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Is This The Year Buffalo Finally Falters in East?

August 25, 1994

Undated (AP) _ Things never change in Fredonia, N.Y., where the Buffalo Bills hold summer camp.

Every year, Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and their lesser-known teammates, coming off another Super Bowl loss, say en masse, ″We’ll be all right.″ They’re usually correct.

The only problem, for four straight seasons, has been their final game, which has happened to be the Super Bowl

And so, Marv Levy repeats the litany: ″We forget about that game the day afterward and concentrate on the future.″

This year’s future looks a little dimmer.

The salary cap forced the Bills to cut $7 million from their $41 million payroll, loaded with long-term contracts to Kelly, Smith, Thurman Thomas and Cornelius Bennett. That cost them the services of several long-time starters, notably cornerback Nate Odomes and left tackle Howard Ballard.

The advent of Bill Parcells in New England has helped balance the division: the Patriots may join Miami and possibly the New York Jets as challengers to the Bills’ reign atop a division they’ve won five of the last six years, and Marshall Faulk could improve the Colts.

Still, if Buffalo’s not the favorite to win the division, who is?

Three of the four starters in the secondary are likely to be new and the offensive line is in some disarray, but the nucleus that’s helped win four straight AFC titles is still there. It is aging, however.

There’s Kelly at quarterback handing off to Thomas; Smith at defensive end; Bennett at linebacker; and a solid corps of outstanding if less-heralded veterans: linebacker Darryl Talley, center Kent Hull, wide receivers Andre Reed and Billy Brooks, safety Henry Jones, linebacker Marvcus Patton and special teams dynamo Steve Tasker.

Levy and general manager John Butler also have done a good job of integrating younger players like offensive tackle John Fina, cornerback Thomas Smtih and linebacker Mark Maddox.

Still, stockpiles have been diminished by free agency.

Levy is depending on plugging the hole left by Ballard’s defection to Seattle with Jerry Crafts, a 360-pounder ″slimmed down″ to 330. Mo Elewonibi was signed as insurance when he was cut by Washington because of the cap.

And Jones is the only sure thing in the secondary, where the corners are Thomas Smith and Mickey Washington.

″We’ll be OK,″ Bruce Smith says. ″We still have our nucleus. Maybe we’re getting older, but we’re getting wiser, too.″

Miami started 9-2 last year, then lost its last five games to miss the playoffs as injury piled on injury. The first and worst was Dan Marino’s torn Achilles’ tendon, an absence that was partially filled by Scott Mitchell.

But Mitchell did so well that the Dolphins couldn’t afford to keep him. He went to Detroit for $11 million over three years and Bernie Kosar was brought in to back up Marino, who is less mobile but still looks good.

The offense, in fact, should be solid.

Second-year running back Terry Kirby plus Mark Higgs and Keith Byars give Don Shula, who became the NFL’s all-time winningest coach last year, the best running game they’ve had in years. Richmond Webb anchors a solid offensive line, and Irving Fryar, Mark Ingram, O.J. McDuffie and Keith Jackson are excellent targets.

As usual, the questions are on defense, where the most critical injuries occurred late last season.

Cornerback Troy Vincent, who tore up a knee, is recuperating faster than expected, but the most help may come from No. 1 draft pick Tim Bowens, who may give the Dolphins the inside pass rush they’ve lacked. That could help linebacker Bryan Cox, one of the game’s best when he’s focused.

New England started 1-11 under Parcells last year, although the Pats were competitive in most of their games. Then they won their last four as Drew Bledsoe, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, began maturing into a first-rate quarterback, raising hopes for this year.

Parcells was active in the off-season, raiding his old team, the New York Giants, for guard Bob Kratch and safety Myron Guyton. He also added cornerback Ricky Reynolds from Tampa Bay and drafted linebacker Willie McGinest, who could combine with second-year-man Chris Slade to provide him with the pass- rushing duo he loves.

Still, how strong the Pats will be is open to question. Injuries have hurt at running back, where Marion Butts, obtained in a trade, and free agent Blair Thomas both went down in training camp.

The Jets always seem to promise more than they provide.

Last season, they started 7-4, looked like they’d make the playoffs, then lost four of five to finish 8-8. That and the reluctance to hire an offensive coordinator got coach Bruce Coslet fired and defensive coordinator Pete Carroll promoted.

Carroll has loosened up the Jets, who still depend on a nucleus of veterans led by quarterback Boomer Esiason and safety Ronnie Lott. He has a potentially solid running game led by Johnny Johnson, but there’s little depth at receiver, where another golden oldie, Art Monk, has been brought in to play opposite Rob Moore, although Moore may be out a while with a broken wrist.

But the Jets have a relatively solid defense, particularly if cornerback James Hasty recovers quickly from a knee injury, and linebacker Marvin Jones, last year’s first-rounder, can come back from a serious hip injury.

There was addition by substraction in Indianapolis when quarterback Jeff George was shipped off to Atlanta. George’s still unexplained holdout was in part responsible for the slide from 9-7 to 4-12 last year.

But the trade also created a void.

Bill Tobin, the new player personnel director, brought in Jim Harbaugh, whom he drafted in Chicago, to play quarterback. He also has ex-Jet Browning Nagle and Don Majkowski. None inspires confidence.

Faulk, however, does. The second overall pick in the draft has given the Colts their first running threat since Eric Dickerson was in his prime.

It would help if left tackle Will Wolford, signed as a free agent last year, comes back from his rotator cuff injury.

The defense is strong at linebacker, where free agent Tony Bennett joins Jeff Herrod and Quentin Coryatt. But Steve Emtman is still out with his second serious knee injury, leaving a hole up front. The secondary is in its traditional questionable state.

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Prediction: 1. Miami (10-6); 2. Buffalo (9-7); 3. New England (7-9); 4. Jets (7-9); 5. Indianapolis (6-10).

END ADV for Thur Aug. 25

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