ORCHARD PARK - All of a sudden it's real. When the TV networks flash up the AFC playoff picture, there's Buffalo at 7-6 listed as 'In the hunt."
And the Bills are.
It took a victory over a winless team in Game 13 to certify their presence in the post-season race … but a near-perfect afternoon did just that.
First Buffalo did its part, dispatching the reeling Dolphins, 38-17 at 'The Ralph.' Miami, which lost six of its first 11 games by a field goal, has seemingly lost its heart and now appears to be a lock for 0-16 … unless Baltimore is actually as bad as it looked last night.
"You feel bad for them … they have more talented players than their record indicates," said Bills' defensive tackle Larry Triplett. "It's unfortunate that they're 0-13, but we're in a race and we're trying to win every game."
To which Bills' coach Dick Jauron added, "I feel for Miami, but obviously we wanted to beat them as badly as we possibly could."
Second, the Titans, in control by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter at home against the Chargers, managed to get tied at the end of regulation and lose in overtime, falling to 7-6 … the same as Buffalo.
The only disappointment for the Bills was that the Browns managed to hold off the Jets at the Meadowlands, to improve to 8-5.
So while it wasn't a perfect day, if coach Dick Jauron's crew had its druthers, it would be to have the Titans lose, because Buffalo doesn't play them.
But next Sunday in Cleveland, the Bills and Browns meet with the winner getting a leg up on the AFC's second wild-card berth.
And Buffalo's lockerroom reflected the enthusiasm of being squarely in the playoff race this late in the season.
Said outside linebacker Keith Ellison, "Guys are excited … we're coming down to the end of the season and we still have a lot to play for.
"We can't wait to get back to work on Wednesday and start game-planning for Cleveland."
And running back Fred Jackson, one of two Bills to rush for over 100 yards against Miami, added, "It was a great feeling … coming out of the tunnel, everybody was just excited about (the chance to stay alive in the race).
"We're looking forward to (the Browns' game). We know it's a challenge, Cleveland is a great team and we have to bring our 'A' game."
only eight teams - the ones over .500 - are realistically in the AFC race for six playoff spots.
But the otherwordly Patriots have clinched the East, and the Colts and Chargers are on the verge in the South and West, respectively. The only uncertain race is the North where Pittsburgh (9-4) leads Cleveland by only a game and the Steelers will be a big Bills' fans next Sunday.
With Jacksonville (9-4) a virtual lock for one wild-card spot, the other is left to the Browns, Bills or Titans.
Marshawn Lynch, the Bills other 100-yard rusher, admitted, "This is where you want to be at this time of year …making that hunt for it. I feel that's going to give us an edge because we want it so bad I can feel it in the locker room."
And it's not just Lynch, a rookie first-round draft choice.
"We're right in the thick of it and we pretty much control our own destiny right now," said wide receiver Lee Evans, who caught two TD passes on Sunday. "(Cleveland is) right in the thick of it too. You're going to have two teams fighting for the same spot, clashing heads so it should be a good game."
And that enthusiasm is fine by Jauron.
"We don't mind the excitement, but we do have to focus," he said. "We have to stay in the moment every day in our preparation, and on game day we just have to play.
"Our guys are good that way so I don't worry about them so much on game day as in preparation because we're pretty young, and that can be good and bad. It just depends on the type of guys and so far these guys have been terrific."
(Chuck Pollock is sports editor of the Olean Times Herald)