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By David Staba

The quick-cut highlight montage backed by a thundering soundtrack signaled that football, the real kind, was back.

Then came the dramatic jet fly-over and a stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. All eyes, whether normally concerned with football or not, focused tightly on the television screens as Buffalo kicker Rian Lindell raised one hand in the air and trotted slowly towards the teed-up football.

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"I've been waiting a long time for this," said Bill, who held a corner seat at Marsil's Bar and Grill on Falls Street early Sunday afternoon.

Amen, brother.

After an offseason of hiring and firing coaches, assessing personnel and re-educating those players who survived the Gregg Williams regime to help start the Mike Mularkey Era, the Bills finally got their chance to push last season's 6-10 unpleasantness into the recesses of rarely recalled memory.

For more than 57 minutes, they did an excellent job of it.

While not spectacular in any sense of the word, the offense moved the ball efficiently, mixing runs with short passes. Drew Bledsoe looked sharper and threw the ball quicker than through the worsening nightmare of his 2003 season.

The defense thoroughly stifled Jacksonville's offense -- with some help from Byron Leftwich, the Jaguars' oddly off-rhythm second-year quarterback.

It was far from a perfect performance by Buffalo, but defensive stinginess compensated for the occasional offensive blunder or inefficiency, as well as Lindell's maddening inaccuracy, again and again.

Until those last few minutes.

Willis McGahee, making his regular-season debut, seemingly salted the game away when he slashed for four yards on third-and-2. The celebration at Marsil's lasted only until the yellow icon started flashing at the top of the three TV screens.

"You've got to be kidding," Bill said.

"Holding, Buffalo," predicted the guy on the next stool, his voice bearing the glee that signifies the one person in any gathering who's going to root against the home team just to be an agitator, no matter the opponent or score.

In this case, the devil's advocate proved prophetic. Right guard Chris Villarial, signed as a free agent from Chicago after the Bills let Ruben Brown become a bear, got caught.

Suddenly, first-and-10 from the Jags' 25 became third-and-12 from the 35. And the new-look Bills suddenly took on a very familiar appearance.

Another McGahee run left the Bills out of field-goal range, particularly since Lindell had earlier missed an attempt nearly 10 yards closer in. Punter Brian Moorman, whose incredible 80-yard boot set up Buffalo's only touchdown, pooched this one a little too much, giving Jacksonville the ball at its own 20, instead of in the shadow of the goal posts.

Leftwich, who looked like a raw rookie for most of the afternoon, suddenly took on the bearing of the quarterback poised for a breakout season we've been hearing about all offseason. Especially on fourth down.

Three times on the ensuing drive, the Bills stopped Jacksonville on third down, completing a day in which they surrendered only two firsts in 13 such situations. That stat would have been even more impressive if Buffalo wasn't so helpless on fourth.

The first fourth-down failure didn't cost Buffalo the game, but it was excruciating to watch. On fourth-and-14, Leftwich launched a prayer, and Nate Clements answered it. Rather than simply knocking the ball down, like every defensive back is taught to do in that situation from the day he starts covering receivers, Clements saw his second interception of the day tumbling out of the sky.

Except that in his eagerness to clutch the clinching takeaway, he let Jags wideout Jimmy Smith rip it away from him for his fourth catch of the day. Clements' momentary loss of perspective, not to mention common sense, put Jacksonville 21 yards from ruining the afternoon for the sun-kissed crowd of 72,389 at Ralph Wilson Stadium and hundreds of thousands more in living rooms and bars throughout the Bills Nation.

Apparently not willing to cede the Stupidest Play of the Day award to Clements or Villarial, Bills linebacker London Fletcher kicked the ball after the play, moving Jacksonville almost 25 percent closer to the winning touchdown.

That, of course, came eight plays and two gut-wrenching fourth downs later.

For whatever improvement the Bills displayed Sunday, the most visible trend was anything but encouraging. When Buffalo most needed a big play from its biggest players, they proved themselves wanting.

