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Bills keep playoff hopes alive

12/21/2004 - Buffalo Bills

CINCINNATI -- His final season as a modestly talented tight end coincided with Chuck Noll's last hurrah on the sideline, and it was probably during that 1991 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers that Mike Mularkey was initially exposed to the Hall of Fame coach's favorite and most often-used exhortation to his troops.

Whatever it takes, Noll would preach on a daily basis, and the message apparently took root with Mularkey, and remained with him as a coach, as well. It was, after all, the pithy explanation offered up by Mularkey here Sunday evening, when the Buffalo Bills coach was asked about the mindset that has made his team one of the hottest in the NFL.

Even with Sunday's 33-17 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals, the eighth win in 10 games for a Buffalo team that opened Mularkey's rookie season as a head coach with four straight defeats, it will still take quite a bit for the Bills to earn an AFC wild-card berth. Suffice it to say that, with all of the myriad permutations necessary to catapult Buffalo into its first playoff appearance since 1999, the Bills still need a ton of help.

But the surging Bills have done, over the past 2½ months, a lot to help themselves. And that was certainly the case against the Bengals, when the Bills scored on offense, defense and special teams in a touchdown trifecta that buried a moribund Cincinnati bunch which played without starting quarterback Carson Palmer.

In a period of 6:31 that spanned the first and second quarters, the Bills registered a five-yard touchdown catch by rookie wide receiver Lee Evans, a blocked punt for a score by rookie tight end Jason Peters, and a 62-yard interception return by star weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes. The splurge not only erased an early 7-0 deficit, with the Bengals cashing in an Evans fumble, but deepened the freeze at Paul Brown Stadium on a blustery day when the wind-chill factor at kickoff was a chilly 4 degrees.

Playing for the first time in Cincinnati since departing the Bengals as a transition free agent during the spring of 2003, Spikes predictably performed with great emotion. In addition to his backbreaking interception return, on which he went high to snag a screen pass attempt from a harried Jon Kitna, the prideful Spikes collected three tackles, a pass defensed, one fumble recovery and two quarterback pressures.

"This means something to me because it's the first time, this late in December, that I'm actually playing for something other than personal pride," said Spikes, an all-around star who figures to land a second straight Pro Bowl nod. "This is what it's all about. It's why you play the game. Maybe it's our destiny who knows, for it to be happening for us the way that it is. All I know is, we're leaving it all on the field right now, that's for sure."

Speaking of leaving, well, lot of people did before the game concluded. By intermission, the crowd of 65,378 had essentially been halved, heading home both frigid and frustrated. In the final five minutes, the only people still in Paul Brown Stadium were the Buffalo fans who had made the trek here, conspicuously clad in blue and typically throaty.

The only downer for the Bills was the potential loss of tailback Willis McGahee, who hyperextended his right knee in the second quarter, returned briefly, and then retired to the locker room for the final 1½ quarters. Mularkey declined to elaborate on the injury, and McGahee shook off a quick inquiry about it, but the second-year tailback seems likely to miss some time. One Bills offensive veteran used the term "lost" when speaking of McGahee, and then backtracked, claiming it would not be fair to make an assessment until club officials offered a prognosis.

It would be fair to suggest, on most days, that the fiery Spikes willed the Bills to victory, in a city he had come disdain, after toiling here for the first five seasons of his career. But the Bengals displayed so little will, and even less gumption in falling to 6-8 in a contest that seemed to last interminably, that such a claim might be assigning too much credit.

The fact the Bengals were so repulsive, though, should not diminish the resourcefulness of the Bills, who won for the fifth straight time.

Buffalo is essentially playing for the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, and must monitor the fading Denver Broncos, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens over the last two weeks of the season. And, of course, the Bills must win their final two games, at San Francsico next Sunday and versus Pittsburgh in Buffalo on Jan. 2.

Even the resultant 10-6 record two more victories would produce might not be enough to qualify Buffalo for a playoff spot. But no one want to play the red-hot Bills right now, and it is clear this is a team, much like Carolina had manifested before Saturday night's loss at Atlanta, with an indomitable spirit.

"One area or another, (whether) it takes a big play here or a big interception there, we're getting it right now," Mularkey said. "Whatever it is, it seems, we're finding a way to get it done. That's been gratifying."

The Bills haven't always been pretty in carving out their hot streak, and aesthetics clearly were absent Sunday, as the Buffalo offense managed only 212 yards and 13 first downs, and quarterback Drew Bledsoe was serviceable, to be kind. Bledsoe has at least learned to manage the game much better, under the tutelage of Mularkey, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche, but he isn't the big-time numbers guy of his youth and has become just a complementary component.

No matter, at least for now, since the Bills are clicking pretty well in all facets of the game. The offense, which had averaged 38.5 points in its previous four games, has some playmakers, and first-rounder Evans (five catches for 101 yards) is an emerging force. The special teams have five kick returns for touchdowns, tying a league record, and can be disruptive. Defensively, the Bills play the run tough, and the secondary is bolstered by the returns of Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent from early-season injuries.

Buffalo had three sacks of the befuddled Kitna, forced three fumbles and recovered two of them, and had a pair of interceptions. The secondary limited explosive Bengals widout Chad Johnson to two catches for 10 yards, his poorest production in 42 outings.

The score by Spikes, who had five interceptions in five seasons with Cincinnati but six in fewer than two full campaigns for the Bills, was indicative of how Buffalo is dictating the action now. On the first-and-15 play from the Buffalo 30-yard line, Vincent came hard on a delayed blitz deep from the secondary. Kitna saw him, panicked a bit, then was crushed by defensive tackle Pat Williams. Just as the football popped into the air, Spikes legally pushed down Cincinnati tailback Rudi Johnson, the intended receiver. He snatched the ball in full stride and rambled untouched for the score.

"That play, the blocked punt, the flea-flicker to Evans (for 60 yards), those kinds of things are game-changing plays, huge turns of momentum," said Bills middle linebacker London Fletcher, who had a game-high nine tackles and one sack. "And we are making those plays every week now. We need to keep making them and, hopefully, things will take care of themselves in other areas. It would hurt to think we played this well and it still wasn't good enough to make (the playoffs). But we're starting to feel that maybe it's our destiny to be in the playoffs."

Destiny, fate, whatever, the Bills can't do much about what occurs with the other AFC wild-card contenders. All they can do is keep winning, with whatever it takes to do that, and see what happens.

"I know this," Spikes said. "If we get to the playoffs, no one is going to remember that we started 0-4 this year. They're going to know we're a team that will be tough to beat, a team that came into the playoffs on a roll, a team with a huge heart."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.