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The quarterback who sometimes drives some Bills fans to distraction in preseason games is the one they're counting on to lead Buffalo to the AFC East championship Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.

If the Bills can defeat the Dolphins and wrap up the division title and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, it would add another chapter to the improbable career of Frank Reich.

It will be only the fourth NFL start for the 29-year-old former University of Maryland quarterback.

Reich isn't shying away from his role of saving the Bills in the aftermath of Jim Kelly's freak knee injury suffered against the New York Giants.

At the same time, though, Reich says he isn't dreaming of a performance so astounding that it will make a nation of pro football fans sit up, take notice and say:

"Where have the Bills been hiding this guy?"

"All I want to do," Reich said, "is go out there and do my part on the team. I'm not looking to be the hero of this game. I'm just looking to go out and do what's asked of me and just to play well enough just to win."

Last year, Reich was on the spot after Kelly suffered a separated shoulder in a 37-14 loss at Indianapolis in the fifth week of the season. The Bills were not playing that well as a team and Reich was coming off another shaky preseason that had fans howling for the promotion of newcomer Gale Gilbert as Kelly's backup.

Coach Marv Levy and offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda steadfastly -- some say stubbornly -- stayed with Reich. Their judgment was vindicated. The Bills won all three games Reich started, which was startling because most Buffalo fans would have been satisfied with one out of three. It was, in fact, perhaps the high point of Buffalo's 1989 season instead of the disaster many expected.

After a shaky start, Reich led the Bills to a 23-20 victory over the previously undefeated Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football, bringing the Bills from behind with 2:23 left in the game. When a defensive gaffe allowed Los Angeles to regain the lead on a 78-yard pass play, Reich calmly brought the Bills back up the field in seven plays and hit Andre Reed with an 8-yard pass for the winning TD with 16 seconds left.

His performances against the New York Jets, in a 34-3 rout, and Miami, in a 31-17 pounding of the Dolphins, were solid and workmanlike if less dramatic.

He needed to throw only nine passes in the victory over Miami, completing six for 114 yards and one touchdown, a 63-yard bomb to Don Beebe.

"I'd love to throw the ball nine times again," Reich said, "because I guarantee you, if we throw nine times that means we're going to win the ballgame. Anybody that can run the ball like that is going to control the tempo of the game.

"Last year, I don't think we went into the game saying we're going to throw the ball about 10 times and run it the rest of the time. We started out on the first drive and were able to run. So we just stayed with it until they stopped it. We were executing really well so they never really stopped us.

"This year, we thought maybe we could do the same thing down in Miami, but they stopped us . . . pretty early down there. They play the run extremely well. I really think it's going to be much more of a balanced attack, mix it up, run and pass. I think it's going to have to be for us to have any type of consistency."

When Reich drew the start against the Rams before a national television audience, it was a classic sports script. The untested, unproven, nice guy being thrown into an impossible situation and succeeding. The media that had ignored him and even called for his job now had to interview him.

The situation he was facing awed Reich for a while and affected his play early in the Rams game, but he managed to shake off a bad case of jitters and came through with a clutch performance.

There's even more pressure this time. A loss to the Dolphins could be devastating, not only because it could cost the Bills the division title and home-field advantage, but also because it would force them to play a first-round wild-card game. The Bills need that week off to possibly give Kelly's knee enough time to heal.

Reich is trying not to take all the pressure on his shoulders.

"I believe the pressure can be equally divided among the whole team. We've got a really solid team here. If we handle it like that, there's no need for any one person to take all the pressure. So I certainly won't do that."

But by the middle of the week, Reich was admitting to feeling a few butterflies.

"Monday and Tuesday I wasn't nervous at all," he said. "I felt really comfortable and at ease, going over what the Dolphins do on defense and going over what we intend to do on offense.

"Last year in the Rams game, as everyone knows, it was a slow start for me, I think maybe because of that (nerves). So hopefully now that I have those three games under my belt and, of course, 2 1/2 quarters or whatever it was last week against a pretty tough football team, I can feel at ease and confident going into the game."

How much does it help having faced the Dolphins and won last year.

"I don't know," Reich said. "Since we had some success against them last year, maybe it eases my mind a little bit. They're a much-improved team, but I feel we are too. Maybe it adds a little confidence to the rest of the team that I've played against this team before and we've won."

Reich has tangible evidence that he has a lot of support, and once again he has captured the imagination of Bills fans.

Radio stations are altering rock lyrics. "It's All Right Now," this week has become "It's All Reich Now."

Usually Reich receives "about two" fan letters a week. This week the mail has begun to pile up in Reich's locker in the wing of the Bills' locker room where he, Kelly, the offensive linemen and some of the running backs dress.

On Friday, a Rochester radio station delivered a 4-feet by 5-feet greeting card, signed by hundreds of fans in that city. "Go Get 'em, Frank" read the message on the front of the card.

"It's been great," Reich said. "You try not to get caught up in everything outside the field but it's nice to know that people are pulling for you and wishing you well. It just gives you that little added confidence, that added edge of feeling good going into the game."

Having proven to his teammates that he can do the job under game conditions, Reich can count on having his teammates even more solidly in his corner than last season. Also, the Bills are a closer-knit, more mature team now.

"We're more together," Reich said. "I can remember times last year, when let's just say for instance, the offense would turn the ball over deep in our own territory. You could kind of hear maybe some grunts and groans among the defense that we turned the ball over.

"This year, if we do that, they just say, 'Hey, let's go out there and stop 'em.' And, conversely, if the opposing offense happens to drive the whole way down the field and scores, offensively we aren't saying, 'Can't they stop 'em?' We're saying, 'Let's go out there and score.'

"We're really playing as a team."

Besides game experience and a stronger arm, the main difference between Kelly and Reich is a difference in styles.

Even Reich admits Kelly is more of an innovator, sometimes even devising a pattern in the huddle.

Reich is more studied and precise. He claims he's even more likely to change a play with an audible call at the line of scrimmage.

"That's one of my strong points," Reich said. "I like to talk with the offensive line, and I like to know what plays they like to run.

"And I think that gets those guys fired up because they know that we're going to be running the best play possible every time against the front that they (the defense) are in. They can get excited about that because we have a good chance of being successful. The same thing with pass receivers. I'm going to have us in as good a play as possible every time we step up to the ball."

Center Kent Hull agrees: "Frank always seems to get you in the best play. If he sees something better, he'll go to it. That's the way he was trained."

Reich has a presence in the huddle, too. "He's in control," Hull said. "He gets his point across. I think Frank has proven himself. He didn't have to prove anything to us last year, but I think he had to prove to everybody else and he did that."

The Bills have scored on their first series in their last five games and in seven of their last eight. That might not be the case Sunday, but Reich is prepared for it.

"We're just going to have to be very patient," Reich said. "I'm sure there's going to be times when they're going to stop us.

"Somewhere along the line, as the coaches always say, we're going to have to come up with the big play, whether it be Andre (Reed) catching a short pass and breaking one or Thurman (Thomas) breaking a run.

"It's hard to get deep on these guys. It's hard to get the big play on them because they're so conscious of that. They want to keep everything in front of them. They want to force the offense to get a 12-13 play drive.

"They keep everything in front and play kind of soft in the secondary.

"I'm going to try not to get frustrated. If I go out there a couple of series and they stop us, I'm just going to try to keep my head about me and put together a couple of drives for scores and hopefully that will be enough."

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