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Champs! AFC triumph sends Bills on mission to Minnesota

Grab your thermal underwear and your down parka. We're going to Minnesota.
The Buffalo Bills, once again dining on home cooking in the playoffs, earned a second straight invitation to pro football's biggest party, the Super Bowl, with a tense 10-7 win Sunday over the stubborn Denver Broncos.
This was a nerve-wracking, nail-biting, gut-wrenching triumph in the American Football Conference championship game, played out before 80,272 fans who enjoyed blue skies, 42-degree temperatures and an unusual January visitor, the sun.
The Bills used an unlikely set of heroes -- a fiercely swarming defense, the right hand of nose tackle Jeff Wright, the receiving skills of linebacker Carlton Bailey, the right upright on the goalposts and the redemption of kicker Scott Norwood -- to win the AFC title and reach the Jan. 26 Super Bowl in Minneapolis.
The maligned Norwood kicked the winning field goal, Wright and Bailey teamed up for Bailey's 11-yard touchdown return of an interception, and the same right upright at the tunnel end of the field knocked down two would-be Denver field goals when the game was scoreless.
"I have no more (finger-) nails," Tim Nietopski of Cheektowaga said as he sat in a limousine in the Rich Stadium parking lot an hour after the game. "I had to say my Hail Marys, that's the God's honest truth. It was that close."
This game -- unlike the Bills' 51-3 victory over the Raiders in last year's AFC Championship Game or last week's 37-14 win over Kansas City -- went down to the last play.
When Bills safety Leonard Smith tackled Broncos receiver Vance Johnson at midfield to end the game, the relieved fans responded with a chant of "Sup-er Bowl, Sup-er Bowl" before launching a new sport, tossing seat cushions into the sky like beach balls.
Smith, the Bills' unofficial cheerleader in a football uniform, then started another tradition, riding the perimeter of the field atop a cart that usually takes injured players to the locker room. Smith stood on
the cart, blowing kisses to the fans and even talking to one of the horses from the Erie County Sheriff's Department's mounted patrol that ringed the field.
"I was just telling him, 'Yes, we're back with a purpose,' " Smith said later in the locker room.
Smith explained his post-game ride around the field: "I always let my fans know I appreciate them. They really were the 12th man on the field."
While the Broncos put up a much tougher fight than expected, holding the normally explosive Bills offense to just 213 yards, the team's "12th man" was anything but disappointed afterwards.
"We thought the Bills were going to win by three touchdowns, but we're not disappointed, because the defense came through when we needed it, and we're going to the Super Bowl," said Mike Lenney of North Tonawanda, celebrating the victory on top of a motor home in the stadium parking lot.
"There have been prettier games and uglier games, but we won," added Tom Zinni of North Tonawanda. "The bottom line is we're going to the Super Bowl."
That's something that fans of 26 National Football League teams can't say today.
The tight victory and the year-long strength of the Bills' Super Bowl opponent, the Washington Redskins, didn't do anything to cool Buffalo fans' optimism for the showdown in Minneapolis.
"Last year, the Bills were there on excitement," said Dan Marsh of Tonawanda, one of the fans with a Bills logo painted on his face. "This year, they're going there on a mission, to accomplish the ultimate."
"The offense may very well explode in two weeks," added Tim Burden of Niagara Falls, who also pointed out that the artificial turf in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome would help the Bills and hurt the Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI.
From his seat in the limo, holding a cold can of football fans' version of champagne, Nietopski based his confidence on the Bills' potential, both offensively and defensively. "Last year, I don't think we had the defense we have this year," he said.
The key to the defense Sunday?
"You can't put an S (for Superman) on one guy," resident analyst Leonard Smith said in the locker room. "It was a unit."
Compared to last year, when many experts anointed the Bills as Super Bowl winners before the game, the Buffalo players seem to relish the underdog's role, sitting in the weeds to ambush the expected favorite, the Redskins.
"I love to go into the Super Bowl as an underdog," safety Mark Kelso said.
"Last year, we went in and played pretty good, but this year we're going back with a purpose," defensive end Leon Seals said, with a hint of a twinkle in his eye.
Hail to the champs. And bring on the Redskins.

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