Spoiler alert: Bills, others not in playoff hunt have role to play

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- At 2-9, the Buffalo Bills could easily be dismissed as a team unworthy of a second thought.

Another year, another non-playoff season.

But there's something different about this Buffalo team compared with many others that have reached the stretch run with nothing to stretch for.

These Bills have the ability to make quick-strike plays through the air. These Bills will find a way to make something positive happen on a defense that ranks near the bottom of the league and is last against the run. These Bills have won two of their last three games and came within a dropped touchdown pass on Sunday of making it three in a row.

Win or lose, these Bills will scratch and claw and fight you to the very end.

These games will set playoff course

With matchups like Patriots- Jets still to come, division titles and playoff spots are far from set. Steve Wyche examines the games that will dictate the postseason picture. More ...

"I'm just glad we don't have to play them anymore," Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Farrior said after his team's 19-16 overtime victory against the Bills that came only after Steve Johnson dropped a sure touchdown in the extra period.

Farrior's sentiments are no doubt shared by the team with which the 8-3 Steelers share first place in the AFC North, the Baltimore Ravens, whom the Bills also pushed to overtime before losing. Ditto for the 7-4 and AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs, whom the Bills also took to OT before losing.

What the Bills lack in victories they more than make up for with all of the characteristics of a classic spoiler.

"They've got a lot of fight in them," Farrior said. "Even though their record doesn't show it, I think they're a good football team."

Said Steelers offensive tackle Flozell Adams, "Coming into this game, they were 2-8, but as far as we were concerned, they were (playing like they were) 8-2. I've been around a long time and I've seen teams fold if they're 2-8, and just look to the offseason. These guys are not going to do that. They're going to ruin somebody's party."

The Bills' remaining opponents include the AFC East co-leaders (Patriots and Jets) in the final two weeks of the season.

But they aren't the only club that could spoil some postseason parties through the final five weeks. Others include:

» The 6-5 Miami Dolphins, who have won three of their last five and whose remaining opponents include the Jets and Patriots.

» The 4-7 Cleveland Browns, who have won three of their last five and pushed the Jets to overtime before losing; their final two games are against the Ravens and Steelers.

» The 3-8 Dallas Cowboys, who have won two of their last three and whose remaining opponents include 6-5 Indianapolis and 7-4 NFC East rival Philadelphia (twice, including the final week of the season).

"We have the capability to beat anybody," Bills wide receiver Lee Evans said. "That's just the type of guys that we have here. No one gives up, everybody's still fighting because we know who we are and what we have and we believe in it."

Added Bills punter Brian Moorman, "This is a good football team. A lot of people were calling us the worst team (in the league) when we were 0-8, but they didn't look at the games we played and how close we played everybody. And I don't think that there was any team that we played that wanted to play us again when we were done."

They've got answers

» The San Diego Chargers, because they're doing their typical second-half-of-the-season rebound from a slow start, and they're doing it with a red-hot quarterback in Philip Rivers (who has become the leading candidate for league MVP honors) and a red-hot defense that coordinator Ron Rivera has managed to put together with no-name players such as Kevin Burnett, Antonio Garay, and Antwan Barnes.

» The Minnesota Vikings, because six days after defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was promoted to interim head coach to replace Brad Childress, the team (and especially the defense) clearly gave a more inspired effort against the Washington Redskins than they did a week earlier against Green Bay. There also was a notable shift in offensive philosophy with the Vikings' 38 runs compared to 25 pass attempts, marking only the third time when they ran more than they passed. The approach is predictable, given Frazier's background and the fact offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell no longer is compelled to go along with Childress' pass-happy philosophy.

Bowe's scoring bonanza

Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe scored three more touchdowns on Sunday, bringing his season total to 14. Find out the Kansas City club record he set in our milestone tracker.

» The Chiefs, because with new offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, they've finally figured out how to tap into the immense talent of wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, who is on pace to join Randy Moss and Jerry Rice as the only NFL players to catch 20 touchdown passes in a season. Bowe's three TD receptions against Seattle pushed his season total to 14, only two fewer than he had in his previous three years with Kansas City.

They've got questions

» The Denver Broncos, because their coach, Josh McDaniels, has mounting issues on top of his team's two losses in a row. Even if, as an investigation by the NFL and the Broncos concluded, McDaniels didn't order the videotaping of San Francisco's walk-through practice before Denver faced the 49ers in London, the mere fact it happened on his watch (and he didn't immediately report it to the league) creates a negative perception he is unlikely to shake. Word throughout the league is that McDaniels has strained relations with multiple people in the Broncos organization, including members of the front office and his coaching staff. Owner Pat Bowlen classified the season as "very trying and disappointing" in a written statement on Monday.

» The Tennessee Titans, because they've lost four in a row and have no answers to address their health issues at quarterback. Is it a coincidence that three of those losses have come since the arrival of Randy Moss? He is a combined 1-6 since the Patriots traded him away.

» The Green Bay Packers, because their inability to run the ball cost them dearly in a close game against the Atlanta Falcons that many billed as an NFC Championship Game preview. One has to wonder whether the Packers' deficiency on the ground will prevent them from making a deep postseason run.

Observation points

» It's unfortunate that the Bills' Steve Johnson had to blemish his team's try-hard, feel-good story by trying to deflect the blame for his touchdown drop in overtime with this silly post on his Twitter account: "I praise you 24/7!!!! And this is how you do me!!! You expect me to learn from this??? How??? I'll never forget this!!! Ever!!! This tho …"

His agony was understandable, but his self-pity -- which began with his sitting dejectedly on the far end of the bench as the Steelers drove for the winning score and continued with his sitting on the ground against the wall behind the bench for a minute or so after the game before he finally walked straight to the locker room and began weeping in front of his dressing stall -- was a bit over the top.

