Struggling Bills Heading Toward Uncertain Future

After five straight losses, barring a sporting miracle, the Bills (5-7) will miss the National Football League (NFL) playoffs for a 12th straight year, a run of gridiron failure that could stand alone.

If the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans clinch a post-season spot as expected, the Bills will become the only NFL team not to make a playoff appearance since 1999, heaping more misery on a franchise that has had just one winning campaign in 11 seasons.

“It’s hard. It’s tough. It’s no fun,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said about his team’s flickering playoff hopes. “I know we’re not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs and you don’t ever concede it until you are, but at the same time it’d be very difficult for us to make it.

“You feel a huge responsibility to the organization, to the football team and to the fans.”

The glow from a 4-1 start to the season, which included an upset of AFC East powerhouse New England, has long faded as evidenced by the more than 16,000 unsold seats at the Bills’ home loss last Sunday to the Tennessee Titans.

The game was the first this season the Bills failed to sell enough tickets for to prevent a local television blackout and with two home dates remaining against Miami on December 18 and Denver on December 24 the chances of a full stadium seem remote.

“The fans have been awesome especially early on when we were winning games,” said Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was rewarded with a six-year $59 million contract extension after the team’s quick start. “This was truly a home field advantage and it was electric.

“The way that we’ve played lately hasn’t been good enough.”

Sitting at the eastern end of Lake Erie, winters are long and hard in Buffalo and this year’s could be particularly nasty with the franchise’s future once again in doubt.

The Bills’ 93-year-old owner Ralph Wilson has been secretive about succession plans for the franchise while the 38-year-old stadium that bears his name in the tiny hamlet of Orchard Park is in desperate need of major renovations with the current lease agreement set to expire in 2013.

“You absolutely have the perfect storm for a team that may get relocated,” Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University’s Tisch Center told Reuters. “The NFL has its roots in small cities like Buffalo and Green Bay, around the Great Lakes and if you are the NFL, you would hate to lose that legacy.

“But on the other hand the city of Toronto beckons 60 miles away with incredible wealth and a cosmopolitan environment that has to seem appealing.”

FAN BASE

The Bills’ problems extend well beyond a losing record and aging stadium. Like other cities in the Rust Belt, the city of Buffalo has watched businesses flee and its population shrink.

Desperate to expand its fan base, Wilson sold five regular season games and three preseason contests between 2008 and 2012 to their northern neighbours in Toronto for $78 million.

With a robust corporate community, the Toronto market is one the Bills may have to keep leaning on to remain viable.

But Toronto has an eye on a permanent NFL team of its own while Los Angeles, with plans for a new stadium in place, will soon be looking for a tenant.

The biggest concern for Bills fans, however, may well be the health of the team’s owner.

It is not known if Wilson has a succession plan in place and without one the Bills franchise could die with their owner.

“Let’s say the Bills get a very conservative evaluation of $600 million, you’re talking about an inheritance tax for Ralph Wilson heirs of around $300 million,” explained Boland. “They may be forced to leave Buffalo because of the inheritance tax situation.

“If Mr. Wilson were to pass away, this team in Buffalo may not be savable.

“The sad part about this is that if Buffalo were to lose their team is that there is no other city other than Green Bay where a pro sport franchise probably means as much.”

(Reporting by Steve Keating; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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This Time, the Other Team Rallies Late as the Bengals Thwart the Bills

That quarterback, the ’ Andy Dalton, shook off a wretched first half and led his first game-winning drive in the N.F.L. on Sunday.

Mike Nugent’s 43-yard field goal as time ran out gave Cincinnati a 23-20 victory over previously unbeaten Buffalo in front of the smallest crowd in Paul Brown Stadium’s history.

“I think we needed it a lot, especially at home,” Nugent said. “We’ve got to do a better job of putting fans in the stands.”

Many of the 41,142 fans had left when Dalton ran 3 yards for a tying touchdown with 4 minutes 9 seconds to go. He put Cincinnati (2-2) in position to pull it out by scrambling for a pivotal first down on the winning drive, helped by a replay overturn in his favor.

Dalton’s strong finish ended the Bengals’ streak of 10 straight losses against Buffalo (3-1) since the 1988 A.F.C. championship game. Sunday’s 14-point comeback was Cincinnati’s biggest since Carson Palmer’s team overcame a 17-point deficit to beat Baltimore, 27-26, in 2004.

“He’s a young quarterback,” said the rookie receiver A. J. Green, who had 4 catches for 118 yards. “It’s all about how you finish. The great ones finish, and he’s going to be a great one.”

The Bills arrived as the A.F.C.’s last perfect team, having rallied from deficits of 18 points against Oakland and 21 points against New England in the past two games. No team in league history had mounted such back-to-back comebacks.

This time, it came down to holding a lead. The Bills did not do it..

“I don’t know if it had anything to do with all the emotion from last week’s game,” quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “It had more to do with us flat-out not showing up in the second half.”

Buffalo took a 17-3 lead during Dalton’s poor first half. He was only 7 of 20 for 116 yards with 2 sacks and an interception that safety Bryan Scott returned 43 yards for a touchdown. His passer rating was a minuscule 15.8 in the opening half.

“I’ve been through a lot,” said Dalton, a second-round draft pick. “You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low. If you’re too high, it can hurt you. If you’re too low, it can hurt you. I try to stay even-keel.”

Dalton got going with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham, the Bengals’ first touchdown in seven quarters. Dalton went 3 yards on a draw to tie the score, then scrambled to set up the winning kick the next time Cincinnati got the ball.

On third-and-3 from the Cincinnati 43, he scrambled away from the rush and dived out of bounds, stretching the ball as far ahead as he could.

It was marked a few inches short of the first down. After a review, the ball was moved about a foot forward, giving the Bengals a first down with 45 seconds left.

Brian Leonard caught a 15-yard pass and ran 14 yards to the Buffalo 25, setting up the winning kick. Nugent, coming off knee surgery last year, is perfect in 10 field-goal chances.

Dalton finished 18 of 36 for 298 yards. Cedric Benson ran 19 times for 104 yards, taking some of the pressure off the quarterback.

Coming off an emotional win over New England, the Bills were flat on offense and never got moving. They had scored at least 30 points in each of the first three games, but they managed only Scott’s touchdown return, Fred Jackson’s 2-yard run and two field goals.

“It’s the worst way to lose it,” Jackson said. “We had an opportunity to put away the game, but we didn’t make the plays when we had to.”

Last year, the Bills came to Paul Brown Stadium and pulled off a comeback that got them going, rallying behind Fitzpatrick for a 49-31 win after trailing by 31-14 at halftime.

Fitzpatrick could not make a big play in the second half on Sunday, finishing 20 of 34 for 199 yards.

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