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By David Staba

The Buffalo Bills seem to be getting the hang of this winning thing.

A week after showing that they can play with the National Football League's elite, the Bills again demonstrated that they can stifle the dregs, as well.

As a surprising season reaches the halfway point, Buffalo's 24-17 win over Detroit means at least as much as the Bills' 23-10 upset in Miami. In the world of the salary cap, just about anybody can shock the big boys on occasion (well, except the Cincinnati Bengals). Winning the games you're supposed to makes you a legitimate playoff contender.

And shockingly, that's exactly who these Bills have become, more quickly than anyone but Tom Donahoe, Gregg Williams or the most devout face-painters could have imagined after the remade Bills staggered through the exhibition schedule. Suddenly, next week's visit to New England no longer rates as simply an overhyped grudge match featuring Drew Bledsoe vs. the coach who done him wrong, but a divisional showdown with legitimate postseason implications.

It won't be the Bills, winners of three straight and four of five, who desperately need a win, either.

After getting thrashed in a 24-16 home loss to Denver on Sunday, the Patriots (losers of four straight) bear no resemblance beyond the uniforms to the team that won the Super Bowl last February.

A loss to Buffalo would put New England's hopes of winning the AFC East into fond fantasy territory.

The Bills, meanwhile, go into the Bledsoe Bowl living a football dream, with things going so well they don't even need all the breaks to go their way.

During one two-minute stretch late in the second quarter, Buffalo endured the sort of bad bounces that would have meant certain doom during the all-but-forgotten Rob Johnson era.

First, Lions rookie quarterback Joey Harrington threw a lousy pass that Buffalo defensive backs Chris Watson and Pierson Prioleau deflected into a 23-yard touchdown throw, tying the game at seven.

Then, the swirling winds that come to Ralph Wilson Stadium this time of year worked their magic on the ensuing kickoff, sending the loose ball squirting away from Bills kick returner Charlie Rogers and back into Detroit's possession. Five plays later, it was 14-7.

"Here we go," muttered one cynical fan at Cocktail Bob's. "(Expletive deleted) same old Bills."

But once again, Bledsoe showed why these guys can't be compared to Buffalo teams of recent vintage.

After short completions to Jay Riemersma and Eric Moulds, Bledsoe went upfield to Peerless Price. Fifty-nine yards and one incredible fake later, it was tied again. Detroit's Eric Davis is still searching the Orchard Park area for his jockstrap.

That thoroughly deflated the Lions. Buffalo dominated the third quarter, putting up 10 points. Bledsoe, the prototypical pocket passer, even did some damage with his legs on the touchdown drive, picking up one first down on a quarterback sneak and scrambling for another.

With things seemingly in hand and the crowd stuffed by a bounteous halftime buffet, conversation started drifting away from the game. Mike, who attends several games a year, recounted his first trip to the stadium.

"My dad got us tickets for a Minnesota game," he said, recalling a contest that included one of the most infamous moments in Western New York sporting history.

That visit from the Vikings closed out the 1975 season.

Buffalo's playoff hopes had disappeared two weeks earlier, when a horrid official's ruling negated a Mercury Morris fumble and clinched a Miami victory (and triggered a tirade by Bills coach Lou Saban still occasionally shown by NFL Films).

O.J. Simpson, though, still had a shot at breaking Jim Brown's record for touchdowns in a season. So did Minnesota's Chuck Foreman. The Vikings running back scored four times to Simpson's one, putting both even with Brown at 22.

Simpson broke the mark on a brilliant 64-yard jaunt after catching a short pass from Gary Marangi in the third quarter. But before Foreman could answer, an idiot in the stands showed remarkable accuracy with an ice ball, hitting him in the face and forcing him to the sidelines with blurred vision.

"The first thing my dad wanted to know when we got home was, 'Did you throw that?'" Mike said. "I told him I didn't, but it took a while to convince him."

Apparently concerned that fans at the stadium and throughout the regional television market might become similarly distracted by the game's one-sided trend, Bills offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride decided to make it interesting.

Instead of chipping away at the clock in the fourth quarter, Gilbride ordered Bledsoe to keep throwing. Three punts and a Detroit field goal followed, keeping the Lions within a touchdown.

Maybe Travis Henry's hands got cold from the inactivity. Or maybe, somewhere along the line, the second-year running back got the idea that he's supposed to fumble every week. In any event, he did, putting Detroit 30 yards away from tying a game in which they no longer belonged.

Buffalo's defense, which spent the season's first five weeks on a pace to surrender the most points in league history, saved Henry and Gilbride with its most important stand of the season. The Bills got a break on an iffy spot following a Harrington pass to Germane Crowell, then capitalized on it when London Fletcher stacked up Detroit's James Stewart on fourth down.

The Bills let Detroit stay around a little longer than they would have liked, but put them away at the end. And that, more than the scorching early-season overtime wins over Minnesota and Chicago, makes this surprising 5-3 start more than a fluke.

BILLS MVP: Bledsoe threw for 300 yards for the fourth time in eight games. In addition to his touchdown hookup with Price, he set up Henry's first of two touchdown runs by evading the Detroit rush and zipping a perfect throw halfway down the field to Moulds with a flick of the wrist. At some point, he's going to seem less amazing. It's just tough to guess when that will be.

BILLS NON-BLEDSOE MVP: In addition to his game-saving stop, Fletcher finished with eight tackles and two assists as the Bills defense continued to progress, shutting down Stewart in the second half. The Detroit running back had a dozen carries in each half, but just 19 of his 83 yards after intermission.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Figuring in his eight catches, Stewart supplied almost half Detroit's total yards.

WING REPORT: In a break from tradition, BillStuff sampled the wing-dings at Cocktail Bob's. While some purists scoff at the notion of a breaded wing, the coating adds crispness and keeps the chicken juicy. Since the wing-dings aren't shaken in sauce like a conventional wing, the potential for two dips (hot sauce and blue cheese) makes for a more interactive (and less messy) experience. Grade: A-.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Mike also supplied Cocktail Bob himself with a ticket to the 1999 Oakland-Buffalo game. The Bills lost, but Eric Moulds leaped into the stands, and Bob's lap, after scoring a touchdown. Moulds presented the ball to Bob, and signed it at a subsequent appearance in Niagara Falls. It sits, encased in plexiglass, over the bar.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter and the editor of the BuffaloPOST. He welcomes email at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com October 29 2002