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A year ago the Bills, a mystery team without a great deal of promise, opened their season on the road against one of the NFL's bottom dwellers, the San Diego Chargers. It was not a moment to cherish.

Today the Bills, a team of great promise and a fresh resume of which they can be proud, open their season on the road against a bottom dweller/mystery team with possibilities.

Buffalo is one of five AFC teams with go-all-the-way potential. This being the late '90s, all of those contenders have flaws. The catch on this day is that Buffalo's apparent flaw may keep it from attacking the Indianapolis Colts where they are most vulnerable.

If you listened carefully to Jim Mora, Indy's coach, you could almost interpret his words as trouble for Buffalo. It wasn't what Mora said, but what he didn't say that was most interesting.

Mora was going on and on, as coaches do, about how impressed he was with the Bills, and particularly how they were a better offensive team than they were a year ago when they scored 400 points.

"How can you say that?" he was asked, "when they struggled so much with their running attack this summer?

There was a relatively long pause.

"I think they're better," said Mora, ignoring the question, "because of adding Peerless Price. I like the tight end, (Jay) Riemersma, a lot. And no one in the league has a quarterback situation with two starters, Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson, on their roster as Buffalo has. I mean . . . no one."

What has the addition of Peerless Price, or Riemersma's play, or the strong quarterback situation, have to do with the running game? Mora never mentioned the Bills' current running game, which spoke volumes.

The Colts spent the offseason strengthening their defense against the pass. They added pass rushers Chad Bratzke from the Giants and Shawn King from Carolina.

Yet Indy finished 29th in the NFL against the run last season. That's where Buffalo has been killing them the last few years, especially with the running of Antowain Smith. To combat that Bill Polian, Indy's impresario, signed ex-Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett and New Orleans safety Chad Cota. Biscuit led Atlanta's Super Bowl team with 121 tackles. Cota had 149 in his last two seasons with the Saints and Carolina. How much the new guys help shore up Indy's anti-run defense is unknown.

But the Bills don't have the same sort of offense they had the last time they played Indianapolis. There is a suspicion, fueled last Saturday night when he gained just 8 yards in eight carries against Pittsburgh, that Smith is still nursing his groin problem.

There is also a strong suspicion the offensive line is no more ready for prime time than it was a year ago when the Bills opened the season 0-3. It got its act together in time for a 10-3 finish, but it's living on the edge to expect that every season.

Considering the concern about Smith's physical condition, wouldn't it be prudent to make sure that Thurman Thomas carried the ball at least a dozen times? Sure Thurman is 33, and he started just three games a year ago. But why is he still on the roster if not to step up and produce when the occasion demands it?

The occasion seems to demand it and could continue to demand it for the next month.

This is time of year when Thomas would be at his freshest. Why not use him? His role is supposed to be similar to that of Marcus Allen during the winter seasons of Allen's career. Allen was most helpful to Kansas City as a short-yardage producer and a third-down back, but there were a number of games in which he assumed a heavier load.

Remember the playoff loss in Miami last January? Smith had an injured groin in that one, too, and gained just 15 yards in seven carries. Thurman gained 33 yards in seven carries and scored Buffalo's only rushing touchdown.

He's a big-game player. Considering how important it is for the Bills to get off to a winning start today, it might be a good idea to play him.

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