ORCHARD PARK, N.Y., Jan. 2 -- The Buffalo Bills spent 10 long weeks instilling hope in this city. Then they came out for the biggest game of their season and looked, well, utterly hopeless.
In a final crumbling every bit as shocking as their late-season revival, the Bills lost, 29-24, yesterday to a Pittsburgh Steelers team guided primarily by second-stringers and practice-squad players. The loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium kept Buffalo (9-7) from qualifying for the playoffs. Maybe more hurtful, it rendered the team's inspirational recovery from a 1-5 start -- its recent six-game winning streak -- meaningless.
With home field secured for the playoffs, Pittsburgh and its fans took pleasure in the team's ability to win despite the absence of many starters in the lineup.
(David Duprey -- AP)
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, won its 14th consecutive game and became the first AFC team -- and only the fourth in NFL history -- to finish 15-1.
"We had a chance to do something really special right here," Bills defensive tackle Pat Williams said, "and we totally wasted it."
Buffalo needed a win and a loss from either the New York Jets or the Denver Broncos to earn its first playoff berth since 1999. It would have become the second team in NFL history to qualify for the postseason after an 0-4 start.
That possibility so stirred Buffalo that 73,414 fans turned out for the game -- the team's highest attendance all season. Many of those fans monitored the Jets game via radios and televisions as carefully as they watched the Bills game. It seemed inconceivable that a Buffalo team that had won its last six games by an average of 23 points could lose at home to a Steelers team resting stars Ben Roethlisberger and Jerome Bettis.
"This game meant everything to the fans," Bills wide receiver Eric Moulds said. "I feel like they deserve more than what we showed them today."
After taking a 17-16 lead on a 30-yard interception return by Nate Clements early in the third quarter, the Bills imploded. Kicker Rian Lindell missed a 28-yard field goal that would have extended Buffalo's lead and, on the very next play, Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker took a handoff 58 yards to put the Steelers in scoring position. Two minutes later, kicker Jeff Reed put Pittsburgh ahead with a 37-yard field goal.
What ensued for the Bills was more of a collapse than a comeback attempt. With 13 minutes left, veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe (16 for 30, 189 yards) fumbled at the Bills 18-yard line, and Steelers linebacker James Harrison recovered and ran for a touchdown.
The Bills were called for four penalties in the fourth quarter, upping their game total to 12 for 108 yards -- their highest in two months. During a timeout midway through the fourth quarter, the Buffalo crowd grew so frustrated that it turned on its own slogan -- Billieve! -- and started to boo.
"I was a little surprised," Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward said, "at how [the Bills] fell apart."
Said Williams, the tackle: "To get to this point was a long, long struggle. It's sort of like a slap in the face to have it end like this."
Even more degrading for the Bills, though, was that the Steelers -- who had already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs -- were led by a cast of characters more used to being castoffs.
Parker, a fourth-string running back who was an undrafted rookie free agent, ran for a career-high 102 yards. Backup linebacker Harrison returned a fumble for a touchdown. Backup quarterback Tommy Maddox played passably, completing 12 of 24 passes for 120 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
When the Steelers replaced Maddux with Brian St. Pierre late in the third quarter, the substitution almost served to taunt the Bills. "I mean," linebacker Takeo Spikes said later, "that's a third-string quarterback they're bringing in."
But St. Pierre handed off safely and helped Pittsburgh maintain its lead. "If there was a team that you could put up as a poster boy for a 53-man roster, it's us," said St. Pierre, who was activated off the practice squad Friday. "It's special."
The Bills' season nearly was special.
"I'm pretty angry, really," said Bledsoe, who has 10,151 yards passing in three seasons with Buffalo. A former quarterback for the Patriots, he is only the seventh NFL player to surpass 10,000 yards with two teams. "I really felt that we would play better than this. The bottom line is that if we can't beat them with their backups on the field, we probably don't deserve to be in the playoffs.
"I'm in a little bit of shock right now, to be honest. I never once thought about not making the playoffs. Not once. I never anticipated the season would end like this."