Bills owner Wilson willing to write the check, but who'll cash it?

Getting good is expensive. The Buffalo Bills know that better than any team in the NFL.

They're shopping for a mastermind to lead their football operation -- someone with the coaching skills and eye for talent that can finally put an end to the playoff drought which is about to extend to a 10th season.

The Bills are well aware that the price tag will be significantly greater than the approximate $3.5 million per year they were paying the highest-paid coach they've ever had, Dick Jauron, whom they fired last week. They are, according to a source close to the team and a league source familiar with their pursuit, willing to spend whatever is necessary to land someone with a proven record of success (read: Super Bowl rings).

Someone like Mike Shanahan or Bill Cowher or Mike Holmgren.

The Bills, in fact, are scheduled to meet with Shanahan this week. And they fully understand, to even have that conversation, they must be prepared to pay more than the $7 million Shanahan is due to earn in each of the next two years as part of the balance of his guaranteed contract with the Denver Broncos, who fired him as their coach after the 2008 season.

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"You're probably talking about $50 million over five years and maybe even a piece of the team," said a source close to Shanahan. "And by all indications, (Bills owner Ralph) Wilson is ready to have that conversation."

Would Shanahan be ready to jump at $10 million per year? Maybe. Or perhaps he'll opt to follow a path similar to that of Cowher, the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach and current NFL studio analyst for CBS, and Holmgren, the former coach of the Green Bay Packers and coach/general manager of the Seattle Seahawks. According to multiple sources, Cowher recently told the Bills he's not interested in any offer they would make at this time because he wants to see what other jobs might be available after the season. Holmgren has rejected an overture from the Bills as well, presumably because he has his eye on one or more other opportunities that would likely involve him taking only a front-office position.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden had actually been the Bills' original top choice, but took himself out of the running after he signed a multi-year contract extension as a Monday Night Football analyst for ESPN that would put his salary at the level of one of the highest-paid coaches in the league.

But the mega dollars involved with courting a sideline superstar doesn't end with his salary or the balance of the $7 million the Bills still owe Jauron through the end of the 2010 season.

Getting good means allowing the new coach to hire hot-shot assistant coaches. Shanahan, for instance, already has his defensive coordinator lined up. Bob Slowik, who ran Shanahan's defense in Denver and is prepared to install a 3-4 scheme wherever he and Shanahan land; Buffalo runs a 4-3 alignment under interim coach/defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.

Getting good means allowing the new coach to spend money on players in free agency. With Shanahan, there is no limit to such spending. In fact, according to a source close to the Broncos, he spent his former employer into a $29 million salary-cap hole, which was a large part of the reason their owner, Pat Bowlen, decided to part ways with him. If a player didn't pan out, Shanahan would shrug and tell his personnel staff to merely search for a replacement, not giving a second thought to the wasted signing bonuses that continued to pile up.

Within the Broncos, Shanahan earned the nickname "Let's get another guy" because that was what he would always offer as a solution to whatever competitive problem the Broncos faced. And we haven't even addressed the additional cash Shanahan readily doled out to what had grown into one of the NFL's largest support staffs. Under Shanahan, the Broncos actually had a "team masseuse" on the payroll.

To land Shanahan or anyone of his caliber, the Bills realize there will be a huge price to pay. For now, it seems to be more about whether Wilson will have the chance to write such checks than how many zeros they'll contain.

Observation points

» You can't dispute that Vince Young has become one of the great comeback stories of the season, if not several seasons. Sure, Tom Brady has made an amazing comeback from the season-ending knee injury he suffered last year. But Young is rebounding from a 2008 meltdown that seemingly had ended his career with the Tennessee Titans and perhaps even destroyed his chances of rekindling it anywhere else. Jeff Fisher had buried the guy on his bench until, after an 0-6 start with Kerry Collins under center, owner Bud Adams forced his coach to give the kid another chance.

Young has taken full advantage of the opportunity. He looks far more composed and in command than even in his earlier days as a starter for the Titans. He isn't piling up great numbers, but that's the best part of what he's doing: He's managing the game well while the Titans utilize their greatest offensive asset, Chris Johnson. But there is one eye-popping statistic attached to Young: With Monday night's victory against the Houston Texans, he has an eight-game winning streak as a starter. That puts him third among active quarterbacks, behind only Indianapolis' Peyton Manning (19) and New Orleans' Drew Brees (10).

