Bills' hopes fumbled

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 12:13 PM ET

It was the part of the playoff algebra the Buffalo Bills felt they were equipped to handle. The oddsmakers thought so, making them as much as 10-point favourites over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Their fans thought so, 73,414 of them cramming into Ralph Wilson Stadium yesterday for the biggest game to be played in Orchard Park in more than five years.

And the players thought so too, charged with confidence from a six-game winning streak and expecting to at least compete against a lineup heavy with Pittsburgh backups.

Whether it was fourth-string running back Willie Parker or second- and third-string quarterbacks Tommy Maddox and Brian St. Pierre, the Steelers were having nothing of it.

As light rain swept through the Ralph yesterday, the Steelers washed the Bills out of the playoff parade with a 29-24 win.

Though Buffalo held a 17-16 lead after three quarters, the end result shouldn't have been that close. The Steelers may have played their 'B' team, but the Bills got a dismal 'D' for effort to finish the season at 9-7 and out of the post-season for the fifth year in a row.

"I'm pretty angry, really," said quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who was hounded by the No. 1 ranked Steelers defence. "I really felt we would play better than we did to be honest with you.

"The bottom line is if we can't beat them with the backups on the field, then we probably don't deserve to be in."

There was plenty of salt for the many Bills wounds.

Parker, an undrafted rookie free agent, ran for 102 yards. Bills kicker Rian Lindell missed an easy 28-yard field goal late in the third quarter to stunt some Bills momentum.

Then, as the Bills were clearing out of the locker room, the St. Louis Rams were scoring a 32-29 overtime win over the New York Jets, giving Buffalo the outside help they would have needed.

The Bills may have been thinking playoffs yesterday, but it was the Steelers who played like they were already there.

Dominated by an offensive line bent on powering over, around and through the Bills defence, it was a physical mismatch almost from the opening kickoff.

MAKING HISTORY

And in completing a one-loss campaign, the Steelers became the first AFC team to win 15 games in a regular season and just the fourth in league history to do so.

Two of the previous three -- the 1985 Chicago Bears and 1984 San Francisco 49ers -- went on to win the Super Bowl.

That's the big prize the Steelers are eyeing, of course, and will attempt do so with the benefit of a bye next week and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

"Right now, we're happy about being 15-1, but we have another season with the stakes a lot bigger," said Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who yesterday had a fumble return for a touchdown. "One loss and you go home, so we have to look at it totally different."

Though Steelers coach Bill Cowher opted to rest several key starters in skill positions the depth and physical dominance the Steelers possess was apparent early.

They loaded up to stop the running of Willis McGahee, practically daring Bledsoe to beat them. That wasn't going to happen as Bledsoe's confidence seemed shaken early.

"I didn't prepare myself for this," said Bledsoe, who completed 16 of 30 for 189 yards.

"I'm in a little bit of shock right now because I didn't think this would be the case."

That feeling isn't going to get better anytime soon as the 'what ifs' of a season that almost was begin to pile up.

"The most difficult thing for me will be next Saturday and Sunday," Bills guard Ross Tucker said. "I think I'll have to get out of the country."


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