The way he plays football, Takeo Spikes is the farthest thing from a loser, which is not to say the Buffalo Bills linebacker doesn't know about losing. The struggles of his past are why the heavy hitter of the stellar Bills defence is so jacked up about today's game against the Cincinnati Bengals here at Paul Brown Stadium.
Losing was once the motto of the franchise then known derisively as the Bungles, where Spikes was stuck for the first five years of his career.
EMOTIONS RUN WILD
So futile were the teams despite his strong play that today's game is the first late December contest in Spikes' NFL career that carries even a hint of playoff relevance.
"This is what I wanted to do, be part of something special," Spikes told reporters in Cincinnati this week. "The emotions are going to run wild. And the biggest reason is I've never been in the month of December and still had something to play for other than pride."
Unfortunately, just what the Bills have left to play for is not entirely in the hands of Spikes and that tough defence and suddenly rejuvenated offence.
At 7-6, the Bills must win their final three games beginning with today's testy road contest against the Bengals (6-7) who are still alive but by mathematics only. They'll also need varying degrees of collapse from at least a couple of the New York Jets, Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars.
But pride is something Spikes carries around in ample quantities, matched only by his emotion. So as long as the Bills are alive, Spikes will have the playoff mindset.
The former Auburn star was one of the rare reasons to buy a ticket in the Ohio city after becoming a first-round pick for the Bengals in 1998. In 2002, he had his best year with 173 tackles and six sacks which ultimately helped him escape town.
The Bills signed him as a free agent in March 2003 and he has been a solid fit in a Buffalo defence that is ranked No. 3 in the league. So far this season, Spikes leads the team with 85 tackles, 64 of them solo efforts and last week against the Cleveland Browns, had two forced fumbles.
The success of Spikes and his leadership comes as no surprise to his teammates, new or old.
"He didn't get a lot of recognition from some because of the futility that went on here for years," said Bengals backup quarterback Jon Kitna, who will get the start today.
"But now being (in Buffalo) and them having some success, he definitely stands out."
Of the mountain of things that have to go right for the Bills to squeak into the post-season, one of the hidden dangers looms today. Yes, the Bills have won four in a row and six of their past seven, but a loss to the rejuvenated Bengals would negate a couple months worth of fine work.
The Bengals played the New England Patriots tight last week, losing 35-28 on the road to the Super Bowl champions. Cincy hasn't had a winning season since 1990, though it came close with an 8-8 campaign in 2003.
CLOSE DOESN'T CUT IT
Close doesn't cut it with coach Marvin Lewis, who first changed the attitude then the execution of the once woeful bunch. And he's not about to let his players let up now.
"I'm not here to be close, I'm here to win a championship," Lewis said. "You are either part of the problem or part of the solution."
Lewis knows which side of that equation the man they call TKO falls on. He just wishes he could have kept him around long enough to be part of the process.