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Jerry Sullivan: Hard to remember big road wins in December

Rex Ryan started his weekly press conference in the customary fashion, by reading a list of the players who were not expected to practice later Wednesday afternoon. As is often the case at this point in an NFL season, the list was a lengthy one.

"Woods, knee," Ryan began. "Harvin, illness; Alexander, ankle, Clay, knee; Cordy, back; Darby, concussion protocol; Ihedigbo, ankle."

Ryan then rattled off the names of eight other Bills, including Sammy Watkins, Marcell Dareus and Richie Incognito, who would practice on a limited basis. Wasn't this team reasonably healthy a week ago today, a reporter asked. A week earlier, Ryan had said his squad was as healthy as it had been all year. What happened?

"I lied," he said with a chuckle. "No, we'll be OK. You're right, a couple of weeks ago we came back off that bye and felt good. But it's the NFL. Things happen. What did Marv Levy used to say? Depth is great as long as you don't have to use it. You have to use it. Hopefully, we get these guys back soon."

Moments later, when the media gathered in the fieldhouse, senior VP Scott Berchtold had a couple of additions. Watkins had sat out practice because his broken foot felt sore. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor had a sore groin, but worked out fully.

Welcome to December, folks, when the Bills generally turn into The Walking Dead and calamity lurks around every corner. Bad news in the weeks before Christmas is as inevitable as greeting cards from friends and relatives you forgot existed.

This isn't exactly news to fans who have lived through a 16-year playoff drought.December is the month when the Bills' chronic mediocrity comes calling, when regrettable early-season losses leave them on the outer fringes of the playoffs. Of course, they're usually good enough to keep hope alive and string people along.

On Sunday in Oakland, they'll play one of those games that get people thinking this year might be different, a meaningful December game against a contender. The Bills take on an Oakland team that has won five games in a row and has many NFL observers believing the Raiders can make a run to the Super Bowl.

At 6-5, the Bills are still a long shot for the playoffs. But beating the Raiders would legitimize them as a serious playoff contender and breathe new life into their odd, up-and-down season. It also would fire up the home crowd for the upcoming three-game homestand at New Era.

"Oh God yes," said cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. He called it "moving time," like Saturday moving day in a major golf tournament, when you set yourself up to be on the leaderboard for the final quarter, the big Sunday finish.

"This Oakland game here is the corner," he said. "Right when you're about to turn that corner, you have that opponent who's a big challenge in front of you. If we can get past this and get around that curve, oh man, it's going to be dangerous."

I can see the skeptics out there nodding. We've been here many times before, wondering if the Bills can turn the corner in December, only to see them crash.

Two years ago, they stunned Green Bay at home to remain in the race, then lost to a 2-12 Raiders team on the road the following week to fall out of contention. Two weeks earlier, in what I called the biggest road game in a decade, they had lost at Denver in the infamous Kyle Orton "slide" game. A year ago, they were 6-6 heading to Philly and Washington, still technically alive, and lost both.

The history is not encouraging. Do you know how long it has been since the Bills won a road game in December when they were still in playoff contention? TWELVE YEARS. They won back-to-back routs at Cincinnati and San Francisco that year to climb back into the race. Then they choked the finale to the Steelers.

Truly meaningful December road games have been a rare event during the drought. Between 2005 and 2013, they played exactly one road game in December with a winning record. It was at Cleveland in a driving blizzard in 2007. They lost, 8-0. You could barely see it while it was happening live, so maybe you've forgotten.

They're riding a two-game winning streak. The oddsmakers see them as just a three-point underdog in the Black Hole, perhaps because of Oakland's shaky defense. They could validate themselves as contenders with a win against the Raiders, who have won five in a row while averaging 31 points a game.

But five of the Bills' six wins have come against losing teams with a combined record of 14-39-2. The other came against a Patriots team with a third-string quarterback, Jacoby Brissett. None of their wins came against a quarterback ranked in the top half of the NFL's passer ratings. Andy Dalton is the best at 19th.

Despite the presence of Khalil Mack, the Raiders are 29th in the NFL in defense. They're not quite that bad. The numbers are inflated by early-season games against the Falcons and Saints, the league's No. 1 and No. 3 offenses. They allowed an average of 517.5 yards in those two games, including 404 passing.

That tells me Tyrod Taylor will need to be more than a careful game manager on Sunday. The Bills will run the ball, but the Raiders will likely take a page from Jacksonville's book by loading up on the run and daring Taylor to beat them.

"It's not a secret that it's something we do well," LeSean McCoy said of Buffalo's top-ranked rushing atttack. "I'm sure they'll try to find different ways to take the run game out of the picture. I'm sure they'll take some of the same stunts. That's what this league is; it's a copycat league."

Who are they, really? The team that rattled off four wins in a row at one point, or the one that followed it up by losing its next three against more capable opposition? The Bills desperately need a signature win to prove they're more than an average team with an average head coach, same as a year ago.

"I think this is a big one," Ryan said. "I don't think there's any doubt. This team is 9-2, and for good reason. We're flying out West and all that. But this would say a lot about our football team, and we need to win this game. We have no choice. We need to win it and yeah, it would be a major accomplishment."

Thursday, my calendar flips ahead to December, which leaves me predictably dubious.

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