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Bills in the hunt, but remain puzzling

Richie Incognito was shaking his head while searching for answers after the win Sunday over the Texans. The Bills’ 6-6 record revealed a mediocre team in a balanced league. Even their head coach wasn’t sure what to expect. Rex Ryan was criticized for saying as much last week, but he was right.

The Bills could win their remaining games.

And they could lose their remaining games.

Buffalo has had problems finding its emotional center all season, so it was important after scoring a late touchdown in a thrilling victory over a streaking Houston team for someone to become a rational voice of reason. In a strange twist in yet another strange season, it was Incognito who struck the right chord.

“We make plays, we put up points and we get into lulls,” Incognito said. “I don’t know what it is. Three and outs, stuff like that. Me and Eric Wood and the leaders on this team have talked about it at length. We can’t put our finger on it right now. If we could figure out what that was, we’d be a hell of a ball club.”

Good luck making sense of this team.

Buffalo has the fourth-best rushing attack in the NFL, lending credence to Ryan’s ground-and-pound philosophy, but stats can be broken down numerous ways.

The Bills are 6-0 when Tyrod Taylor throws fewer than 30 times, but they’re 0-6 when he gains more than 5 yards per carry. They’re 3-0 when LeSean McCoy rushes for more than 100 yards and 3-5 when he has at least 68 yards rushing. They’re 4-1 when Sammy Watkins has three catches or fewer.

Buffalo has scored 44 points – just more than a field goal per game – in the third quarter all season. They’re 4-1 when scoring seven points or more in the third. They were 1-5 when scoreless in the third before coming through in the fourth quarter against Houston. They scored six points in the third against Kansas City, a loss.

The Bills played well enough to win Sunday, as they did in losses to the Patriots two weeks ago and the first half against Kansas City. But they also played poorly enough to lose, as they did in the win over Tennessee. Single plays against the Titans and Texans decided the outcomes of both games and altered the discussion afterward.

Twelve games into the season, the Bills remain inconsistent. They can thank opponents that are equally mediocre for failing to land the knockout punch. With four games remaining, the Bills are confusing yet still standing.

The message racing across Bills Nation after Taylor hit Charles Clay for a late touchdown Sunday suggested Buffalo found a way to win. It was true, as the scoreboard showed in that game. But let’s also acknowledge the Texans found a way to lose. It was a fluke breakdown at an inopportune time.

“When you let a team like that hang around,” Incognito said, “it’s a real crappy feeling in the fourth quarter when they’re still there and you haven’t put them away. We need a long drive to put it in the end zone and put up points, a field goal – something that will kick them when they’re down.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say the Texans’ secondary covered Clay, the Bills didn’t score in the fourth quarter and the Texans won. The Bills would have fallen to 5-7, been two games behind the Jets, Chiefs and Steelers and a game behind the Texans in the wild-card race with four games remaining.

The rhetoric this week would have been about the Bills missing the postseason for a 16th straight season. The Eagles this week would have been viewed as a daunting challenge after they beat the Patriots. Ryan would have been reminded of his sub-.500 record as a head coach.

All that based on one play?


It comes down to perception.

The reality is this: One way or another, the Bills remain in playoff contention with four weeks remaining. Buffalo has beaten only one team, the Jets at 7-5, that currently has a winning record. The Jets also are their only remaining opponent with a winning record. Philly, Dallas and Washington are a combined 14-22.

Breaking the season into four-game segments, the Bills are 2-2 through the first three quarters of the season. They have been a fourth-quarter team all season, scoring 94 points, or nearly eight points per game, in the final period. Perhaps they can find their groove in the final four games of the regular season.

Wait, in four games in which they scored more than eight points in the final 15 minutes, they lost two. They scored 19 points in the fourth against the Patriots in Week Two and 18 points in the last quarter against Jacksonville. In both games, they were trailing by 17 points or more becoming mounting a comeback.

Buffalo is desperate to snap its 15-year postseason drought. I’ve been down this road too many times to believe this season will end differently than the others. It’s easier to envision the Bills beating lesser teams in the next three weeks, moving the hope meter, and losing a win-and-in game to the Jets in the finale at home.

Now that makes sense.