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Slumping Bills provide cause for forced optimism

Less than two weeks ago, Buffalo was 5-3 and in the midst of the playoff chase, with back-to-back games against fellow playoff hopefuls offering the opportunity to solidify the Bills’ position as a contender.

Within four days, though, the Bills came from ahead to lose at home to Kansas City and on the road to Miami, dropping to 5-5 and the back of the postseason-seeking pack.

The pair of defeats shattered the illusion that, after 14 seasons wallowing in the depths of the AFC, this year was going to be different. Scoring one touchdown in two weeks, that coming on Buffalo’s opening possession against the Chiefs, put the lie to the fanciful notion that Kyle Orton was finally blooming into a quality NFL quarterback with his fifth team in 11 professional seasons.

So it would be easy, for fans and media types alike, to give up on expecting much of anything from the final six weeks of the regular season and spend the rest of 2014 insisting that general managers and coaches get fired, quarterbacks get benched and new owners do this or that.

It would also be incredibly depressing to begin what has become an annual ritual a week before Thanksgiving, with more than a third of the schedule remaining.

So we’re going to take the opposite approach, at least in this space, this week. We’re not dwelling on the long odds against winning at least five of the last six games, given the present state of the Bills and the number of remaining opponents in possession of better records (it’s four of the six, but again, we’re not dwelling).

Instead, we will heed the counsel of every football coach ever and focus on the only game that matters right now, Sunday’s visit by the New York Jets.

In their first meeting, barely a month ago, the Jets self-destructed almost immediately after the opening kickoff. Geno Smith, the next quarterback selected after Buffalo’s E.J. Manuel in the 2013 draft, opened with perhaps the worst 10 minutes in modern football history. Before being mercifully pulled by Jets coach Rex Ryan, Smith completed two passes to his teammates and three to Bills defenders.

His replacement, Michael Vick, did a little better, but turned the ball over three times himself. The unwelcome generosity of their quarterbacks apparently caused the Jets to give up on even trying to cover Sammy Watkins. Buffalo’s rookie receiver ran free for a 61-yard touchdown and would have had an 89-yarder, as well, had he been able to make it to the end zone before beginning his celebration.

The Bills didn’t have to do a whole lot else on offense, beyond gratefully accepting New York’s blunders and not returning the favors, to roll to a 43-23 victory.

The Jets again pop up when the Bills could use a boost to their self-esteem. Vick is now New York’s quarterback-of-the-moment, having led his team to a less-humiliating loss to Kansas City and the biggest upset of Week 10, a 20-13 shocker against Pittsburgh.

While he’s been OK in his two starts, his main contribution has been not coughing up the ball. More than half his passing yards against Pittsburgh came on a 67-yard touchdown bomb to T.J. Graham, the former Buffalo receiver last seen trying to hide in the end zone during a bizarre attempt at something or other on a Bills kickoff last month.

There should be no confusing the 34-year-old Michael Vick the Bills will face on Sunday with the Michael Vick who mesmerized defenses, fans and video-game designers with Atlanta before his arrest, conviction and prison term for torturing and murdering dogs in the course of running an illicit pit-bull-fighting ring. Or with the Michael Vick who briefly starred for Philadelphia after his release from prison for torturing and murdering dogs in the course of running an illicit pit-bull-fighting ring.

Whatever Vick has left, though, still makes him better than Smith and, for the last two games at least, more productive than Orton, who head coach Doug Marrone insists will remain Buffalo’s starter.

Still, the Bills have a few things going for them in the rematch.

The defense wore down late against Kansas City and Miami, allowing the Chiefs to score the game’s final 14 points after falling behind 13-3 and the Dolphins to close things out with 19 unanswered points. The Bills still came up with six sacks in each contest, though, and Vick has been dumped 11 times in less than three full games since replacing Smith.

Fred Jackson, who missed two of Buffalo’s last three games with a groin injury, said he expects to return against the Jets. Boobie Dixon and Bryce Brown combined for just 49 rushing yards against the Dolphins, and the latter coughed up Buffalo’s most damaging fumble of the year to date against Kansas City. Jackson’s availability would give the anemic running game a boost, while providing the Bills with their top pass-blocking back—an especially important quality given Orton’s complete lack of mobility.

Buffalo’s offensive line has also improved, at least marginally, over the past couple of games. Orton absorbed three sacks total against Kansas City and Miami after going down 17 times in his first four starts.

Then there’s the weather. At this writing, much of Western New York remains buried under Tuesday’s lake-effect onslaught, with another predicted round of snowfall still to come. The National Weather Service’s forecast for Sunday calls for temperatures in the 40s, but winds around 20 mph and the possibility of rain. Wind and rain in Orchard Park have historically had a bigger impact on visiting passing games than just plain old snow, overwhelming quarterbacks much better than Vick.

So, despite the gloom induced by two straight losses and compounded by an impolitely early snow storm, there is still reason to hope.

For this week, at least.

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