» It's easy to see why any time Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams looks at cornerback Malcolm Jenkins he sees the physical approach of a safety. In his first start of the season, Jenkins was credited with a season-high seven tackles, including five initial hits, vs. Tampa Bay on Sunday. He also had his first interception of the year.

» The Green Bay Packers did a smart thing by having quarterback Aaron Rodgers work a quick-throwing scheme against the San Francisco 49ers. It allowed him to stay upright behind shoddy protection and enhanced his effectiveness. The league-leader in sacks allowed was only taken down two times.

»Matt Schaub puts up nice numbers, as he did Monday night (25-for-39, 305 yards, two touchdowns). But when the Texans' quarterback had a chance to lead his team to victory against the Titans, he didn't do it. That's what continues to keep him out of the conversation of the true top passers in the NFL. The genuine big-timers -- Tom Brady, Peyton Manning -- finish the job.

» Two more notes from Monday night: You knew it was going to be a chippy game, especially after Texans offensive tackle Eric Winston made a point of telling reporters that the Titans defenders "were going after guys after the play" in Houston's 34-31 victory over Tennessee on Sept. 20. On Monday night, it seemed both teams took turns with extracurricular activity. Texans-Titans might not be as sexy as other rivalries, but it's getting there. ... Pregame trash talk usually is just that, trash. But perhaps Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck wasn't just making idle noise when he told reporters before the game, "We are a 3-6 team with nothing to lose, and I know they have playoff aspirations. So we are really looking to come down to Houston and destroying all playoff hopes and aspirations they have." For the record, the Texans' playoff hopes are still alive, but not nearly as promising as they looked before the game.

They've got answers ...

» The Oakland Raiders, because with Bruce Gradkowski replacing benched JaMarcus Russell, the team suddenly has some offensive life -- and a player capable of leading the sort of dramatic comeback that Gradkowski did in the upset against Cincinnati.

Close games, fantastic finishes

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» The Kansas City Chiefs, because with Dwayne Bowe serving a suspension, they have another wide receiver to fill the void in newcomer Chris Chambers, who caught a team-leading four passes for 119 yards in the upset victory against Pittsburgh. He had a 61-yarder in overtime that set up the winning field goal.

» The Philadelphia Eagles, because despite three turnovers, they were still able to beat the Chicago Bears by scoring touchdowns on two of three red-zone chances and by converting three of their final four third-down opportunities. OK, it was the Bears, but that's still a pretty impressive display of perseverance.

They've got questions ...

» The Packers, because after losing cornerback Al Harris and linebacker Aaron Kampman to season-ending knee injuries, their defense looks to be severely gutted. Kampman was back in action after missing one game with a concussion, and was playing at a high level. Seventh-round draft pick Brad Jones could be a solid replacement, but he's a rookie. Harris was the Packers' most physical cornerback; his replacement, Tramon Williams, is faster, but not nearly as effective when matching up against larger receivers.

» The Baltimore Ravens, because they have no offense. After his impressive showing early in the season, Joe Flacco continues to look less and less like the rookie sensation of 2008. He has gone three games without throwing a touchdown pass.

» The Steelers, because besides mounting injury concerns, they have now allowed opponents to score on kickoff returns for the fourth time in five weeks. Although multiple Steelers starters have asked to be placed on the kick-coverage units, coach Mike Tomlin has not wanted to go that route. Perhaps he'll be forced to do so, although he has to be worried about greater exposure to injury.

Four intriguing games for Week 12

» N.Y. Giants at Denver: If the Giants have any hope of righting their season, they need to prove that ending their four-game losing streak vs. Atlanta was no fluke and take advantage of the fact their opponent is still freefalling and coming apart at the seams. With Kyle Orton hurting and Chris Simms not ready to step in, the Broncos offense is a mess, but their biggest problem is that opponents have caught up with Mike Nolan's defense.

» Indianapolis at Houston: The Colts figure to have another difficult challenge staying perfect. It also might very well be the last tough opponent they have to face the rest of the way. After this, a home game vs. Tennessee and a trip to Jacksonville are the only remaining games that appear to present much of a challenge. Of course, the Colts tend to make everything look hard. Their defense has done an amazing job of preventing opponents from scoring, but it should have its hands full vs. the Texans' passing game.

