Bills and ask myself if they look like a team that could make a serious playoff run and even win a game in the postseason.

This Bills team doesn’t fit the bill. Despite Ryan’s posturing, it’s starting to resemble a lot of past pretenders, teams that show promise early in the season but fade late in the year and seem capable of losing to anyone in the league.

A playoff team doesn’t lead the NFL in percentage of three-and-outs; it doesn’t lead the league in penalty yards; it doesn’t rank 29th in passing and 29th in sacks; it doesn’t lose to Jacksonville.

The Bills aren’t likely to beat a Chiefs team that’s one of the hottest in the NFL. This is a very tough spot for a Bills team that is coming off a discouraging loss at the Patriots last Monday and reeling from injuries to some key players. They’re running out of Williamses.

The Chiefs, who are looking to become the first team in 45 years to make the playoffs after a 1-5 start, have won four straight by an aggregate score of 130-39. They haven’t allowed an opponent to score more than 18 points in six straight.

They’re also home again. The Chiefs haven’t played at game in Arrowhead Stadium since Oct. 25, the day the Bills lost to the Jags in London. The Arrowhead fans, among the loudest in the league, will be loaded for bear today. I feel less confident this week than I did before the game in New England.

It would be a big challenge for Tyrod Taylor regardless. But if he’s compromised by a sore right shoulder, it’s hard to see Taylor having much success against a Chiefs defense that limited Philip Rivers to a season-low 178 pass yards last week -- on the road

The Chiefs are ninth in the NFL in rushing, sixth in sacks, third in turnover margin, fifth in fewest penalties. Quarterback Alex Smith has thrown a franchise-record 253 passes without an interception.

They’re the sort of team the Bills claim to be, only better and more emotionally grounded. You didn’t hear Andy Reid and his Chiefs players making this out to be some virtual playoff game.

Of course, it’s hard to know what a playoff game feels like when, like most of the Bills, you’ve never actually been in one.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com