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Jerry Sullivan: It was dreary and deflating, but at least it's a win

CINCINNATI – Rex Ryan was in an uncommonly flat mood after Sunday's game, considering that his team had just won its first game in over a month by gutting out a 16-12 road victory over the Bengals.

"I feel deflated about the injuries," Ryan said. "I know what this team can do. If we're healthy, we are going to be pretty tough."

Of course, no team is truly healthy at this stage of an NFL season, which seems more a war of physical attrition than America's most compelling spectator sport. It's hard to say what is more common nowadays – an injured player lying on the field, or one of those ubiquitous yellow penalty flags.

It was easy to see why many discriminating sports fans are ditching the NFL for more consistently absorbing pastimes like auto racing or mixed martial arts. Maybe Ryan was deflated because he had to suffer through one of the more unwatchable games in recent memory. He couldn't step away to grab a beer or check his emails.

You know it pains me to take away from a heroic Bills victory. They deserve a lot of credit for persevering through injuries to offensive stalwarts Robert Woods and LeSean McCoy, and for making the necessary halftime defensive adjustments to expose Andy Dalton as a fraudulent franchise quarterback.

They're 5-5, and 2-4 in the conference. Their heads are still above water in the AFC wild-card race. They gained ground on the Chiefs, Ravens and Titans, all of whom lost. They have four of the next five at home, starting with next week against the lowly Jaguars. Maybe they can win six in a row, like in '04.

"We knew it was pretty much a must-win," said safety Corey Graham. "Losing wasn't an option. We just had to go out and get it done."

Sure, and I have the option to be uninspired by it all. Maybe I've been through this too many times. You could argue that 16 years without playoffs turns an observer into a cynic. I prefer to call it an informed skepticism, a wariness that comes with inflating false hope too many times.

Yes, they're 5-5. Great. That makes three years in a row. They've been 5-5  or 4-6 in 12 of the last 15 years. Twelve out of 15 years! I'll torture you further by pointing out that Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Chan Gailey and Doug Marrone all delivered 5-5 or 4-6 on one or more occasions.

Have I mentioned that they haven't been over .500 after 10 games since the 2000 season? A year ago, they got to 5-5 in Ryan's rousing return to New York and promptly lost four of their last five, which even woke up Terry Pegula.

So excuse me for not being more cheery about an ugly victory. Garbage pickup day is more artistic. The most compelling moments were two missed extra points by Cincinnati kicker Mike Nugent. If the Bengals had kicked again, they might have sent out right-wing rocker Ted Nugent to kick.

A.J. Green, who was looking to go over 1,000 yards for the sixth straight season, went down with a torn hamstring on the second play of the game. Robert Woods, who had finally been playing like a true No. 2 – and even a No. 1 – wide receiver, went out with a knee injury in the second quarter.

LeSean McCoy left with a thumb injury just before halftime. Predictably, taking three of the teams' most dynamic offensive players out of the game contributed to a dreadfully dull and defense-dominated second half.

The defense got off to a rocky start, allowing the Bengals to convert six of their first eight third downs and put together a couple of 13-play touchdown drives. They had some dumb penalties, including a head-butting personal foul by Jerry Hughes that kept alive Cincinnati's first TD drive.

But led by the ageless Kyle Williams and some timely coaching tweaks, the defense laid down the law in the second half and held the Bengals scoreless. It was a good thing, too, because the offense had one of those second halves where they conspire to keep the other team in the game.

The defense held Cincinnati to four straight three-and-outs over the third and fourth quarters. But Tyrod Taylor was able to tack on just a lone field goal – that after nearly being picked off on a throw to the right flat on third-and-goal from the Bengals' 2 early in the fourth quarter.

Taylor threw an incompletion on a third-and-6 throw for Brandon Tate at the Bengals' 42. He was sacked on third-and-4 from midfield. He missed Percy Harvin on third-and-3 from the Bengals' 39. Colton Schmidt would punt, the defense would torture Dalton, and Bills fans would cover their eyes, fearing the worst.

Maybe I'm being tough on Taylor, but it comes with the territory. He was 19 for 27 for 166 yards, but threw an interception and could have had two more. In the fourth quarter, he was 4 for 8 for 25 yards with a sack. He ran nine times for 39 yards and had some of his typically dazzling escape jobs.

But he looked more like a kid playing on the street than an NFL franchise quarterback. Before the game, I said he was entering must-win territory in his quest for a contract. But this game offered nothing conclusive. At least he didn't put up that fourth-quarter line with the Bills losing.

Sure, Taylor was working with a compromised supporting cast. But he didn't make many big throws – he missed Charles Clay open deep at one point – and continues to vacate the pocket too quickly when he can't find anyone open.

"It wasn't pretty by any means," Taylor said. "But we got a win, and that's all that truly matters at the end of the day."

Any road win is an accomplishment in this league, especially with a roster weakened by injury. The secondary got its act together after a turbulent week. A unit that was leading the NFL in 50-yard passes allowed did not give up a pass of more than 21 yards -- and no more than 16 yards to a wide receiver.

The Rex Ryan blueprint (ground and pound and play great defense) finally prevailed again. The Bills had more yards rushing (183) than passing (159) and held the league's eighth-rated offense 80 yards below its season average.

The Bengals were without Green, one of the top five wideouts in the NFL, but they wouldn't get any sympathy from Bills fans. Speaking of which, Sammy Watkins is eligible to return next week, so maybe the Bills will get their best offensive weapon back for the, uh, stretch run.

They're still alive, which is something. As I've been saying for years, the Bills' best friend is the utter mediocrity of their league that is losing its hold on the viewing public. In a watered-down NFL, it's no great achievement to be on the fringes of the playoff race heading into December.

A win is a win, but nothing about this performance tells me the Bills are capable of a serious playoff run. They're an average team. They're good enough to be 5-5, as they have been for virtually the entire playoff drought. A 5-1 finish strains the imagination.

You have to admit, it's a little deflating.

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