Although the win would have been Buffalo's biggest in a long time, it wasn't as if it would alter the course of another non-playoff season. And it wasn't as if it happened in the Super Bowl (something Johnson's Bills predecessors lost four consecutive times and once in the most agonizing way possible). Besides, Johnson had dropped four other passes, so although it happened at the worst possible time, the gaffe was consistent with the type of day he was having one week after playing the game of his life against Cincinnati.

» Maybe the Carolina Panthers have something at quarterback with rookie Jimmy Clausen after all. He nearly led his team on a winning drive at Cleveland, falling short only because John Kasay's field-goal attempt in the last second hit the goal post.

» Regarding reports of McDaniels' trying to explain to his team that there was a difference between the Patriots' videotaping of opponents' defensive signals in 2007 and the Broncos' taping of the 49ers' practice -- essentially saying New England did it as matter of routine while the situation in Denver was the act of a rogue employee -- is a no-win conversation.

For one thing, cheating is cheating, so any attempt to suggest that one is worse than the other is navigating a pretty slippery slope. For another, multiple coaches and players have told me through the years that seeing what an opponent does in practice the week before a game is more valuable than any other intelligence they could get from the opposition because it would include specifics about the overall plan of attack and a detailed look at blitz packages, etc. Additionally, it would reveal players' physical status.

Bottom line: Nothing is worse than taping an opponent's practice.

» It's fun to watch old-school, extra-effort running backs who combine power and explosiveness to take over games. Cleveland's Peyton Hillis is a throwback to the days of Larry Csonka and Marv Hubbard. Buffalo's Fred Jackson has steadily become one of the most dynamic players in the NFL, capable of game-changing plays as both a runner and receiver.

By rushing for 131 yards and three touchdowns, Hillis was the driving force in the Browns' ability to win a tougher-than-expected game against the lowly Panthers. Jackson averaged 4.9 yards on 12 carries against Pittsburgh's vaunted run-stuffing defense, and added 104 yards (65 on an amazing, run-after-catch touchdown) on five receptions in the Bills' overtime loss to the Steelers.

Hillis and Jackson also are reminders that you don't need to invest a high draft pick to get a quality running back. Hillis joined the Browns from Denver as part of a trade for quarterback Brady Quinn (remember him?) that also saw the Broncos send a sixth-round pick in next year's draft and a conditional choice in 2012 to Cleveland. Jackson was signed as a free agent in 2006.

» Have the Oakland Raiders simply forgotten how to play defense, the driving force behind a three-game winning streak before their Week 10 bye? In the two games since their break, the Raiders have allowed 902 yards and have been outscored, 68-20. Most of their problems have come against the pass, with opponents completing 59 percent of their throws.

Four intriguing games for Week 13

Atlanta at Tampa Bay: The Falcons aren't flashy. They've moved to the top of most NFL power rankings with a sound, disciplined style of play that allows them to capitalize on opponents' mistakes and shortcomings, such as the Packers' lack of a running game. It's hardly a coincidence that this approach worked quite well for the team that previously employed Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff: The Patriots. As long as it continues, it seems reasonable to expect that despite a 3-2 record away from the Georgia Dome, the Falcons can survive a three-game road stretch against beatable teams (Carolina and Seattle are the others) that begins with this matchup. With the league's youngest roster, it isn't exactly a surprise that the Buccaneers have suffered each of their four losses to quality opponents and have come up short in close games against two of those foes (Baltimore and Atlanta).

Jacksonville at Tennessee: Thanks to the Colts' troubles, both of these teams remain very much alive for the AFC South crown. The Jaguars had been on a roll before Sunday's loss to the New York Giants. The Titans are unraveling, and if they still have to rely on Rusty Smith as their quarterback, they'll have a hard time in this one. After allowing Houston's Arian Foster to rush for 143 yards, the Titans' defense figures to be in for another long day against Maurice Jones-Drew, who has had four consecutive 100-yard games.

Pittsburgh at Baltimore: When the Ravens won in the final seconds at Pittsburgh in Week 4, it was presumed that things would be very different for the rematch because Ben Roethlisberger -- who was serving the final game of his suspension at the time -- would be back at quarterback for the Steelers. The fact is, the Steelers look more vulnerable than they did then, especially on their injury depleted offensive line. Given how badly that group struggled against Buffalo, it makes sense to believe it will also have an extremely hard time against Haloti Ngata and the rest of the Ravens' talented defensive front. It also doesn't help that Roethlisberger is dealing with a sore foot. If Joe Flacco is given the freedom to do so, he could have a big day against the Steelers' secondary.

N.Y. Jets at New England: This could easily be described as "The Game of the Year" and a potential preview of the AFC Championship Game. These are division rivals that share NFL-best 9-2 records. The Patriots win with Tom Brady and an explosive offense while the Jets excel with one of the league's most dominant defenses. The head coaches, New England's Bill Belichick and the Jets' Rex Ryan, are two of the league's greatest strategists and will have three extra days to prepare. Belichick has managed to get the most out of a roster loaded with younger players, and with a defense that hardly performs at the level one would expect on a strong contender. Mark Sanchez has been impressive in leading comebacks for the Jets, but his work in the earlier stages of the game leaves something to be desired. Let the hype begin!

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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