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By David Staba

On a day when New England set a National Football League record -- if a newly created one -- for winning the most consecutive games, the Buffalo Bills proved themselves the football equivalent of a photo negative of the Patriots.

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Regardless of circumstances, whatever the challenge and whomever the opposition, New England finds a way to win.

And no matter how generous the enemy or fortuitous the situation, these Bills will find a way to blow it.

Mere hours after New England stuffed the Dolphins 24-10, despite just 76 passing yards from Tom Brady -- the Jets couldn't have done much more to nudge Buffalo into the win column. They missed an easy field goal, fumbled near the Bills' goal line and botched a couple other point-blank scoring opportunities. Still, New York led 13-0 early in the fourth quarter.

Then Chad Pennington, taking a brief break from brilliance, chucked a horrid pass that invited the Bills back into a game they had no business getting near.

Jeff Posey's interception triggered a phenomenon, albeit a brief one, that hadn't been seen in 2004 -- Buffalo's offense and defense approaching preseason expectations on consecutive series.

Suddenly, the offensive line protected Drew Bledsoe and opened holes for last year's first-round draft choice, Willis McGahee, who was allowed off the sideline after Travis Henry suffered an ankle injury.

After Bledsoe maneuvered the Bills to their first score, the defense stuffed the Jets on three straight plays to force a punt.

The second Buffalo scoring drive was even easier -- an 11-yard pass to fullback Daimon Shelton, a 7-yard run by Henry (whose ankle apparently started feeling a lot better about the time McGahee ripped off a 21-yarder on the previous drive), a defensive penalty and then, the long-awaited big one.

Bledsoe launched a 46-yard touchdown strike reminiscent of the first half of the 2002 season to one of this year's first-round picks, Lee Evans.

Just like that, it was 14-13 Buffalo. The defense making key stops, rookies and near-rookies making big plays, Bledsoe looking confident and firing lasers ... suddenly, it looked like a season again.

With the pathetic Miami Dolphins coming to town next week, a 2-3 record and the inklings of an interesting year started floating somewhere deep in the subconscious.

Then reality struck.

Buffalo's defense, given its second opportunity in a month to preserve a victory, failed miserably. After thoroughly flustering Pennington on the two previous drives, the most undeservedly arrogant unit in football reverted to making him look like Joe Montana.

Pennington hit six straight passes, none of them longer than 17 yards, and seven of eight in all on the drive. As defensive coordinator Jerry Gray's defenses have tended to do for, oh, the past four seasons, the Bills failed to generate pressure or jam the short passing lanes. As in the Jacksonville game in Week 1 and the Colts game at home last fall, Buffalo displayed a defensive philosophy of "Boy, we hope that clock runs fast."

Well, it almost never does. And it didn't this time. Doug Brien, who hooked a 29-yarder in the first quarter, calmly nailed the 38-yarder that put New York ahead.

The Bills still had time for the sort of desperation drive bad teams wind up attempting quite often. Like most, this one failed, ending with Drew Bledsoe's Hail Mary fling getting intercepted by perennial Buffalo nemesis Terrell Buckley.

With this particular flavor of defeat, the first quarter of the season attained an odd symmetry. The Bills have lost twice because their vaunted defense couldn't stop an opponent at the only time it really matters, with the game on the line. In the other two, the offense couldn't make the needed plays for a very feasible comeback.

If there was a sequence more symptomatic of Buffalo's season to date than the final Jets drive, it came on their first scoring march. With 9:27 left in the second quarter, New York faced a third-and-13. In keeping with tradition, the Bills let Wayne Chrebet get open for a 16-yard gain and a first down.

Not satisfied with that much generosity, Bills safety Pierson Prioleau piled on for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. After Aaron Schobel jumped offsides, Prioleau blanketed New York's Santana Moss on the next play.

Unfortunately, they were in the end zone and the pass from Pennington hadn't arrived yet. Prioleau's one-man crime wave put the Jets at Buffalo's 1-yard line. To complete the trifecta, he let backup tight end Chris Baker free for a 1-yard touchdown toss from Pennington.

