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By David Staba

No apologies needed for this one.

If it was tough not to dismiss Buffalo's first two victories of 2004 as instances of one bad team stumbling past another in rather hideous fashion, it's even more difficult to not be impressed with the Bills' 22-17 win over the New York Jets on Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

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For the first time in the Mike Mularkey Era, we saw what the franchise has been promising since early in the Gregg Williams Era:

A dominant defense making game-turning plays and stopping opposing offenses when it really matters.

Solid special teams optimizing field position for the other two units.

And, most of all, an offense that's at once punishing and mistake-free.

Yes, Drew Bledsoe hit 18 of 30 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. But his most impressive numbers were a pair of zeroes -- no interceptions and no sacks. And he wasn't alone in taking proper care of the ball. The win marked the second straight Sunday without a Buffalo turnover.

It's one thing to play keep away against an Arizona team that played as if it expected the officials to call off the game at any moment due to inclement weather. It's quite another to remain flawless (at least in terms of giveaways) against a Jets team that entered the day 6-1 and fresh off a 41-14 brutalization of Miami just six days earlier.

It would be easy, and probably wrong, to completely attribute the Bills' sudden synchronicity to the emergence of Willis McGahee, but there's no arguing against the notion that he provides the spark and a fair amount of fuel.

He also gives Mularkey and offensive coordinator Tom Clements confidence in their team's ability to pound out tough yardage that they clearly lacked with Travis Henry on the field.

On Buffalo's first series, they sent McGahee up the middle on first down for 5 yards, and again for 4 on second. He got stuffed on third, forcing a punt.

That short-yardage failure came barely two minutes into the game, but you could hear a stadium-wide groan and feel the collective enthusiasm fade just a touch. New running back, same old Bills.

Midway through the quarter, though, Terrence McGee's twisting 38-yard return of a Chad Pennington fumble set Buffalo up at New York's 21-yard line.

In the very recent pass, this was a spot for Bledsoe to loft a hopeful pass in the general direction of Eric Moulds in the end zone, or for Clements to order up one of those fake-double-reverse bits of trickery that only ends in disaster for Buffalo.

Not this time.

Instead, it was McGahee right, McGahee up the middle, McGahee left, leaving the Bills in a dreaded fourth-and-1 situation.

The story of Buffalo's last two seasons has been one of abject failure, or outright surrender, in such situations. On this occasion, though, there was no slow-developing trickery, or resignation to a field-goal attempt. The Bills simply sent McGahee off right tackle, where he picked up a block from backup tight end Tim Euhus and stormed in for the game's first score.

"See how easy that is?" bellowed one fan from the upper deck near the 20-yard line at the scoreboard end of the stadium, from whence BillStuff's ace coverage team took in the game.

As a change of pace from the sports bars, house parties and various other vantage points BS has staked out over the past few seasons, we took our good friend and frequent host Mark up on his offer of a day at the stadium.

While the War Memorial Stadium portion of Bills history predates our football experience, the first journey to the stadium then known as Rich came in 1975, with the Bills of O.J. Simpson, Joe Ferguson and Bobby Chandler hosting Bert Jones, Lydell Mitchell, Roger Carr and the rest of the Baltimore Colts.

The Juice ran wild early that day, running 44 yards for one score and racing 22 and 32 with a pair of passes from Fergy to make it 21-0 early in the second quarter, and it was 28-7 midway through the period.

It almost goes without saying that the Colts stormed back, scoring two touchdowns before halftime and three more in the fourth quarter to win 42-35.

And so began a prolonged, passionate, if often-torturous, affair with the game.

Dozens of trips to Orchard Park on fall Sundays followed over the next 15 years, until professional duties required a change in venue from the stands to the press box, home base for countless contests at home and on the road. Before Sunday, my last outdoor seat for a game was for the 51-3 AFC title game evisceration of the Los Angeles Raiders in January 1991.

While the vibe in the stands Sunday didn't approach the anticipation of Buffalo's first Super Bowl, it certainly cut through the apathy and despair that's enveloped Bills Fandom for much of the past two seasons.

McGahee's touchdown brought the day's first post-kickoff roar, with the volume building for each key defensive play.

Not that there were that many of those. McGahee's running and Bledsoe's efficient passing allowed the Bills to control the heart of the game -- the end of the first half and beginning of the second. Between the second-quarter march to Rian Lindell's 20-yard field goal and the 13-play, 77-yard journey capped by Lee Evans' spectacular catch of Bledsoe's 4-yard flip, the Bills burned 11 minutes and 27 seconds off the clock.

When Buffalo's advanced game of keep-away finally ended, the Bills led by seven points. To look at the Jets' demoralized defense, which came into the day ranked eighth in the league, and confused offense, the spread might as well have been 27.

The Jets managed but a single first down and failed to cross the 50-yard line on any of their next six possessions. One ended with Lawyer Milloy's interception of a Chad Pennington pass. After Pennington left the game with a bruised shoulder, Pat Williams made his way into New York's backfield, and end zone, to dump the suddenly old-again Curtis Martin for a safety that eliminated any lingering doubt about the outcome.

And when Quincy Carter heaved a 51-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss with four minutes and change remaining, Bledsoe did the right thing, handing off the McGahee five times and completing the only needed pass.

Buffalo's performance raised questions about what can yet become of this season, with a trip to New England for a Sunday night game dead ahead. A few weeks ago, with the Bills wallowing in the 1-5 canyon they dug for themselves, that would have meant a good excuse to go to bed early.

But now, with the Bills finally discovering an identity and the Patriots so banged-up they had to use wide receiver Troy Brown as a defensive back in the fourth quarter against St. Louis on Sunday, well ‰Ûº let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

BILLS' MVP: Thirty-seven carries. One hundred and 32 yards. A touchdown. Three starts. Three 100-yard games. Three wins. And consider this -- McGahee has yet to break a long one.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: The Jets (and those of us fantasy-football owners dumb enough to draft him) have been waiting for Santana Moss to do something, anything, all season. Six catches for 157 yards and a touchdown, even if it was in garbage time, topped anything produced by any other member of Gang Green.

STAT OF THE WEEK: If there was a concern about McGahee through his first three extended appearances, it was his stamina. On Sunday, he carried 22 times for 81 yards in the second half alone, and looked like he could have kept on going.

TORRID TERRENCE: Last week, McGee's kickoff return for a touchdown doused what little life the Cardinals displayed. On Sunday, his fumble recovery and return put Buffalo in control early. Some guys just have a knack for big plays, and it looks like the Bills found one in McGee. Those pass-coverage skills could use some work, though.

WING REPORT: While the tailgating is superb at the motel near the stadium where Mark and his people gather each home-game Sunday -- Denise cooked up some delectable corned beef and cabbage this week -- wings can be a hit-and-miss proposition, since hot grease and pre-noon beer drinking don't really go together, and the professionals aren't open that early.

But Randy and Rhonda, who make a pilgrimage for one game each year from Pontypool, Ont., were thinking ahead and stocked up with several orders from the nearby Big Tree Inn the night before. The Big Tree, long frequented by players, fans and press after games, always produces meaty wings with a very buttery sauce, and this time was no exception. Even after a next-morning microwaving, these graded out at a solid B+.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Joe Fortuna, of Fortuna's on 19th Street in Niagara Falls, takes his tailgating very seriously. He produced luscious steak-and-cheese subs on a portable grill in the motel parking lot, which along with the wings and corned beef, combined for a carnivore's dream. While BS normally limits the weekly grading to wings, Joe's efforts, and special sauce, unquestionably deserve an A. Just don't ask him what's in the sauce, because, well, it's secret.


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Nov. 9 2004