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Jerry Sullivan: Bad back and all, Kyle Williams shows up for his team

Nearly an hour after Sunday's game, there was still a palpable emotion in Kyle Williams's voice. Not because of the Bills' win over the Browns. He was still upset about the loss to the Steelers the week before.

"You're lucky to get 16 opportunities to play," said Williams. "How many chances do you get late in a season to play a good team when you're on the verge? To have some freak thing happen where you can't do it? Yeah, it hurts. It hurts my feelings. It just hurts me."

Williams, who missed 10 games a year ago with a bad knee, hadn't missed one this season until Pittsburgh. But a back injury took him off the field. He sat in the locker room, helpless as Le'Veon Bell shredded the defense for 236 rushing yards, knowing he could have made a difference.

His back had been so painful before the Steelers game he'd had to go to the hospital. But no way was he missing the Cleveland game.  It didn't matter that the Bills' playoff chances were smaller than a despot's heart, or if he had to lie on his back on a hard surface all weekend. His teammates needed him.

"It took my teammates wanting me to play," Williams said. "That's all it ever takes. It's understood. They don't have to tell me, and I don't have to tell them that I want to be out there playing with them."

His play was statement enough. Despite the ailing back, Williams played with his typical skill and passions, clogging the middle against the run and causing havoc in the backfield.

Williams finished with a sack and a half, putting him over 40 sacks for his Bills career, seventh on the all-time list. Fittingly, he shared a sack with his fellow family man and pal, Lorenzo Alexander, who also had 1.5.

"He's a warrior," said Alexander. "Everybody knows that. Consummate pro, a leader in this locker room. I know it killed him last week not to be able to play. You know he's going to give his all and play through pain. He probably shouldn't have been out there, but that's the type of guy he is.

"He wants to lay it on the line for the team."

That's always been evident with Williams, a former fifth-round pick who has played 11 seasons in Buffalo. He didn't have the classic size for a tackle coming out of LSU. What the combine couldn't measure was his colossal heart and desire.

Williams has taken a beating over his career. Many times, I've waited for him to emerge after a loss, his body beaten and bruised, a limb wrapped in bandages. He used to joke that late in a season, every part of his body was injured in some fashion.

I wondered if he would be the same at 33, coming off the knee injury. But Williams worked to get himself back into top shape and has been one of the bright spots on a defense that has fallen apart on numerous occasions this season.

So in the aftermath of a victory over the winless Browns, there was a certain emptiness, mixed with admiration for a pro who has given his all for 11 seasons and never made the playoffs.

You felt similar regret for tailback LeSean McCoy, who was disappointed by his inaugural season in Buffalo and determined to prove he was worth the $40 million contract the Bills gave him to come here in 2015.

McCoy had another brilliant day, rushing 19 times for 153 yards, his high as a Bill. He has 1,129 yards on the season. His 5.4-yard average per carry is the highest in the NFL among backs with 100 carries.

"Those two are having phenomenal years," said embattled coach Rex Ryan. "They're great players. I want the playoffs for a player like Kyle. But there's other guys who give every single thing they have that you want it for."

Again, it was a hollow triumph after defensive meltdowns against Oakland and Pittsburgh. Maybe if more players had given their all against the Steelers, it would have made a difference.

Williams said he would never judge a teammate, but I suspect that his lingering dismay over the Steelers game was knowing that all his defensive teammates hadn't put it all on the line that day.

Any win is nice, but how satisfying can it be to knock off a winless team? The Bills are 7-7, technically alive for the playoffs. But that always seems to be the case in the week before Christmas, as NFL parity keeps foolish hope alive.

It only prolongs the agony. They're 7-7, after being 6-6, 5-5, 4-4 and 2-2.  There's a maddening sameness to it. Maybe it would be better to put fans out of their misery.

The axe hanging over Ryan only makes it worse. After three years of meandering doubt, who can say with any certainty that the Pegulas will fire Rex, or even blow up the whole operation?

Judging from the crowd, a lot of fans aren't buying. People aren't fooled by another win over an inferior foe. Ryan is 15-15, and not one of those wins came against a team with a quarterback rated in the top half of the league.

How many proud performances have been wasted during the 16-plus years of the drought? Williams still talks with former teammates who played their entire careers in Buffalo and never saw a playoff game – guys like Aaron Schobel, Terrence McGee and Chris Kelsay.

It's a roll call of regret. I felt for Takeo Spikes, who played 219 games and never made the playoffs. I was happy for Fred Jackson when he finally got there with the Seahawks last season.

Williams has played 149 games in a Bills uniform. It's doubtful he'll ever get to the postseason. But he doesn't ask for anyone's sympathy. He said he never wonders what might have been. The people he feels for are the fans.

He was in visible discomfort as he spoke at his locker. You could tell he was in pain. Just speaking seemed a chore for him, perhaps because the pain in his back was returning. I asked how it felt.

"It's awesome," he joked. "Thanks for asking."

Someone asked how it would feel after the adrenaline wore off and he said, "I'll tell you tomorrow."

It's always about tomorrow with Kyle. Few NFL players have more reason to lament the past, but he soldiers on. You don't last this long in the NFL as a fifth-round pick without a gift for perseverance, for enduring hardship, hurt and disappointment.

Someone asked him, after more than 16 years, how frustrating does it become? And when will the Bills finally get it right?

"It's frustrating," he said, "because you put in a huge amount of work. You go out and put your body on the line. You play hard. You sacrifice a lot to be here and give it your all. When does it happen? I don't know.

"Here's what I know: When I wake up in the morning, whether it's in December or March, I work my (butt) off to win. If you start feeling sorry for yourself because you think you deserve something, the NFL and the world will tell you, 'You know what? You really don't'."

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