ORCHARD PARK, New York The crushing heartbreak of losing four consecutive Super Bowls is starting to feel like the glory days for long-suffering Buffalo Bills fans, who once again are watching a season full of promise slip away into an 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."
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)