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STEELERS Buffalo hopes to hit jackpot



Published: Sat, January 1, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The resurgent Bills need a win over the Steelers to make the playoffs.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) -- Troy Vincent remembers when the Bills were the butt of everyone's jokes back in October. Pat Williams barely remembers the last time Buffalo made the playoffs, never mind played a meaningful game this late in the year.

"Finally," said Williams, the hefty defensive tackle. "Finally, it means something. I've been playing here since '97. There haven't been playoffs here in a while."

The Bills aren't in the postseason yet, but what a remarkable ride they've enjoyed.

Overcoming an 0-4 start, Buffalo (9-6) has won six straight and nine of its last 11 to stay in contention for the AFC's two wild-card berths heading into its season finale, hosting Pittsburgh on Sunday.

The Bills need help to clinch their first playoff spot since 1999. Besides having to beat Pittsburgh (14-1), a team that's already clinched first place in the AFC, they need either the New York Jets (10-5) or Denver (9-6) to lose Sunday.

It might come down to a win and a prayer, but few thought it would come to this after the Bills' bumbling start.

The joke

"Tom Jackson, Michael Irvin, we were the joke," Vincent, the veteran cornerback, said, referring to two national TV broadcasters. "To think that your team has a shot of maybe playing in the postseason. Somebody in Vegas got rich."

The jackpot for Buffalo is clearly in sight: a chance to join the 1992 Chargers, the only NFL team to make the playoffs after opening with four losses.

Put aside the subplots of how this is rookie Bills coach Mike Mularkey's first game against his former team; or how Bills president Tom Donahoe, another ex-Steeler, has built what could be considered a "Pittsburgh North" in Buffalo during his four-year tenure.

All that matters is the playoffs.

Just ask receiver Eric Moulds, the nine-year veteran, and only current Bills player that competed in a playoff game in Orchard Park, back in 1996.

"There's been a bitter taste in my mouth for the last four or five years," Moulds said. "Play 16 games and I'm sitting at home with family and friends watching the playoffs. You get the feeling: 'I'm an NFL player and I should be out there."'

Here's his chance to erase the memories of a team that is on its third coach after going 25-39 in its previous four seasons.

The Bills have been getting contributions from all phases.

Their offense has scored 33 or more points in each of the last six games, a franchise best. Their defense has 36 takeaways, doubling last year's total. And their special teams have scored six touchdowns, including one off a blocked punt.

Weak schedule

It helps that the Bills have gotten this far by beating up on some of the NFL's worst teams.

They've twice beaten teams featuring interim coaches, Miami and Cleveland. Another win came at San Francisco (2-13). They're 4-0 against the NFC West, the league's worst division.

Buffalo's wins have come against opponents that are currently 50-85. The teams that beat the Bills are a combined 57-33.

The Bills even catch a break against the Steelers, who have little to play for and will be resting some of starters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's nursing sore ribs, and running back Jerome Bettis (ankle).

The only real incentive the Steelers have is to win their 14th straight, one short of an NFL single-season record, and become only the fourth team to finish 15-1.

"This week's important," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "We can't go out and lay down. We've got to continue our ways because we are approaching the playoffs."

Steelers' success

As much has been made out of Roethlisberger's rookie season since taking over for injured Tommy Maddox in Week 2, the Steelers' success can also be attributed to a strong running game and a stingy defense that's leading the league in fewest yards allowed and is second in yielding 15 points a game.

And yet the oddsmakers have given the Bills an 8-point edge.

"That's interesting," third-string running back Verron Haynes said. "Well, we also weren't supposed to have the record we have. So we still have to go out there and prove people wrong."

The Bills have been doing that for some time.

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe wore his thoughts on his chest, a T-shirt that read: "Billieve."

"Everybody at different times had written us off and cast us aside," Bledsoe said. "This team, I think what we've done shows how we feel."




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