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Bills Are Back With Pieces In Place

August 30, 1996

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) _ This could be the year.

No, really, the Buffalo Bills actually mean it this time around. All the pieces are in place for another run at the Super Bowl.

Buffalo is the only team in history to reach four consecutive Super Bowls and, of course, the only team to lose four straight. Everyone knows the jokes about the B-I-L-L-L-L-S.

But they aren’t laughing.

The Bills came into the season thinking they are the team to beat in the AFC East, mainly because they still have a nucleus left from the glory days. They’re just hoping it’s not too late.

``There’s only so many teams that really have an opportunity to go to the playoffs,″ Kelly said. ``Some teams are rebuilding. We’re not doing that. We’re right at the top. We should make the playoffs. We should go all the way. But the key is staying healthy.″

Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Kent Hull are still the keys to the Buffalo offense, which has added three wide receivers _ free agent Quinn Early, former special teams star Steve Tasker and rookie Eric Moulds _ to its no-huddle attack.

The defense still is wrapped around All-Pro end Bruce Smith, but it also has the Defensive Player of the Year in Bryce Paup and a year under coordinator Wade Phillips’ attack-style approach.

A solid secondary and the addition of Chris Spielman, who took over at linebacker when Cornelius Bennett departed for Atlanta, has created Super Bowl-or-bust expectations.

``There’s a lot of confidence in the air here,″ Hull said. ``It’s not arrogance, and it’s not cockiness. There’s a right to be confident. We don’t have a weak spot on our roster anymore.″

Buffalo’s perseverance is no better illustrated than through its grandfatherly head coach, Marv Levy, who overcame prostate cancer last year and hardly slowed down.

The 71-year-old Levy, entering his 11th season with the Bills, has been able to effectively mix free agents and rookies with veteran stars while maintaining a winning atmosphere.

Even though the Bills are the only team in the league that has a starting quarterback, running back and two receivers older than 30, Buffalo’s average age is less than it was in 1990, its first Super Bowl loser. Only 19 players remain from its last Super Bowl team.

``Winning or losing doesn’t build character, it reveals character,″ Levy said. ``There’s a wrong way to win and wrong way to lose. When you play a highly competitive sport, the risk of losing is there.″

The key for Buffalo, once again, is keeping Kelly healthy. The Bills have inexperienced quarterbacks Alex Van Pelt and Todd Collins behind Kelly, and their season would likely be lost with a serious injury to the star quarterback early in the season.

Kelly had offseason shoulder surgery, ``a 30,000-yard tuneup,″ but has felt better this season than in recent years. He completed 55 percent of his passes for 3,130 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions a year ago.

Most importantly, the 36-year-old quarterback was sacked just 26 times and suffered no major injuries, allowing him to guide Buffalo to its fifth AFC East title in six years.

Buffalo returns its entire starting offensive line, which jelled midway through last season and became one of the more stable units in the league. Along the way, it allowed Thomas to join Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders as the only backs to surpass 1,000 yards rushing in seven consecutive seasons.

``The more-focused guys are the guys left over from our first Super Bowl,″ Thomas said. ``The eight of us left, some of the coaches, we are more focused than anybody. Hopefully, that will rub off on the other guys.″

And Buffalo is deep at nearly every position. Behind Thomas is former seventh-round pick Darick Holmes, a big, speedy back who allows Buffalo to take its star out of the game without losing much on offense.

Injuries forced Buffalo to start rookies Marlon Kerner and Ken Irvin in the secondary a year ago, and both played well. Veterans Henry Jones and Kurt Schulz will start at safety with veteran cornerbacks Thomas Smith and Jeff Burris.

Buffalo also has six quality receivers, three more than they had last season after Reed missed 10 games with a severely pulled hamstring.

``Last year, when we had the injuries at wide receiver, people could do things to us that they normally couldn’t do,″ Hull said. ``With the firepower we have at wide receiver now, I dare them to do it.″

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