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Buffalo, where seldom a discouraging word is now heard about Bills

There are Bills, Bills, Bills climbing higher than the ceiling! However, this is not a report on the financial condition of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, but on the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League, who have a vise-like grip on first place in the American Conference's Eastern Division.

The Bills gave a good demonstration of their all-around capability Monday night, crushing Miami 31-6. Quarterback Jim Kelly passed for 211 yards and a well-balanced running game added 205 more, while the defense held the Dolphins to 33 yards on the ground and intercepted Dan Marino three times. The victory boosted Buffalo's best-in-the-league record to 10-1 and pushed the Bills four games ahead of their closest division pursuers with only five left to play.

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While the Bills showed that they were starting to turn things around last year when they went 7-8 after a combined 8-40 mark over the previous three seasons, their phenomenal success so far this year was totally unexpected. And naturally the city has gone ``Electric Snowman'' over its heroes. Banners hang from every nook and cranny of Rich Stadium, and the team's fortunes are the main topic of conversation all over town.

One major factor in this year's turnaround is a rugged defense that has given up by far the fewest points in its division and is second in the entire league in this category only to the Chicago Bears. And one key in this area is Cornelius Bennett, a 6 ft. 2 in., 205-lb. linebacker who is what every coach means when he says ``impact player.''

During his 1987 rookie season, the former Alabama star didn't suit up until Oct. 31 because of stalled contract negotiations. Even so, he finished up strongly, being voted the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his spectacular play in the season finale against Philadelphia, when he made 17 tackles (four of them quarterback sacks) and caused three fumbles. This is a guy who is just waiting to have an all-pro label slapped on him.

Buffalo's improvement can undoubtedly also be traced to the intelligent leadership of coach Marv Levy, who not only is a Phi Beta Kappa from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but who also traveled the extra mile to Harvard for a master's degree in English. Levy is a kind of mature Batman with silver-grey hair who barks signals to his team from the sidelines in Roman numerals. This is also a guy who is capable of doing his own income tax. However, there is nothing to the rumor that Levy reads his players a chapter from ``The Iliad'' or ``The Odyssey'' before he tucks them into bed at night.

Marv's Robin is Kelly, the former University of Miami star who in his third NFL season has blossomed into the AFC's top percentage passer. There is even a rumor that Jim occasionally makes up his own plays in the huddle.

Now don't get the idea that Buffalo is all that good. Except for what they did against Miami on Monday night, the Bills haven't blown out any of their opponents all year. Instead they sort of gum you to death with scores like 13-10, 9-6, 16-14, and 23-20. But when opportunity knocks, the Bills always seem to be halfway through the door. Elsewhere in the NFL

The Phoenix Cardinals, who appeared to be suspect defensively entering the season, share first place in the NFC East with the New York Giants. Both have 7-4 records. The problem is that even though the Cardinals upset the Giants on Sunday, 27-14, they have lost quarterback Neil Lomax to a leg injury for at least a week and possibly longer.

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Even before the current season began, coach Darryl Rogers of the Detroit Lions knew he had to win at least as many games as he lost to keep his job. When the Lions' record dropped to 2-9 after Tampa Bay beat them, 23-20, on Sunday, Rogers was replaced by defensive coordinator Wayne Fontes. Wayne has been an assistant NFL coach for 13 years.

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