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Yes, the Buffalo Bills can win in December . . . against a quality opponent . . . even against a big, bad NFC team.

They proved all that and more Sunday at Rich Stadium with their 30-23Muffed lateral was Eagles' last mistake /D3

Smith accuses Eagles' Heller of dirty play /D3

Monday Billboard /D3

Scoring and statistics /D3victory over the Philadelphia Eagles before a near-sellout crowd of 79,320.

They also proved that this Buffalo team has perhaps a little more backbone than had been credited to them by the Eagles and some hometown critics.

After squandering all but one point of a 24-0 first-quarter lead, the Bills regained their poise and simply refused to loosen their grip on their 10th victory of the season.

The triumph, combined with Miami's 42-20 loss at Washington, left Buffalo (10-2) alone in first place in the AFC East.

"We showed strong willpower," said Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett. "They had the momentum, but we came back and regained it."

Bills coach Marv Levy made it a point to acknowledge the gumption of his team.

"I want to express my admiration for our own team," Levy said. "Usually when you've got a lead like that and it dwindles away . . . most of the time teams that fold lose a game like that. Our players didn't."

The Bills sensed that they had not yet earned the respect of teams in the NFC, that they were looked on as a softie when compared to rough and tough NFC teams like the Giants, Bears, Redskins and Eagles.

"I think that's the feeling around the NFC, especially the NFC East," noted Bills center Kent Hull. "That's an advantage. Anytime you can get overlooked, it's an advantage."

If the Eagles overlooked the Bills Sunday, they won't again. Buffalo struck for three first-quarter touchdowns and a 43-yard Scott Norwood field goal to stun the Eagles and thrill the big crowd.

Quarterback Jim Kelly threw three touchdown passes in the quarter, including a 63-yard play to James Lofton in the first minute, a 56-yarder to Andre Reed and a 4-yarder to Thurman Thomas, which was set up by a 71-yard completion to Lofton.

Kelly was 8 for 8 for 229 yards in the opening quarter and ended with his first 300-yard game of the year as he completed 19 of 32 passes for 334 yards. Lofton finished the game with five catches for 174 yards. Reed had seven catches for 95 yards.

If the Bills thought they had scored a quick KO, they were soon to be relieved of that notion.

"The biggest thing," said Hull, "was even though we scored 24 points, it didn't run any time off the clock."

It was almost like an NBA game, where a big first-quarter lead is virtually meaningless.

"When you're playing a football team with a Randall Cunningham in the backfield, you never feel safe," Hull said.

And Cunningham, the Philadelphia quarterback, did make some huge plays to get his team back into it.

"An amazing guy," Levy said.

Cunningham, who ran 51 yards to set up the first Eagles touchdown (an 18-yard pass to Keith Jackson), completed 15 of 25 passes for 231 yards. Ninety-five yards came on one improbable play with 54 seconds left in the half when Cunningham barely eluded being sacked in his own end zone, then heaved a looping pass to midfield, where rookie Fred Barnett of the Eagles outjumped rookie cornerback J.D. Williams of the Bills for the ball, turned and ran to the end zone.

That made it 24-16 at halftime, and, when Cunningham hit Keith Byars with a 1-yard pass on Philadelphia's first possession of the second half, the Buffalo lead was down to one, 24-23. The only reason it wasn't tied was that Eagles kicker Roger Ruzek flubbed the point-after on the first Philadelphia touchdown.

Things did not look good for the Bills. They weren't tackling, they weren't covering receivers, and the Eagles' defense was no longer confused by the no-huddle attack Buffalo sprung on it at the start of the game.

Somehow, the Bills regained their equilibrium. What had been a shoot-out between the NFL's two highest-scoring teams developed into a defensive struggle the last 24 1/2 minutes when the only scoring was a pair of field goals by Norwood, one from 21 yards, the other from 45.

During that time the Bills made a ton of big plays such as:

A 35-yard Kelly-to-Thurman Thomas completion that set up Norwood's 21-yard field goal.

A third-down sack by rookie nose tackle Mike Lodish, which forced the Eagles to punt on the next possession.

A 13-yard interception return by linebacker Ray Bentley to the Eagles 27, which set up Norwood's 45-yard field goal.

A 14-yard sack by Darryl Talley which stopped another Eagles possession on third and 4 from the Buffalo 34.

A blocked punt by Steve Tasker on the following play, which set the Bills up at the Eagles' 49 for what turned out to be their last possession of the game.

There were three more key plays as the Bills ran out all but 13 seconds of the final 8:57.

Lofton's recovery of a fumbled lateral by Eagles linebacker Seth Joyner as he returned a Kelly interception. The exchange gave Buffalo a brand new start, first and 10 from the Eagles' 49.

An 8-yard Kelly completion to Lofton for a first down at the Philadelphia 38.

Another clutch grab, this one by Reed, who stretched out for a 7-yard gain on third and 7 at the 28.

"We couldn't get our offense back on the field," groaned Eagles coach Buddy Ryan.

Besides doing it on the scoreboard, the Bills stood up to the Eagles physically. Buffalo sacked the elusive Cunningham six times. Kelly was not sacked at all by All-Pro end Reggie White and the fearsome Eagles pass rush.

Much of the credit had to go to right tackle Howard Ballard, with help from right guard John Davis and others. It was a monumental feat shutting out White, who came into the game with 10 1/2 sacks.

"If you told me we were going to throw the ball 30 to 35 times," said Hull, "I'd say 'no, I don't think we could hold him without at least hitting the quarterback three or four times.' "

The key?

"Having a 340-pound right tackle (Ballard) who doesn't let anything bother him," said Hull. "He's the one they call 'The House.' "

The Bills drew satisfaction from the fact that they once again had proved their critics wrong.

"The whole team knew that there were certain individuals in Buffalo who said we weren't going to win any games in December," Kelly said. "We just wanted to come out and shove it down a couple guys' throat. Period."

"What will people say now, that this doesn't count because it's too early in December?" cracked Tasker, the special teams' ace.

"Sooner or later, people are going to stop picking on us," said Bennett.

Thomas had the final word about the Bills supposed December jinx:

"All I know is we're 1-0 in 1990."

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