published Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Desperate Buffalo Bills face 6-5 Titans

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Chris Johnson had nothing to do with the Music City Miracle nearly 12 years ago and Chan Gailey wasn't in Buffalo back then, either, which is why the Bills coach has no time to reflect on his team's past misfortunes.

The immediate present is far more worrisome to Gailey, especially now that the Tennessee Titans' star running back is showing signs of regaining his stride.

"Yeah, I wish he would've waited a couple of weeks on that," Gailey lamented after watching tape of Johnson's 190-yard rushing performance in a 23-17 win over Tampa Bay last Sunday.

No surprise that Titans rookie coach Mike Munchak has an altogether different take on CJ's long-awaited re-emergence.

"I hope this is just the beginning," Munchak said.

These are two franchises forever linked by their AFL roots and a pair of memorable playoff meetings.

There was the Music City Miracle in which Kevin Dyson -- set up by Frank Wycheck's lateral -- scored to beat Buffalo on a last-second kickoff return in a 2000 AFC wild-card game. And then there was the comeback in the 1993 wild-card playoff, when Buffalo rallied from a 32-point deficit to defeat the then Houston Oilers 41-38 in overtime.

The two meet today in what is essentially a do-or-die game to determine who gets to remain in the postseason hunt for another week.

The Titans coming to town is a reminder how far Buffalo has fallen since that 22-16 playoff loss in Nashville. It was the Bills' last postseason appearance and opened a stretch in which they've endured numerous front-office, coaching and quarterback carousels, which have produced one winning season -- 9-7 in 2004.

A surprising 4-1 start raised hopes that this season might mark a turning point, before a rash of injuries ate into their already thread-bare depth.

The Bills (5-6) have lost four straight games to skid to the fringes of contention.

"With all the work that we've put in this year and from where we came from, to now let it slip away would be a great tragedy," Bills linebacker Nick Barnett said. "You've got a hungry dog pinned in the corner. It's time to start biting people and getting out."

Inconsistent as the Titans (6-5) have been since a 3-1 start, they're still in the hunt for a wild-card berth. And they're not entirely out of the picture to win the AFC South, sitting two wins behind Houston.

With Colts quarterback Peyton Manning out, the division has been turned on its head and might well be won by the team with the last quarterback standing after the Texans lost starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart to season-ending injuries in consecutive games.

And don't think the Titans haven't noticed.

"They're going to keep track of what's happening. You just can't dwell on it. You can't get consumed by it," Munchak said. "But when you come in Wednesday, it's about us and what are we going to do to beat Buffalo?"

Handing the ball to Johnson would be one answer.

As much as Tennessee's offense has relied on veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's efficiency, the Titans are counting on Johnson to step up his production if they intend to make a late-season push.

"If we can't run the ball, we know we'll have a hard time winning," Munchak said.

Johnson has begun to respond. He had 130 yards rushing in 30-3 win at Carolina three weeks ago. Last week he responded after producing 13 yards in a 23-17 loss at Atlanta.

"Yeah, I've found my groove. And it's not all about just breaking big runs. It's all about getting more touches," said Johnson, who's had 100 yards rushing in three of the four games he's had 20 or more carries this year. "I feel like there's momentum coming on."

He'll be facing a defense that's banged-up and been inconsistent. Buffalo is at least better against the run this season, having allowed 130 or more yards rushing only four times after giving up 200 yards eight times last year.

"I know that we're doing a lot better and looking a lot better, but that's not getting us any W's," rookie defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said.

Despite their slide, the Bills showed signs of life in a 28-24 loss at the New York Jets last week. Their defense allowed 58 yards rushing but gave up four touchdowns passing, including Mark Sanchez's 16-yarder to Santonio Holmes with 1:09 left.

Their offense finally found its rhythm after scoring a combined 26 points in its previous three games. Yet the Bills were undone by several miscues.

Receiver Stevie Johnson was flagged 15 yards for celebrating a touchdown and then fined $10,000 by the NFL for mocking Jets receiver Plaxico Burress by pretending to shoot himself in the thigh. And Johnson had two passes go off his hands during the final drive.

He's eager to put that behind him.

"That's all in the past now," Johnson said. "It's elimination games from here on out."

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