At least Buffalo's late rally made this one bearable. Through three quarters, the Bills compiled all of 118 yards. Had there been any Buffalo fans at this week's BillStuff vantage point, someone would have been bellowing for Shane Matthews. The BS staff considered starting a chant just to break the monotony.

As it was, domestic scheduling put us in Carlisle, Pa., for the afternoon. And poor planning landed us -- us being yours truly and Fai, my sister-in-law -- at McKay's Cave, a mammoth sports bar on the north side of town, in time for a 1 p.m. kickoff. Of course, the Bills and Jets took part in one of the late games.

Not that it was a bad place to kill a few hours (6.5, to be exact). After some initial technical difficulties, five big screens displayed five games before us. Turn around, and there were five smaller TVs, four showing football and one broadcasting the Atlanta-Houston baseball playoff contest.

The early games on the big screens were, from left to right, Miami at New England, the New York Giants at Dallas, Cleveland at Pittsburgh, Minnesota at Houston and Oakland at Indianapolis.

None of the games were particularly competitive for most of the afternoon (though Houston rallied late to take that one into overtime). And the full-house football frenzy on display during BS's last visit to McKay's Cave was largely absent. Of course, that was the final Sunday of the 2002 season, and this was the bye week for the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the teams that divvies up the local fan base, along with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Still, five football games wrought huge with five separate soundtracks blending together into a steady hum was pretty impressive, if a little bit overwhelming.

Between the sights, sounds and some very good food, the day moved right along.

"Of course, the beer helps," said Fai.

As did some of the televised goofiness. The blended broadcasts spared us most of the inanities spewed by the various commentators. But there was more than enough foolishness left to mock:

Miami's highlight came when scrub wide receiver Wes Welker, filling in because Olindo Mare managed to hurt himself during pre-game warm-ups, kicked a field goal. It made him the first NFL player to kick a field goal and return a kick in the same game since 1970.

Earning that sort of trivia milestone is one of the marks of a truly bad team -- sort of like depending on successful onside kicks and Hail Mary's on an almost-weekly basis.

Turning to Brock Forsey -- a sixth-stringer so anonymous that the roster page on the Dolphins' Web site doesn't even link to his bio -- as your feature back is another.

BILLS MVP: We'll split this one between McGahee and Evans. McGahee provided the proverbial spark, as well as the longest run of his brief NFL career, and Evans showed that he needs to be on the field a lot more (particularly in contrast with Bobby Shaw, who suffered the embarrassment of getting hit in the back with a pass).

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Pennington was 31-of-42 for 304 yards and perfect when the situation required.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Wayne Chrebet had eight catches for 91 yards, with just about every one critical. Getting beat by Wayne Chrebet? What is this, 1998? Maybe the Jets will talk Wesley Walker out of retirement for the rematch.

WING REPORT: McKay's Cave has introduced traditional wings since last visit, when only breaded wing-dings were on the menu. Well, almost traditional. The wings were sprinkled with chili powder, but not shaken in sauce after frying. The sauce -- heavy with tabasco and more chili powder, and quite hot for medium -- came on the side.

We also got an order of wing dings for comparison's sake. The wings were a bit on the small side (but this was southeastern Pennsylvania, for cripes' sake), but both variations were well-cooked and the sauce, while a bit non-traditional, wasn't bad. The wings get a B, the wing dings a B+.

As mandated by tradition and the self-imposed strictures of a weekly feature, we had the wings during the Bills game. Lunch, ordered during the 1 p.m. contests, was a triumph. A juicy open-faced prime rib sandwich and mushrooms stuffed with crab meat and dipped in drawn butter earned a solid A.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Fai doesn't particularly care for football, but weathered the extended viewing period without complaint. Even if she did need to make a quick run to the store for some Advil.

Her participation was crucial, as it's much more satisfying to sit around all day making wisecracks if there's someone you know sitting nearby to hear them.


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 Oct. 12 2004