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By David Staba

Maybe Jerry Gray should start yelling right now.

It took a locker-room tirade, and some tinkering with the coverage, by Buffalo's defensive coordinator to awaken the slumbering Bills defense in Houston on Sunday. The revival averted what would have been the first truly embarrassing Buffalo loss this season.

Not because losing to the Texans would have been humiliating in and of itself. But during the first two quarters, the Bills managed to turn a Houston offense that started the day as the National Football League's absolute worst into an offensive juggernaut.

You could have discounted Houston's first offensive play -- rookie quarterback David Carr's bomb to Corey Bradford that wound up covering 81 yards -- as a fluke. Except that it wasn't. Carr wound up throwing for 200 first-half yards and directing three scoring drives. The Texans led by two touchdowns late in the second quarter and, after averaging fewer than 200 total yards per game for the season's first month, Houston piled up 258 in the first half alone.

"I hate football," said Nicole, the bartender at Cocktail Bob's on Sunday. "Football sucks."

She spoke of her indifference to the sport in general, which she proved by inquiring as to just whom the Bills were playing against, anyway, early in the second quarter. But she summed things up quite nicely for any fan of the home team or neutral observer of the sport for the game's first 90 minutes.

And it wasn't just Buffalo's defense, which spent the first five games aspiring to putridity. There's only a one-hour time difference between Western New York and Houston, but just about all of the Bills, including the heretofore infallible Drew Bledsoe, opened the afternoon looking like they'd just gotten off a plane from Tahiti.

One particularly miserable offensive sequence late in the first quarter went like this: False start on right guard Marques Sullivan, holding penalty on left tackle Jonas Jennings, Bledsoe sacked for a 10-yard loss (he also fumbled, but Bills left guard Ruben Brown came up with the loose ball).

The series of blunders left Buffalo facing a second-and-35. Not a whole lot of plays you can call to get out of that. And the Bills didn't, punting two snaps later.

By this point, conversation had turned to politics ("Elia says the city's cleaner than it's ever been? She should come down my street," said one disgruntled constituent), the morning's horseshoe competition and the knockout veggie-and-cheese tray provided by Linda (who also produced a tremendous batch of chocolate chip-and-oatmeal cookies).

The game itself could have been even worse. Houston kept Buffalo's first scoring drive alive with a running-into-the-kicker penalty. That 5-yard infraction wouldn't have been enough to give the Bills a first down, except that the Texans had been flagged two plays earlier for having 12 players on the field. Even Nicole knows you can only have 11.

Thus it was 17-3 when Bledsoe finally got Buffalo moving on its last first-half possession. His 35-yard laser to Peerless Price keyed the drive to the first of Travis Henry's two touchdown runs. Two Houston penalties inside the Texans' 15-yard line didn't hurt, either.

Whatever happened in the Buffalo locker room at halftime, the Bills that were supposed to handle Houston with ease finally showed up in the third quarter. With Henry breaking tackles and Buffalo's receivers running free in the secondary, Bledsoe guided three long scoring drives while the sufficiently chastened defense surrendered just one touchdown (and even that was set up by Henry's weekly fumble).

This being the Bills, they kept Houston hanging around until the final moments. Thanks to a roughing-the-passer flag against Chidi Ahanotu that wiped out what would have been Buffalo's first interception of the season, Carr put the Texans within 12 yards of the tying touchdown and the Bills' fourth overtime game in six tries.

Carr couldn't hit that last pass, though, and Buffalo escaped with a .500 record, having matched its 2001 win total with 10 regular-season contests left in 2002.

That ties the Bills with New England, losers of three straight, for second place in the AFC East. Buffalo visits division-leading Miami next week with a chance to make a true divisional race of it, especially since the Dolphins may have to operate without quarterback Jay Fiedler, who broke his thumb in Denver on Sunday.

Of course, there's still the little matter of stopping Ricky Williams. And that's going to take a lot more than yelling.

BILLS MVP: In a break from tradition, it's not Bledsoe. Sure, he was 19-of-33 for 254 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner. And those numbers don't reflect his usual array of how'd-he-do-that throws. But BillStuff feels the time has come to start taking him for granted.

So this week's honor goes to Travis Henry. Sure, he fumbled, which took a little gloss off his 159 rushing yards and two scores. But he always does that. And his recovery of a Bledsoe fumble kept the winning drive going, more than offsetting his own miscue.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Carr, who ran for one touchdown and threw for another, is going to be well worth the No. 1 overall pick Houston used to get him, provided he survives this season. The Buffalo pass rush, all but non-existent before Sunday, dumped him five times (that's a Rob Johnson-esque 31 sacks in five games).

TRICK PLAY OF THE DAY: Note to Buffalo's defense: When a running back slows down while running toward the sideline and lifts the ball above his shoulder, as Houston's James Allen did early in the fourth quarter, HE'S GOING TO THROW IT. SO COVER SOMEBODY.

WING REPORT: Despite filling up on carrots, broccoli, cheese and cookies, BS gamely ordered from Frenchy's. Not much spice for mediums, but well-cooked and meaty. Tasty blue cheese, too. B+.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Nicole can't be called a fan in the traditional sense. Or in any sense, really. But there's something admirable about retaining your dignity (or at least apathy) while those around you are losing theirs.

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 October 15 2002