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O-LINE IS WALKING TALL EN ROUTE TO MIAMI TEST

The Buffalo Bills' offensive line has put together two games so good they might have earned a few pats on the backside from the late Vince Lombardi.

This unit blew open huge holes for the run and provided mostly solid pass protection in victories over the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles.

So take your bows, men. Walk tall, with chests -- and stomachs -- puffed to their fullest. Feel as good as you can possibly feel . . . while you can.

Because five days from now, the heat gets turned up to full blast. And the burners will be located precisely under each of your butts.

The Bills play their most important game of the first half of the schedule in Miami Monday night. They will need every ounce of magic Doug Flutie can give, all of the big catches Eric Moulds can muster, all of the long runs Antowain Smith can produce, and a third consecutive smothering performance by the defense.

Most of all, however, they will need their offensive line to perform at the highest level it is capable of reaching -- and then some.

It is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the game rests on how well, or poorly, the Bills' blockers handle themselves against the deepest and most talented defensive line in the NFL.

And the conditions will be every bit as bad as they were (if not worse) for the season-opener at Indianapolis, when they couldn't hear themselves think over the roar inside the RCA Dome and were consistently overwhelmed by the Colts' vastly improved D-line.

We're talking deafening noise from a stoked-up Monday night crowd riding the wave of a 2-0 record and giddy Super Bowl thoughts. We're talking about a defensive line that packs power in the middle and tremendous speed on the outside. We're talking about an offensive line returning to the scene of some of its most humiliating moments, such as Game Two of the 1998 season, when Rob Johnson was sacked eight times, and last January's wild-card playoff game in which Smith was held to 15 rushing yards on seven carries.

This is also an offensive line that will have three changes since that postseason loss. It has a new center, with Jerry Ostroski replacing Dusty Zeigler; a new right guard, with Zeigler replacing ailing Joe Panos; a new right tackle, with Robert Hicks replacing Ostroski. Jamie Nails, who might have to start at left guard in place of the injured Ruben Brown Monday, did start at that position in the wild-card game because Brown was out with a torn pectoral muscle.

Somehow, I can't believe the Bills are comforted by the prospect of Zeigler, who is still finding his way at guard, going up against Dolphins standout defensive tackle Tim Bowens.

For that matter, the idea of Nails spending another full game in the smothering South Florida heat against the Dolphins' other great tackle, Daryl Gardener, could also cause a nightmare or two at One Bills Drive.

And young Hicks -- whose potential to develop into a top-flight lineman remains every bit as large as he is -- should expect to be taken to school on a few occasions by cagey left end Trace Armstrong, the guy who drilled Flutie from behind to seal the wild-card game. And left tackle John Fina is not bound to have a picnic against lightning-quick right end Jason Taylor.

But so what?

That's the line the Bills have and that's the challenge it faces.

What we know about this group so far is that it can rebound from an atrocious showing. We also know that it is highly motivated by media criticism, that head coach Wade Phillips and line coach Carl Mauck love to play the us-against-them rhetoric to death.

"Suck on that one!" was what Mauck growled to the first reporter he saw as he and the rest of the Bills made their way to the dressing room after beating the Jets.

That's fine. Mauck and his linemen have every reason to gloat for those terrific performances against the Jets and the Eagles after hearing and reading about how terrible they were against the Colts. I, for one, question whether a single Jet or Eagle defensive lineman that played in those games would be a backup for the Dolphins.

But, at the same time, it says something when one group of players is dominant against lesser competition.

The one word of caution here is that anger, while a wonderful and time-tested form of motivation, can only take you so far. It can't last over the course of an entire season. In fact, it doesn't even come into play this week because the Bills' linemen have nothing to be mad about. They have been roundly praised for excellent play in two games.

Now, they must find something else to make their performance level soar to new heights . . . and to keep them from wilting in the intense heat coming their way Monday night.

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