MIAMI -- I was speaking with a young family friend the other day. Sarah, no great fan of Rex Ryan, said she was mildly encouraged by the way the team had come together of late, especially on defense, and was surprised by the optimistic tone of my recent columns.
"Really, though," she said, "I'm looking at the end of the season and guessing which heartbreaking loss will end our playoff hopes."
That's what you get from a seasoned, skeptical Bills fan, one whose heart has been broken too often. Even in the happier times, there's a haunting memory whispering in the back of your mind, reminding you how many promising seasons have come undone in the past.
Awhile back, I said I would no longer talk about "must-win" games unless the Bills actually had to win to stay alive. Every game has urgency in the NFL, where no team is ever as good or bad as it appears, and any loss along the way can be fatal.
So I'll modify the cliche and talk about "games you shouldn't lose." Those are the ones that haunt Bills fans, those bad losses that stick in your mind, like investments or relationships gone awry, torturing you with the thought of what might have been.
Who can forget the loss in Oakland two years ago, just one week after a glorious home win over the Packers? How about last year's loss to the Jaguars in London? Or if you want to go back a dozen years in the playoff drought, you could point to the last-second loss to those Jags on opening day in 2004, after Nate "Playmaker" Clements didn't bat down the pass on fourth down.
A couple of current Bills mentioned Kansas City to me. That could apply to a number of losses. They've suffered crushing losses to the Chiefs the last three seasons, including the road debacle last year when Rex Ryan blew five possible challenges.
As any Bills fan knows, you have to avoid those "shouldn't have" losses to navigate the bumpy road to the postseason.
"Yep. I was looking at it like that last week, with San Francisco," said defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman. "A 1-4 team coming in, already dead, can't give them no life, and that's where we left them. No life. Maybe somebody else, but not on us. I felt that was one of those games we're supposed to win."
So Miami shouldn't be a problem?
"No," he said. "Miami we should have a good game if we listen to the coaches, hone in to the game plan, stay focused and pay attention to details. We should be fine."
There's that word again. "Should." Sunday's game has been perceived as one where the Bills should take care of business. They're riding their first four-game winning streak in eight years, winning those four by an average of 18 points. They lead the NFL in rushing and point differential. They're 12th in total defenses and second in sacks.
A week ago, the Dolphins were one of those 1-4 teams, dead fish in the water. But they stunned the Steelers, 30-15, getting 204 yards rushing from Jay Ajayi -- whose career high was 48 to that point. They held Ben Roethlisberger to his first sub-200 yard passing day in more than a year and left him with a serious knee injury in the process.
Then came word that LeSean McCoy had tweaked his hamstring in Wednesday's practice. McCoy is questionable for Sunday. So is Robert Woods, the team's nominal top receiver with Sammy Watkins out. So suddenly, the notion that the Bills will sweep aside Miami on their path to next week's showdown with the Pats at New Era seems very tenuous.
Have I mentioned that the Bills have traveled to Miami with a winning record four times during the playoff drought and lost every time? By an average of 15 points?
This year's Bills have a resilient quality to them. They're a bunch of hungry, underestimated guys who feel they have something to prove. They're humble and grounded enough to buy into Ryan's classic coaching maxim of taking one game at a time and not looking past any opponent.
"You know, I never thought of it that way, but it makes sense," Ryan said. "To me, it's embarrassment that we lost those first two games. We don't want to let each other down, and that's another reason. We know we have a tough job in front of us this week. Those four wins mean nothing."
Well, there is the momentum factor. The Bills are so confident right now, they believe they can beat anyone. They're winning without Marcell Dareus, without Watkins, with Mario Williams gone. Next man up. If McCoy is out Sunday, they figure they'll get by with Mike Gillislee against a Mario-inspired 31st-ranked run D.
At some point, reality tends to intrude. Yes, they averaged more than 200 yards a game rushing against the Dolphins in two meetings last season. Karlos Williams had 100 yards off the bench in both. But if McCoy doesn't play, they could be in big trouble.
It's one thing to shine in a backup role, quite another to do it as the featured back. Remember, when Gillislee got his chance with McCoy out in last year's finale against the Jets, he had 28 yards on 24 carries. In the loss to the Giants, Karlos Williams started and rushed 18 times for 40 yards.
So unless the defense has a field day against Ryan Tannehill -- always a distinct possibility -- this could be one of those days when the Bills need Tyrod Taylor to rise above a crisis and pull out a tough road win, like a true franchise quarterback.
The old school Ryan formula has worked splendidly during the streak. Run the ball, play great defense and special teams (which I suspect will be critical today) and be efficient in the passing game. It works fine when you're playing with the lead. The Bills have led for the last 40 minutes of every game during the win streak.
Maybe this will be another day when Taylor merely needs to be "efficient" and "effective." But at some point, Taylor has to do more if he expects to justify a five-year, $90 million contract extension. There are times when you need your quarterback to be more than an efficient game manager who doesn't turn the ball over, particularly on the road.
Is it too much to ask him to be great now and then?
The formula can work with a running quarterback. The Seahawks and Panthers got to Super Bowls with a power running game, a mobile QB and a strong defense. The difference is, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have been able to come from behind with the pass.
Newton threw 40 or more times for 300-plus yards and five touchdowns in consecutive road wins late last season, driving Carolina to the winning score on the final possession in both. Seattle won its last three road games to slip into the playoffs last year, scoring at least 35 points in each as Wilson tossed a combined 11 TDs passes in those wins.
The Bills could win a fifth straight Sunday for the first time since 2004. It could be a game that helps validate them as a playoff contender and Taylor as a franchise QB. Or it could be another of those "should have" games for the archive of regret.