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Faithful cling to trickle of hope

It has been said many times that Rex Ryan has never lost a press conference. But on my scorecard, the guy’s unbeaten streak came to an end this past Wednesday.

Ryan’s media session was short, snide and defensive. He started by saying it was the time of year when people began pointing fingers. Rex said his critics were “looking for anything” and wondered aloud if “everybody is on board or not.”

Who knows what he intended by that last comment? First of all, Ryan is smart enough to know that it’s not the media’s job to be “on board.” And is it jumping ship to point out that a defense he promised would lead the league is 20th in the NFL, and 30th in the league in sacks per pass attempt?

Maybe Ryan realizes how unpopular he is right now with much of the fan base. He never mentioned the home crowd, which is odd when you consider that the Bills have been on the road for three weeks and could use a nice boost from the fans today at the Ralph, where they’re 2-3 on the year.

Earlier in the week, Rex said the Bills could lose their five remaining games. It was an offhand remark − he also said they could win out − but it seemed out of character for a man who makes outrageous guarantees and is famous for never losing heart.

I wonder if he’s getting discouraged by his team, and a little embarrassed by his underachieving defense. Ryan made sure to remind us that none of his defenses (going back to his days as the Ravens’ coordinator) had ever finished lower than 11th in the league stats. Funny, but you never hear Bill Belichick, or any other coach, referring to “his” personal statistics.

Ryan is starting to remind me of Tom Donahoe, who was going to show the rubes in Buffalo what winning football really looked like. Like the ex-GM, Rex is finding that, if anything, people in this town are smart and demanding.

We’ve come a long way from the opener, when Rex pleaded with the fans to come out and make life miserable for the opposition. He loved it that people stood for the whole game. Now the big issue is that people are standing for no good reason at the Ralph. Why stand at this point?

Ryan is touchy about criticism, but some of the most pointed criticism is coming from his own players. Asked about the low sack numbers, Jerry Hughes said it’s because they’re unfamiliar with Ryan’s defensive system.

Mario Williams followed up on Friday, reiterating his comments from after the Bengals game seven weeks ago. Williams said “We’re still doing the same thing” and called his role “totally foreign.”

Four years ago, Ryan wrote a book called “Play Like You Mean It.” In it, he wrote, “We have a great scheme, a great system. It’s proven. You look at the defense and it’s proven, year in and year out.”

He also wrote, “Football is an easy game made complicated by coaches.” That seemed like the more fitting characterization of Ryan’s first year with the Bills after last week’s loss in Kansas City.

Their problems might have gone deeper against the Chiefs. Sammy Watkins talked about a “lack of urgency” in the second half in the immediate aftermath of the loss. On Wednesday, he suggested that the team had become discouraged when things got rough in the second half.

That’s a troubling accusation. I’ve seen too many Bills teams get demoralized when things began to turn against them in road games. It’s often the defense that gets trampled as the opposition gathers momentum, which appeared to be the case against the Chiefs.

But for all the despair, the Bills are still only one game out of a wild-card spot in the AFC. They’re still very much alive with five games to play. Of course, you’re rarely out of it after 11 games in a league where two-thirds of the teams are fatally flawed and relatively equal.

You have to be really bad to be out of it at this point in the season. I saw a list of NFC wild-card contenders on ESPN and the Lions were still on the board at 4-8 after that crushing Hail Mary loss to the Packers.

When you’re average, every game seems vital. The Bills players have been telling us it’s a “must-win” ever since the Jacksonville game. But if the Jags and Chiefs game were must-win games, how come they’re still alive after losing them?

Well, today’s game with Houston is another critical clash of mediocrities, because it’s against a conference foe in direct competition for a possible wild-card berth.

Houston is a game up on the Bills at 6-5, but if the Bills win they’ll have the tiebreaker. The Texans still have to play the Patriots and at the Colts. I don’t see them finishing better than 8-8 if they lose today at the Ralph.

So a win would put the Bills in decent shape heading into the last quarter of the season. If they go 2-1 in their three-week run against NFC opponents and beat the Jets to finish 9-7 (and 7-5 in the conference), there’s a good chance they’ll get in the playoffs.

You can figure the Chiefs, who have a fairly easy schedule the rest of the way, get one wild card. I don’t see the Raiders doing better than 8-8. The Steelers are 6-5, but only 3-4 in the AFC. All five of their remaining games are against AFC teams. So if they went 3-2 and finished 9-7, they’d lose a tiebreaker to the Bills in our scenario on conference record.

So all isn’t lost. Somehow, I’m lacking in enthusiasm. I’ve been through this before: I recall mapping out the road to the playoffs when Dick Jauron was 5-6 his first two years in Buffalo; when Gregg Williams was 5-6 in 2002; when Mike Mularkey was 5-6 his first year; and when Chan Gailey was 5-6 in 2011.

Last year, there was a surge of optimism when Doug Marrone got the Bills to 6-5 with a rousing win over Ryan’s Jets in Detroit, in the aftermath of the November snowstorm.

They should win today. They’re at home and Brian Hoyer is the quarterback for the Texans − the same Hoyer who started for the Browns here last season and got embarrassed by the Bills’ defense and knocked out of the game, clearing the way for Johnny Manziel.

A victory would propel them into the final quarter of the season, heading into the next must-win game at Philadelphia. No doubt, Rex would be talking tough and inviting all the non-believers to hop aboard that 6-6 train.