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BILLS, DOLPHINS PUT HOLIDAY MOODS ON LINE BUFFALO COULD CELEBRATE CROWN; MIAMI WIN WOULD ALL BUT CLINCH

Scrooge or the Grinch must have drawn up the 1990 NFL schedule. Who else would have scheduled the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins to play each other two days before Christmas?

The timing of the AFC showdown guarantees a miserable holiday for the loser today at Rich Stadium.

For the Dolphins, a defeat would condemn them to wild-card status for the AFC playoffs, a step short in a drive toward an Eastern Division title. It would snuff out some of the renewed enthusiasm and confidence building among Dolfans.

The Dolphins' climb to within reach of winning a division the Bills supposedly owned has been a sweet surprise for Miami fans.

Can you imagine the gloom here if the Bills should stumble today?

It all may be on the line for the Bills -- the AFC East title clincher, best record in the AFC, which assures home-field advantage as long as Buffalo is in the playoffs and a bye week that could allow quarterback Jim Kelly enough healing time to return to action for the divisional round of the playoffs Jan 12-13.

It certainly would cast a pall on a season when the Bills seemingly have grown more powerful each week and seemed on the way to accomplishing all the things such a talented team is expected to accomplish.

However, all would not be lost. The Bills still could win the division if they beat the Redskins in Washington next week and Miami loses at home to Indianapolis. That is not a likely scenario.

With all that's riding on it, this may be the biggest game the Bills ever have played in Rich Stadium.

Buffalo fans are ready. A sellout was assured more than a month ago when it seemed certain the Bills and Dolphins were on a collision course.

Despite the loss of Kelly with a knee injury in last week's 17-13 victory over the New York Giants, Bills fans were confident -- almost euphoric -- as they looked ahead to today's game.

How will Frank Reich perform today? How will wintry weather affect the Dolphins? Can the Bills' pass rush throw Miami quarterback Dan Marino off his game?

Those topics have been run through the mill all week.

With Kelly, the Bills have used the no-huddle shotgun offense with great effectiveness in several games. The question is: Will Kelly's absence make the Bills loath to use it?

"Any quarterback in the league can run the no-huddle offense," Bills coach Marv Levy said, maintaining that how Buffalo attacks the Dolphins will not be based on Reich.

"I just think they're going to do the same things they've done," said Miami coach Don Shula. "I think Frank is a very bright guy that has been around there long enough to know the offense inside and out. Certainly he'll be prepared to do whatever Ted Marchibroda wants him to do."

The Dolphins even could use some no-huddle themselves, providing they can hear quarterback Dan Marino's audibles with 80,000 fans roaring.

"If we think there's a place for it, then we'll use it," Shula said. The Dolphins used it on one touchdown drive in their 30-7 victory over the Bills Sept. 16 at Joe Robbie Stadium and showed it as long ago as their last Super Bowl appearance against the San Francisco 49ers at Stanford in 1985.

Both sides are trying to play down the weather factor.

"It's fine for the press to play up, and for the people to make an issue of, but I think as players we have to get that out of our minds and really concentrate on the game," said Dolphins Pro Bowl linebacker John Offerdahl. "From our standpoint, we're not expecting it to be nice and that's the standpoint we're taking."

"If we think the weather is going to help us, we're taking a step in the wrong direction," Levy said. "I think our fans are more of a factor than the weather is."

Bills fans look upon the September loss to the Dolphins as an aberration. Maybe so, but it was a dominating Miami performance against a Buffalo team that could do little right.

"Last time when we played Buffalo, that was probably as fine a football game as we've played around here in a long, long time," Shula said. "Everything just clicked for us that day. We just need another a sharp performance on offense, defense and special teams. We just have to play well against a very, very good football team."

Said Levy:

"I told our team 'you're going to play a team that's better than we played last time.' "

Indeed, the Dolphins have lost only to the New York Giants and Washington (on the road) and to the Los Angeles Raiders at home since that day, winning nine games. Miami has done it with improved defense and some help from a running game, which was one of the NFL's weakest the last two years.

There are five new starters on defense, including both cornerbacks, two linebackers and nose tackle Shawn Lee.

"We have a better balance between running and passing," Shula said. "In the last couple of years, we had no running attack at all and people just did everything to stop Dan Marino. All of it rested on his shoulders. Now, with some balance offensively, they have to be a little bit more concerned about our running game and this has opened things up for Dan."

Marino has passed for 3,084 yards and 18 touchdowns. He is the only quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons. The Dolphins have rushed for 1,385 yards, already more than their ground total the last two seasons.

The last time Marino won here, he put on a dizzying passing show as the Dolphins overcame a 21-10 halftime deficit to defeat the Bills, 34-24. That victory gave the Dolphins a sixth straight victory over the Bills.

Buffalo won the next six before the Dolphins broke the spell Sept. 16.

Today, the Bills certainly don't want to revisit those days when the Dolphins used to torment them.

Bills vs. Dolphins TEAMS: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills.

SITE: Rich Stadium.

KICKOFF: 1 p.m.

TV: Ch. 2.

RADIO: WGR (550-AM; 96.9-FM).

WEATHER: Cloudy, rain changing to snow; temperature in 30s, falling to upper 20s.

LATEST LINE: Buffalo (-3 1/2 ).

COUNTDOWN to KICKOFF: A special pullout section featuring Bills left guard Jim Ritcher. . . . Inside the NFL . . . Dolphins cornerback Tim McKyer. . . . Plus scouting report, rosters, statistics, Around the NFL. B7.