Technically, there's a big game at New Era on Sunday. The Bills are 6-6, still in the playoff hunt, as coach Sean McDermott likes to remind us. They're only a game out of the second wild-card spot with four games remaining in December.
The rallying cry in the locker room this week was they needed to win out, though they'll be technically alive if they lose. So you would expect a certain urgency among the fans, the sense of a community rising up for a cold December stand.
Instead, I sensed nothing but a familiar pall of resignation. "Technically" doesn't do it for realistic Bills fans, not after 17-plus years of harboring faint, flimsy playoff hopes that soon evaporate during the season's final quarter.
After a while, it becomes a kind of emotional torture, the drip-drip-drip of dreary December games in the slow process of playoff elimination.
There was zero buzz about the Indy game during the week. The Colts are 3-9, a bad team playing out the string. The Bills generally win these games and delay the inevitable. A loss to one of the worst teams in the NFL would be an embarrassment. Either way, a lot of fans would rather go Christmas shopping or watch golf.
Sorry, it's over. That's why you could get a ticket for $4 on the secondary market, or the price of a good craft beer at the local tavern. So rather than trot out the usual cliches about winning the turnover battle and establishing the run, I'll revisit other dreary December games when they were clinging to playoff hope.
Here are 10 that stand out, in ascending order on the drought timeline:
Dec. 11, 2000: Colts 44, Bills 20. Both teams were 7-6 heading into a Monday Nighter in Indianapolis. In a pre-game interview, Bills coach Wade Phillips said both teams were basically out of it. His team played that way. Rob Johnson got sacked eight times and was pulled for Doug Flutie after giving up a sack-fumble touchdown and a pick six in the second half.
The Colts wound up making the playoffs at 10-6. Phillips lost his job.
Dec. 22, 2002: Packers 10, Bills 0. Drew Bledsoe had hit the wall in his first season in Buffalo, but they were technically alive at 7-7 on a frigid, windy day at Lambeau. Bledsoe was sacked six times, fumbled four times and threw two interceptions. Green Bay's Vonnie Holliday had five sacks on his own. On the bright side, Brian Moorman set a team record with an 84-yard punt.
The Bills finished 8-8. The Jets won the AFC East on a tiebreaker at 9-7.
Jan. 2, 2004: Steelers 29, Bills 24. It wasn't December, but it counts. This was the most crushing loss of the drought, the only season finale when they had a chance to get in the playoffs. Riding a six-game winning streak, playing against a lot of Pittsburgh backups, they gagged. Bledsoe coughed up a sack-fumble TD and Willie Parker, a virtual unknown rookie tailback, ran for 102 yards.
Tom Donahoe released Bledsoe a month later and turned to J.P. Losman.
Dec. 24, 2006: Titans 30, Bills 29. They were 7-7 and still alive in Dick Jauron's first year. They hadn't allowed a TD in seven quarters. But Travis Henry ran for 135 yards in his return to Buffalo, Vince Young had a long TD run, and Tennessee won on a late field goal. Jauron looked in Rian Lindell's eyes and eschewed a field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Titans' 28 with 1:02 left. Losman then threw an interception.
The Bills finished 7-9, the first of three such heroic runs under Jauron.
Dec. 16, 2007: Browns 8, Bills 0. A rare big game between Lake Erie foes, in a blinding snowstorm that made visibility near-impossible. The press box windows were so fogged you couldn't see the field. Cleveland was 8-5, the Bills 7-6. Jamal Lewis plowed his way to 163 yards rushing on 33 carries. Phil Dawson kicked two field goals. The Browns scored a safety when Moorman fumbled a punt in his own end zone.
The Browns finished 10-6 but missed the playoffs. The Bills went 7-9.
Dec. 7, 2008: Dolphins 16, Bills 3. Reeling at 6-6 after a 5-1 start (sound familiar?), they played the first game in the foolish Toronto series. It was predictably disastrous, with the Bills playing an uninspired game in front of an indifferent crowd. When I asked Ralph Wilson after the game if he was embarrassed, he laughed and said, "I'm used to that." He wouldn't discuss Dick Jauron's job status.
The Bills finished 7-9 again. Jauron was fired midway through 2009.
Dec. 9, 2012: Rams 15, Bills 12. Does anyone remember this snoozer? Still breathing at 5-7, they blew a fourth-quarter lead at home to St. Louis. Sam Bradford drove the Rams 84 yards to the winning TD with 54 seconds left. Ryan Fitzpatrick then threw an interception intended for T.J. Graham. C.J. Spiller, who had 1,703 yards from scrimmage that year, had just eight touches.
This sealed it for Chan Gailey and Fitz, who were gone after a 6-10 season.
Dec. 21, 2014: Raiders 26, Bills 24. Maybe worse than the '04 finale. Still alive at 8-6 after a rousing home upset of the Packers, they went on the road and lost to a 2-12 Oakland team. The Bills rushed 13 times for 13 yards. Oakland, the worst rushing team in the league, had 140 on the ground, many after Marcell Dareus went out injured. Kyle Orton had 329 yards but threw two interceptions.
They won the finale at the Pats to finish 9-7. Doug Marrone quit, anyway.
Dec. 13, 2015: Eagles 23, Bills 20. Coming off a win, they were 6-6 and TECHNICALLY ALIVE in LeSean McCoy's return to Philly. Shady kissed the logo at midfield of Lincoln Financial before the game, then the Bills kissed their playoff hopes bye-bye. McCoy had 11 yards rushing after halftime and wouldn't speak afterward. They had 15 penalties. Rex Ryan and Dennis Thurman berated the refs leaving the field.
The Bills finished 8-8 and Terry Pegula gave Rex Ryan a vote of confidence.
Dec. 11, 2016: Steelers 27 at Bills 20. They were still in it at 6-6, but word broke before the game that Ryan could be fired on Monday. His team responded with a wretched effort, allowing Le'Veon Bell to rush for 236 yards, a record for an opponent. Bell piled up 298 scrimmage yards, outgaining Buffalo by himself. Tyrod Taylor passed for 228 yards, 139 in garbage time.
Ryan was fired before the finale, capping another woeful December. So they're asking $4 for a ticket? Talk them down.