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By David Staba

This is a pretty precarious time to be a sports columnist in Western New York.

After all, the home team is 1-2. Normally, that means it's time to get out the whupping stick. Call for the coach's head. Mock the personnel decisions of the front office. Make fun of the quarterback in some juvenile way.

The Buffalo Bills' performance on Sunday in Denver, though ultimately in vain, doesn't lend itself to unfairly cutting cracks, though.

Granted, the Bills didn't do either of the things required of truly good teams -- run the ball with any effectiveness or stop the Broncos from doing the same. You don't need to go much further to find the bottom line in Denver's 28-23 win.

But a thoroughly unscientific poll of Buffalo fans in attendance at the house party that provided the BillStuff vantage point this week showed that the loss left just 11 percent "slightly disappointed," and another 11 percent "mildly irritated." And not a soul could be described by the words most accurately depicting most of the faithful after other losses by other Bills teams -- "utterly distraught."

The singular explanation for the disparity between the irrefutable evidence introduced whenever either team ran the ball and the verdict of the rooting populace wears No. 11. It would be easy to overstate Drew Bledsoe's impact, except that it's inescapable.

Exhibit A: With Buffalo struggling to move the ball and trailing 14-0 late in the first half, Bledsoe smokes a third-down Denver blitz with a 44-yard laser to Eric Moulds. That sets up Travis Henry's make-good touchdown and keeps anyone from flipping off the television and heading outside to absorb the last few moments of summer.

Exhibit B: On the Bills' first drive of the third quarter, another flick of the wrist produces a 42-yard connection with Peerless Price, positions Mike Hollis to cut Denver's lead to 14-10 early in the third. A year ago, Buffalo's quarterbacks were fortunate to turn in one game-changing big pass per month. Bledsoe came up with two in about half an hour.

Exhibit C: After Denver seemingly finishes the Bills with a clock-eating 80-yard procession to take a 21-10 lead (causing Mark, the host, to momentarily despair: "What did we do to deserve this?").

He's heartened a moment later, when Broncos punter Tom Rouen's mind wanders while the snap is en route, putting the Bills just 12 yards away from making it very interesting. Getting a break is one thing, taking advantage of it another. Bledsoe wastes little time, zipping a 4-yard touchdown throw to rookie Josh Reed.

The party erupts.

"We're the (expletive deleted) Cardiac Kids," shouts one reveler, invoking the moniker applied to the 1980 Cleveland Browns, whom quarterback Brian Sipe rallied repeatedly en route to a division title.

Exhibit D: Denver goes on another demoralizing 80-yard journey down the field to take a 28-16 lead. The host is again ready to give up and suggests abandoning the game for a friendly, for-entertainment-purposes-only competition involving dice. He's quickly overruled by the rest of the party.

Bledsoe rewards their loyalty with what's becoming a weekly ritual -- a quick scoring drive on which he can't seem to miss, leaving the defense looking transfixed, if not downright compliant.

This time, it takes two passes to Moulds, one to Price and, just to keep from getting predictable, a pair of first-down hookups with nearly forgotten tight end Jay Riemersma and one last flip to Moulds for the score. Seven passes, six completions. Seventy yards in 63 seconds.

All that's needed for a finish even wilder than Buffalo's overtime survival in Minnesota a week earlier is to recover an onside kick. Hollis lofts the ball, rather than skidding it along the ground. Before it even comes down in the reliable hands of Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith, the room deflates.

A few curses are muttered, but no one breaks anything, or takes out their frustrations on a friend or loved one.

That could change after a few more losses, no matter how close or exciting.

In 1986, the Bills started 1-2 in their first three games with Jim Kelly throwing the passes (a close home loss to the New York Jets, a wild overtime defeat in Cincinnati and a win over the then-St. Louis Cardinals). But five defeats in six games followed, ending Hank Bullough's career as a head coach and kick-starting Marv Levy's. You all know what happened then.

Like Kelly two football generations before, Bledsoe has given hope to those fans who need it, and entertainment to everyone else. At some point, he might even provide we mean-spirited columnists with a little fodder.

BILLS MVP: BS hates to be repetitive, but Bledsoe's the obvious choice for the second straight week. Over the past two weeks, he's thrown 90 passes without one landing in the hands of the enemy.

BILLS NON-BLEDSOE MVP: There's a clear need for this category. Since its failure to produce a turnover or stop Denver when it counted disqualifies the entire defense, the runner-up award goes to Moulds. With nine catches for 96 yards, he looks as if he's ready for a season-long game of "Can You Top This?" with Peerless Price.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: When Olandis Gary hobbled off in the first quarter, highly touted rookie Clinton Portis got his first shot at extended playing time. Portis' slide, then slash style produced 103 yards and a touchdown, as well as keeping Denver's three touchdown drives of at least 80 yards churning along.

STAT OF THE GAME: Denver was 1-for-2 on fourth down (the failure resulting from Rouen's dropped snap), but what a one it was. On fourth-and-5 from Buffalo's 37 with 3:35 remaining, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan surprised the viewing audience, the CBS broadcast crew and the Bills defense by eschewing a punt and leaving his offense on the field. Griese's throw to Smith made it less than a yard past the first down marker, but that was enough to keep the clinching touchdown drive going and leave the Bills to hope for a miracle.

WING REPORT: Mark's combination of "hot" and "suicide" wings from Rootie's, an Eggertsville eatery, kept the twist-off tops turning. BS isn't traditionally an aficionado of taste-bud torture, but these meaty limbs offered flavor, as well as heat. The wings' score gets an unfair, but mandatory, boost from Mark's homemade ribs, slathered in a combination of Chiavetta's and traditional barbecue sauce. Grade: A-.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: A much-needed trip to Mount St. Mary's Hospital forced Niagara Falls Reporter Publisher Bruce Battaglia to watch the game from a prone position. He gamely rooted his team on, however, his spirit bolstered by Buffalo's tenacity. And plenty of painkillers.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at editor@buffalopost.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com September 24 2002