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Futility, From Flutie To Fitzpatrick (And Beyond)

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Welcome to New Jersey, where the Bills face the Jets on Sunday. And where even remotely promising Buffalo football seasons go to die.

Road wins in the National Football League rarely come easily. For the Bills, they have been impossible to attain against the New York Jets since before the playoffs became a source of nostalgia.

The Meadowlands Stadium big-game futility began not with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chan Gailey or J.P. Losman and Dick Jauron or even Rob Johnson and Gregggggg Williams, but Doug Flutie and Wade Phillips.

The Bills arrived in East Rutherford in early November of 1998 on a five-game winning streak, with four of them coming after Flutie replaced an injured Johnson in Indianapolis. Each team came in with a 5-3 record and a great comeback story at quarterback, as Vinny Testaverde had replaced Glenn Foley after New York’s 0-2 start.

There was absolutely no magic from Flutie or anyone else in a Bills uniform that day. Testaverde shredded Buffalo’s secondary, throwing for three touchdowns in a 34-12 whomping. Flutie turned in his worst game to date for the Bills, finishing 12-of-30 for 154 yards and two interceptions, one of which came 19 seconds before halftime and set up a New York field goal, the other leaving the Jets with less than a half a field to cover to score the game’s final points.

Reverse the result (or New York’s 17-10 win in Orchard Park the following month) and the ’98 Bills open the postseason at home as AFC East champions, instead of traveling to Miami to lose to Jimmy Johnson and Dan Marino in a wild-card game.

A year later, Buffalo was 7-3 when the annual New Jersey trip came around, and the Jets were stumbling along at 4-6 with Ray Lucas subbing for Testaverde, who was lost for the season on Opening Day.

Flutie was badly outplayed by Lucas, who would start all of 15 games in seven season with the Jets and Dolphins. The decisive play in New York’s 17-7 win came early in the second quarter, three snaps after Lucas connected with Dedric Ward for a 7-0 lead.

Facing third-and-8 from his own 5-yard line, Flutie failed to pick up a blind-side rush, got sacked in the end zone by Ray Mickens and fumbled, with Eric Ogbogu falling on the loose ball for a 14-0 New York advantage.

(Note: Less than two months later, Flutie diehards would cite Johnson’s inability to avoid a safety in an identical situation as proof that their man should have started the playoff game in Tennessee. Even though their man had not only failed to escape the Jets rush, but failed to hold on to the ball under the same circumstances. But that’s probably another column altogether.)

And those were the good times. Buffalo still reached the playoffs in ’98 and ’99. The Bills and Jets have played 14 times in New Jersey since Flutie’s end-zone fumble, with Buffalo winning just four. And all of those proved meaningless for Buffalo.

The first was one of Alex Van Pelt’s three wins as a Bills starter, a 14-9 thriller that improved Buffalo’s 2001 record to 3-12.

After going 0-for-Drew Bledsoe-and-Kelly Holcomb against the Jets on the road, the ’06 Bills and J.P. Losman pulled to 6-7 with a 31-13 win that kept their faint playoff hopes alive, only to drop their last two for a 7-9 finish that would become the standard under first-year coach Jauron.

They did it again a year later, sort of. Losman replaced Edwards with the score tied at a field goal each in the fourth quarter, with one of his three completions going for 85 yards to Lee Evans to seal a 13-3 win. The Bills, of course, finished 7-9 again.

Losman more than made up for it the following season, in perhaps the most heinous loss in the rivalry’s history.

Having completely dissipated a 4-0 start under Trent Edwards, the 5-7 Bills somehow took the lead when Losman completed four straight to set up Fred Jackson’s 11-yard touchdown run with 5:39 left. After Buffalo’s defense forced Brett Favre and the Jets to go three-and-out, Losman faced a second-and-5 from his own 27 with 2:06 remaining.

Marshawn Lynch had already run for 127 yards, Jackson for another 31. So someone thought it would be a good idea for Losman to pass, and he decided the best option was to scramble back toward his own goal line. There, he was stripped of the ball by Abram Elam, with Shaun Ellis scooping up the loose ball and trotting in for the winning touchdown.

You guessed it — the Bills went on to finish 7-9, as was their wont under Jauron.

Buffalo’s most recent New Jersey victory came a year later, in another game most witnesses would like to forget. Steve Christie’s field goal with 2:49 left in overtime, set up by Mark Sanchez’s fifth interception of the day, gave the Bills a 16-13 edge on a day when they allowed New York to run for 318 yards, 210 of them by Thomas Jones, and Fitzpatrick replaced a concussed Trent Edwards at quarterback.

Fitz, E.J. Manuel and the legendary Brian Brohm all played their part in Buffalo’s four Meadowlands losses since, though few quarterbacks deserve more credit for defeat thanFitzpatrick in the ’12 season opener.

So now Kyle Orton gets his chance. Once again, the Bills need a win, this time to reach the season’s midway point at 5-3 and as part of a reasonable playoff discussion.

Yes, the Jets are 1-6. They have also lost five of those games to teams that currently have winning records, and four of them by a single score or less. Most recently, they lost by two on the road to New England, and will have had 10 days to rest and prepare when they take the field Sunday.

New York’s strength is centered in the middle of its defensive line, which happens to match up quite well with the disaster area which is Buffalo’s offensive interior.

Geno Smith played well in New England, but would figure to be fresh meat for Buffalo’s pass rush. But then, the Bills allowed Teddy Bridgewater to keep the Vikings ahead until the game’s final snap last Sunday.

At this point, predicting what these Bills will do based on their recent performances, or those of their opponents, is futile. Almost as much so as playing a game that matters in New Jersey.