There was Clements' misjudgment and Fletcher's kick. And Eric Moulds fumbling and linebacker Takeo Spikes leaving someone named Ernest Wilford open enough to come down with Leftwich's final looping throw.

Nor did the new coaches seem to have fully absorbed the lessons of the old. Buffalo safety Izell Reese's interception and return put the Bills just three yards from an eight-point lead. Two runs moved them within three feet.

On third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, a team that's trying to establish itself as a power team runs the ball. So does just about any team, for that matter.

But not the Bills. Deposed Kevin "I'll show you all" Gilbride didn't sneak into the stadium to call the next play. It just looked that way.

Pass play. Sack. Flashback to 2003.

At least Lindell made the 25-yard field goal that followed, making Buffalo's edge four points instead of eight, and setting up the even more vivid flashback mentioned above.

Despite the unpleasant nostalgia triggered by the ending, which also recalled Chad Morton's overtime kickoff return to give the New York Jets a win and ruin the 2001 season opener, the crowd at Marsil's made the best of the situation.

Bill and a few others disputed the referee's ruling that Wilford was pushed out of bounds, but it was clear their hearts weren't really in it. The replay review did little but extended their suffering by a few more minutes.

And Mary Fay pointed out the enthusiasm of the gathering, which hung on every play to the very end. That presented a stark change from a year ago, when even the close games were generally horrifically dull to watch.

"I don't care if they lose every game, as long as they're that exciting," she said.

We'll see how long that sort of patience and enthusiasm last. With a schedule filled with far less winnable games stretching out through the fall, it looks to BillStuff like another Buffalo team far better equipped for talking a good game than playing one.

BILLS MVP: The entire defense gets disqualified by the final drive. Once again, Buffalo's D posted pretty numbers (225 total yards for Jacksonville) but let down in hideous fashion when it mattered most.

Bledsoe and Moulds hooked up for Buffalo's only touchdown, but each coughed up a key fumble when the Bills had chances to put the game away, so the award goes to Henry. Despite an ankle injury, Henry pounded out 75 tough yards and caught three passes. Willis McGahee looked pretty good, too.

THE OTHER GUYS' MVP: Smith and Wilford made the two biggest plays of the game, looking very much like they simply wanted the ball more than Buffalo's overrated defenders. To be fair, Bills such as Spikes, Fletcher and Clements showed a diverse array of struts and dances. Too bad they didn't make any plays truly worth celebrating.

QUESTION(S) OF THE WEEK: How many field goals does Lindell have to miss before the auditions for his replacement start? And who drew up the defense that had Fletcher -- a linebacker, covering Wilford -- a wide receiver, on second-and-9 in the third quarter? That mismatch led to a 38-yard interference penalty, Jacksonville's longest gain of the day before the 45-yarder to Smith, and set up the Jaguars' second field goal.

WING REPORT: Despite a lavish spread provided by Marsil's, we ordered out for wings to meet the weekly requirement demanded by this space. Unfortunately, they weren't very good -- overcooked, with the medium sauce barely distinguishable from the honey barbecue. We'll let the provider remain unnamed, but issue this tip to all wing outlets -- make sure the blue cheese is cold, and hand-packed cups are always, always better than the prepackaged stuff.

The outsourced wings get a C+, but the fare cooked up by Mary Christian, whose son, Darryl, and his wife, Glenda, own Marsil's, more than made up for it. The baked chicken, homemade meatballs, ziti with red sauce and cheese-laced mashed potatoes were nothing short of spectacular. As always.

BS FAN OF THE WEEK: Bill's loyalty to the blue, white and red to 1972, the first year O.J. Simpson led the league in rushing, and didn't waver even through the darkest times.

"Even when they went 2-14, I still loved them," he said. "And people make jokes about the four Super Bowl losses, but no team will ever go to four in a row again."

Despite Sunday's painful loss, he stands by his prediction of an 8-8 season.

"As long as they improve some, I'll be happy," he said.


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 Sept. 14 2004