Bills still in playoff picture

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:19 AM ET

There hasn't been a playoff game at Ralph Wilson Stadium since 1996. Circle the wagons though, because this coming Sunday in Orchard Park the Buffalo Bills will play in the next best thing. After a 1-5 start, a team that is now arguably the hottest in the NFL couldn't have fathomed such a scenario.

But a sixth consecutive win yesterday put the Bills in a three-act drama when the curtain closes on the 2004 season.

After easily stomping the San Francisco 49ers, 41-7, and getting generous heapings of help elsewhere, Buffalo exits the weekend with significantly improved post-season hopes.

As a result, the game at the Ralph will have a playoff feel and then some as Buffalo attempts to snag the final AFC wildcard spot.

Act 1 is the only scene in which the Bills have control, however. They must get their record to 10-6 by defeating the 14-1 Pittsburgh Steelers then hope other cards fall into place.

The Bills have no role in Acts 2 and 3, just hope. Should they defeat the Steelers, they will then need either the St. Louis Rams to bump off the New York Jets in another 1 p.m. start or the Indianapolis Colts to defeat the Denver Broncos at 4:15.

The winning criteria may have been eased somewhat yesterday after the Steelers dominated the Baltimore Ravens, 20-7.

With that effort, the Steelers not only knocked the Ravens behind the Bills in the wildcard dash, they also wrapped up the top seed in the AFC.

That means coach Bill Cowher is likely to rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who sustained a rib injury yesterday, and other key starters against their desperate opponent.

It's hard to rely on any NFC team to get the job done, but the Rams could find themselves in a must-win spot against the Jets to either win their division or grab a wildcard. The Rams also have home field, a huge advantage when its offence is firing.

Should St. Louis win and the Bills and Jets (who lost 23-7 to New England yesterday) finish at 10-6, Buffalo would claim the tiebreaker based on a superior record vs. common opponents.

The Bills would lose the tiebreak with the Broncos if they are both at 10-6, however. Denver gets the added bonus of playing a Colts team that may also push the snooze button.

When the Colts rallied in overtime to defeat the San Diego Chargers yesterday, Indy cemented the No. 3 seed in the AFC and can't move up nor down.

Now that quarterback Peyton Manning has set Dan Marino's single-season touchdown pass record, there's little incentive to get him in the game for long either.

For the Broncos, who have the positive of home-field but the negative of directionally challenged quarterback Jake Plummer, the game means everything.

Boxing Day couldn't have started better for the Bills as the Ravens lost and their biggest obstacle, the Jacksonville Jaguars, were shut out 21-0 by the Houston Texans.

The Bills were aware of it too, thanks to the out-of-town scoreboard at Monster Park, hard by the bay in San Francisco.

"I knew what the scores were," Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe said in his post-game press conference. "But at the same time, you've got to do your job and go about your business. Otherwise it doesn't mean anything."

So a team which has churned off its longest winning streak since 1990 and assured a first winning season in five will approach the finale like it has for every game since October.

"This whole season has come down to one game for a long time," Bledsoe said. "We've been playing playoff games now for what seems like months. We're doing it this week also."

Planning on winning it too. Then hoping it is enough.


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