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Ryan has much riding on final two games

The holidays are a great time for catching up with people, some of whom you haven’t spoken with in a year. Invariably, I get everyone’s take on the local NFL team. Friends, family, even total strangers at the gas station feel compelled to weigh in with their opinions.

Let me tell you, it’s not good out there right now. It’s downright ugly. Virtually everywhere I turn, people say they can’t remember feeling this angry about the Bills. There are two basic types of fans: The people who feel duped by Rex Ryan, and the ones who tell you they didn’t want him in the first place.

Less than one year since his hiring, Ryan has gone from a civic hero to the NFL version of The Music Man, a con man who oversold his credentials. In just 16 games, Ryan might inspire the kind of loathing it took Darcy Regier 16 years to engender in this town.

It will be interesting to see how it affects the crowd at the Ralph this afternoon. The Bills set a record for season tickets this year, largely on Ryan’s bold promises. How many fans will bother to show up two days after Christmas, possibly in the rain, to watch a game without playoff consequences for either the Cowboys or Bills?

Six weeks ago, when the Bills beat the Jets on Thursday night to reach 5-4, this closing stretch seemed to have dramatic possibilities. Imagine if two castoff Bills quarterbacks, Matt Cassel and Ryan Fitzpatrick, came to the Ralph in consecutive weeks with a chance to scuttle Buffalo’s playoff hopes?

What do fans show up for now? For Kellen Moore’s first NFL start? Does Ryan expect the fans to stand all day in support of the latest heroic run to 8-8? Would winning the last two games give the Bills that special “something to build on,” like last year’s victory in New England before Doug Marrone took the $4 million and ran?

But I’m beginning to think today’s game is far from meaningless. When you consider the swirling ill will towards Rex in the community, plus the dissent within his own locker room, you wonder if Ryan could survive an embarrassing two-game finish and a 6-10 record.

Ryan might well be coaching for his job in the next two weeks. It’s hard to read Terry and Kim Pegula, who tend to be guarded about their opinions and have demonstrated an unwillingness to make harsh, impulsive judgments about their employees.

There’s a feeling among people close to the operation that the Pegulas will give Ryan (and Doug Whaley) another year to prove themselves. They’ll allow the coaches and GM to use injuries and unfamiliarity as excuses and blow things up if they fail again in 2016.

But it’s hard to say how the Pegulas will react if the Bills don’t show up for the last two games. Each game has huge ramifications in the NFL. Imagine how it will play if Fitz and the Jets, who got better after firing Ryan, make the playoffs at Buffalo’s expense in the final week of the season.

The current situation is embarrassment enough for Team Pegula. But two weeks from now, the level of humiliation could be through the roof. When they bought an NFL team, they got a chance to play at the biggest table in American sports.

I seriously doubt they would appreciate becoming the joke of the NFL, the league laughingstock.

It’ll be bad for Ryan if the Bills play the way they did at Washington. I’d say Rex’s defense ran for the bus, except they never got off the bus in the first place. It was an utter indictment of the head coach, punctuated by Mario Williams’ criticisms afterwards.

The Bills have lots of injuries, it’s true. But you have to wonder if some of the players are tired of putting their bodies on the line for a coach whose methods aren’t working and who accused his defensive backs of playing soft last week in Washington.

How the Bills look will be more important than whether they win. If they care so much about Ryan, the great players’ coach, it should be evident on the field the next two weeks. But if the players go through the motions and lose, there could be trouble in River City.

The prevailing notion (one that I believed) was that the Pegulas couldn’t fire Ryan with four years and $22 million left on his contract. But humiliation has a price, and we’re talking about a man who once joked he’d drill an oil well if he needed more money.

The Pegulas have been speaking to outsiders about the state of their football team. They have to be wondering if they bought into a coach who was more myth than reality, and whose coaching methods have become rapidly antiquated in an ever-evolving sport.

Too many times in recent years, the Bills have tried to borrow on other team’s past successes, bringing in presumed saviors who are approaching their expiration dates. They did it with Tom Donahoe, Drew Bledsoe, Terrell Owens and, to some extent, Mario Williams.

They can give Ryan one more year and hope that Ryan’s system succeeds with an infusion of new players. But the Bills have strapped themselves financially by paying so much guaranteed money to win in Ryan’s first year. What kind of players can they find, and at what price?

Ryan recently admitted the NFL game was changing and said he would “try to get better” to meet the evolving challenges that his defense confronts on a week-to-week basis.

Pegula is probably inclined to give Rex another year to get it right. But I’ve learned through the years that a week in the NFL can be an eternity. Circumstances can change dramatically based on a game or two, and the rising passions of a discerning fan base.

The owner was concerned enough about his underachieving team to seek the advice of a consultant. Pegula is losing faith in his football operation. Who’s to say that dual embarrassments before diminished home crowds couldn’t put him over the edge?

Ryan’s future will surely be on the line next season, if he’s still here. But the way I see it, Rex starts to face the music today.