» Pittsburgh at Baltimore: It's almost hard to believe that these teams were playing for the AFC title last January. Now, they are trying to gather themselves as they face an assortment of challenges that have them desperately trying to remain in the postseason hunt. Where do you start with the Steelers? Ben Roethlisberger's concussion has to be of concern (as does the wrist injury that figures to shelve his veteran backup, Charlie Batch, for the rest of the season), as does the fact Troy Polamalu is again out with a knee injury. And what's up with Pittsburgh's horrendous kick coverage? Meanwhile, a Ravens loss would figure to turn the lights out on their playoff hopes.

» New England at New Orleans: This Monday night showdown shapes up as a possible preview of Super Bowl XLIV. The Saints are playing better than any team in the league. The Patriots are steadily improving, with their offense scoring 25 or more points in eight of 10 games, and seem to belong competitively with anyone in the NFL. If you just focused on Drew Brees vs. Tom Brady, you'd have enough to occupy your attention. But as the first of two extremely difficult back-to-back road games (the other is at Miami on Dec. 6), this also should go a long way toward determining the Patriots' postseason fate. In beating the Buccaneers, 38-7, the Saints' defense finally shut down an opponent after five consecutive weeks of allowing 20-plus points per game.

Weekly Top 20

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Top five teams

1. New Orleans: So much for all of that upset-alert talk surrounding the game vs. Tampa Bay.
2. Indianapolis: They've ridden on the edge all the way to 10-0. But their luck just might run out at Houston.
3. Minnesota: With an MVP candidate at quarterback, a dominant defense, and a coach who has earned a lucrative contract extension, the Vikings have it all.
4. New England: Many pundits would argue the Patriots are every bit as good as -- if not better than -- the three teams that each has a record superior to their 7-3 mark. We'll find out for certain when they travel to New Orleans for Monday Night Football.
5. San Diego: After five wins in a row, the Chargers have reclaimed their preseason status as a serious Super Bowl contender.

Top five offensive players

1. Wes Welker, WR, New England: There's no denying the Patriots aren't the Patriots without Tom Brady, but the rematch with the Jets proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, how much Welker means to Brady.
2. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit: It's hard to believe that a Lion would make any top-five list that involved something other than futility, but Stafford's performance vs. the Browns -- especially throwing the game-winning touchdown with a separated shoulder -- made this an easy call.
3. Brett Favre, QB, Minnesota: It's the second half of his 19th NFL season, and he looks stronger than ever. There must be something in that Minnesota water.
4. Eli Manning, QB, N.Y. Giants: Given the Giants' continued struggles on defense, he looks to be the best hope for saving their season.
5. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee: He continues to show that he is performing in a league of his own. And that has done plenty to allow the Titans to win four in a row after an 0-6 start.

Top five defensive players

1. Gary Brackett, LB, Indianapolis: His interception preserved another nail-biting win for the Colts. He also contributed nine tackles, including eight initial hits, and two pass defenses.
2. Andy Studebaker, LB, Kansas City: The second-year pro made the most of his first NFL start with two interceptions that helped the Chiefs stun the Steelers. He also was credited with six tackles, including five initial hits.
3. Leigh Bodden, CB, New England: His three interceptions was a harsh reminder to Mark Sanchez of just how much the Jets' rookie QB needs to learn.
4. Joey Porter, LB, Miami: He rallied back from a benching and showed that he finally was feeling good after being plagued by knee and hamstring problems with two sacks and an overall impressive performance vs. Carolina.
5. Anthony Spencer, LB, Dallas: On a day when multiple Cowboy defenders were worthy of recognition in a game dominated by defense (although it apparently wasn't enough to ease tensions between cornerback Terence Newman and defensive backs coach Dave Campo, who got into a sideline altercation), he's here largely because of his game-sealing interception vs. Washington. He also was credited with five tackles.

Top five coaches

1. Bill Belichick, New England: Not that this should be a surprise, but he did a superb job of getting his team to overcome the crushing disappointment of a win-turned-loss at Indianapolis.
2. Norv Turner, San Diego: He preaches a simple message to his team ("play better than you did the week before"), and the players are all in.
3. Todd Haley, Kansas City: The rookie coach continues to grow more comfortable with the challenge of overseeing an entire team rather than just the offense.
4. Sean Payton, New Orleans: It isn't easy keeping a team motivated for the league's bottom-dwellers, but after the Week 10 scare vs. St. Louis, Payton had the Saints ready for the Buccaneers.
5. Tom Cable, Oakland: He switched quarterbacks, and the move paid off with Bruce Gradkowski rallying the Raiders to a huge upset win.

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