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By David Staba

Buffalo's Terrence McGee angled toward the spot where the goal line and sideline at Network Associates Coliseum meet, trying to outrun the angle drawn by tubby Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski.

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Even before Janikowski put enough of a bump on McGee to knock the cornerback/kickoff returner out of bounds at the Raiders' 11-yard line, the crowd at Mister B's -- Billstuff's first vantage point on a spectacular cusp-of-fall afternoon -- wasn't talking about the possibility of tying the game, but of what would go wrong.

"Clipping," said one patron in a voice resigned to failure, even before any yellow-flag sightings.

"Holding," fairly spat another.

"Block in the back," exclaimed a third voice.

Turns out Cynic No. 2 nailed it.

Not that the exact infraction mattered much. For these Buffalo Bills, it seems, any positive development is too good to be true.

Just to drive that point home, Nate Clements returned a punt to the same point where McGee stumbled out of bounds -- Oakland's 11-yard line -- precisely one quarter later. A 63-yard punt return, it was. Or would have been, but for another holding penalty.

If you're starting to get the feeling you've seen all this before, it's because you have. Another Sunday afternoon, another 13-10 loss by the Blue, White and Red.

The game's heinous nature couldn't completely smother the crowd's enthusiasm, though. Mister B's runs a "Bikini Football" promotion on Sunday afternoons. Thankfully, the bikinis in question were on the barmaids and not the patrons, who on this day averaged roughly 45 years and 200 pounds.

Yet even with Renee, who usually supervises the college football-based revelry on Saturdays, and Lisa behind the bar spreading cheer, facing in that direction to view the TVs over it proved uncomfortably close to work. (Paul, a co-owner, said Renee and Lisa were filling in Sunday for Marle and Shannon, the usual Sunday hostesses who took the day off for the tavern's annual golf tournament, held earlier in the afternoon around the corner at Hyde Park Golf Course).

This game wasn't so much a mirror image of the opener against Jacksonville, though, as a photo negative.

Instead of leading and controlling the action all afternoon at home, only to crumble at the end, Buffalo got knocked around the Raiders' natural habitat before staging a desperate late rally that accomplished little except to pretty up the score.

The pair of defeats had plenty in common, though.

Like Buffalo's offense managing to put together a solitary touchdown drive. And the defense giving up a single big play, which is apparently all that's required to vanquish this team.

While Sunday's Bills-beater was no fourth-and-14 with a minute left, it was nearly as galling to the crowd at Mister B's. Particularly since it came as the throng from the golf tournament started filtering in.

Early in the second quarter, a stuffed run and two Oakland penalties seemingly stifled a scoring drive, putting Oakland in a theoretically inescapable third-and-27 pit at Buffalo's 43-yard line.

Oakland's Rich Gannon, though, simply threw a strike over the top of the vaunted Bills' defense to someone named Ronald Curry, whom someone in a Buffalo uniform really should have been covering.

For a franchise that thrills in meaningless accomplishments like placing highly in the thoroughly hollow yards-allowed rankings, Sunday wasn't all bad. After all, the Bills ended Jerry Rice's streak of games in which he caught a pass at 274.

Unfortunately, they allowed Curry -- who had a grand total of six catches spread out over three seasons before Sunday -- to come within one of matching his career total.

Buffalo's offense proved equally incapable of making plays that matter.

After BillStuff transferred its base of operations to a friend's party in Buffalo, the Bills moved within 3.5 feet of tying the game early in the fourth quarter.

You can argue that Bills coach Mike Mularkey should have sent Rian Lindell out for a chip-shot field goal that would have cut Oakland's edge to 10-6 with nearly a full quarter remaining.

Given the infrequency of Buffalo's journeys that get that close to an opponent's goal line, though, it's tough to give him too much grief, though.

And the way Lindell has been going, there's no such thing as a chip shot.

The truly troubling thing here was the inability for a team that's emphasized running the ball since the day Mularkey arrived to carve out a single yard when it needed it most. Buffalo's renovated offensive line got absolutely no push and Travis Henry stumbled and came up short.

At least the Bills' linemen didn't get shoved backward, their preferred direction for most of the afternoon. For the afternoon, Drew Bledsoe posted these positively Rob Johnsonesque stats -- 31 pass plays, seven sacks.

Nobody expects Bledsoe to make like Michael Vick. But even the occasional step up in the pocket or shuffle to the side would almost have to be better than his current pocket strategy - stand perfectly still and hold the ball until an opposing lineman or linebacker knocks the snot out of him.

Of course, better blocking would help. Right tackle Mike Williams recorded the whiff of the day when Oakland linebacker DeLawrence Grant blazed by the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft to dump Bledsoe.

The Bills' only touchdown came after Oakland -- up by 10 points -- surrendered a who-cares 65-yarder to rookie Lee Evans after the two minute warning. That set up Bledsoe's 5-yard scoring flip to Eric Moulds and an onside kick attempt that briefly roused the dispirited and/or disinterested crowd. At least until Oakland's Jerry Porter scooped it up.

And let's face it -- if your only moment of hope gets triggered by an onside kick, you're in big trouble.

BILLS MVP: You can't blame Moulds because Bledsoe can't get him the ball more often. And he does have Buffalo's only two touchdowns of the season.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Rich Gannon completed 19 of 27 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown, compiling a quarterback rating of 105.3. Great defenses don't get sliced up like that.

STAT OF THE DAY: They don't give up eight third-down conversions in 15 such situations, either.

Buffalo, meanwhile, converted just four third downs in 13 tries, usually because Bledsoe ended up on his back. Maybe the Bills should start playing the percentages and just have Drew take a knee on third-and-long. At least they'd save a few yards in field position that way.

WING REPORT: The convoluted BS itinerary on this day led to a most pleasant doubleheader.

Mister B's honey barbecue wings were slathered in a terrific sauce, while the mediums also had a nice tang. Well-cooked without being dry and served on a cookie sheet with crisp carrots and celery and ample helpings of cold blue cheese, they earned a very solid B+.

The party in Buffalo, on the third floor of Cole's on Elmwood Avenue, presented round two and another mixture of barbecue and mediums, both well-cooked and tastily sauced. As Miguel, a highly paid BS wing consultant, pointed out, the barbecue wings had been lightly char-broiled after frying, a nice touch that earned them an A-.

Both grades might have been higher later in the season, but it's early and our team of judges emphasized that it doesn't give out A's like candy, you know.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Dave, known to friends as Pommie, saved another brutally dull Bills game two years ago when he noticed one television at a sports bar was not on five-second delay, like the ones the rest of the people in the bar were watching. He spent the rest of the day calling out the play result before everyone else saw it happen, which amused us to no end.

On this day, he might not have been the most optimistic fan, but he was certainly the most brutally honest.

"Two and 14," declared Pommie, his head shaking as his voice dripped disgust. "This is unwatchable."


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 21 2004