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O-LINE MUSHROOMS INTO CAPABLE UNIT

The NFL's offensive line coaches have their own club. They call it the "Mushroom Society," in mock deference to the dark, obscure nature of their job. They tend to be an obsessive and anonymous lot, and they prefer it that way. They know the light doesn't usually shine on them unless something has gone awry.

That's why Jim McNally was uneasy about his new job as the Bills' offensive line coach this season. At age 60, he was thrilled to be coaching in his hometown. But he knew he wouldn't be working in the dark. People would be watching him intently, expecting him to work miracles with the Bills' line.

So when the Bills started 0-4, McNally took it personally. The offensive line was struggling, and he felt he was letting people down.

"It's a little different when the local boy comes home," McNally said Sunday after the Bills' 22-17 win over the Jets. "I have about 100 relatives here. I probably know 500 people. Hell, I've been hiding. My buddies call and tell me everything will be OK. I'm like, 'Don't call me and remind me. Talk about something other than football.'

"You want to do such a good job. I was a Bills fan all my life, and at first I didn't think I was making much of a contribution."

But after staggering around in the dark for the first month of the season, the line has finally come around. Sunday, McNally's line turned in its finest performance of the year, outperforming the Jets' vaunted defensive front.

The Bills did not allow a sack for the second straight game. They have allowed just one sack and thrown no interceptions in their last three home games. They've won three straight home games for the first time since 2002. Those happen to be Willis McGahee's three NFL starts, and he's rushed for 100-plus yards each time.

They are still only 3-5, but the Bills have at least put themselves on the outer fringes of the playoff race and given their fans a reason for hope heading into the second half. They've reclaimed their home-field mystique, and the improved play of the offensive line is a big reason.

Jonas Jennings, healthy again at left tackle, dominated NFL sack leader John Abraham, who had abused him in New York a month earlier. Trey Teague started at center after missing a month and played well. Ross Tucker slid over to left guard and continued his solid play. Mike Williams, who has been quietly improving over the last month, gave everyone a scare when he lay on the field for 15 minutes with a neck sprain in the second half. But even that couldn't take the luster off a terrific game by the O-line.

"We're starting to feel each other," said right guard Chris Villarrial. "We're starting to know what each other's thinking, what each other is doing. It's coming together. We're starting to knock out the stupid penalties that hurt us early in the year. We're starting to get a little roll going now. This is nice, but we have an uphill fight the whole way out. We'll enjoy this one for 24 hours. We've got a big one Sunday night."

Oh, yes. The big test comes Sunday night at New England, where the Buffalo offense has come unglued the last three seasons. It's one thing to block well at home. If the "O" has really arrived, it needs to prove it on the road, in a hostile environment, against a top team.

"We got our strength back," said Jennings. "We've got our core guys, the same guys who have been working together since minicamp. The coaches are actually putting it on our shoulders. They're telling us we're going out and running the ball."

Once again, the Bills adhered to their winning blueprint. They dominated with the run and played sensational defense. McGahee gained 132 yards on 37 carries. Only one Bill, a certain O.J., ever carried more times in a game. So much for Travis Henry getting a bigger share of the load.

The Bills have a clear identity now. It starts with McGahee, who came here as a speed back and has become one of the best power runners the franchise has ever seen. The Jets crowded the line of scrimmage, as the Cardinals had done the week before, and the Bills kept feeding McGahee the ball.

So what if he averaged only 3.6 yards a rush? He kept the defense honest, which prevented the Jets from sending blitzers at Drew Bledsoe. And when the Jets tried to get pressure with their front guys, the Bills' offensive line was up to the task. Abraham was a nonfactor, as Miami's Jason Taylor was three weeks earlier.

The Bills are a different team than they were a month ago. They are a team gathering confidence and momentum. The coaching staff totally botched a goal-line sequence just before the half, costing them a chance at a touchdown. Unshaken, the offense came out of the locker room and marched 77 yards for the go-ahead touchdown on the first possession of the third quarter.

It's always easy to blame the line when an offense is struggling. The Bills' line has been a problem for several years. They still have a lot to prove on the road. But they're getting better.

"We're not as bad as people make us out to be," Jennings said.

"I go on the Internet and read about other teams," said Tucker. "Every team that's struggling, they're blaming the offensive line."

That's the nature of the position, as the "Mushroom Society" knows too well. For once, the spotlight actually shined on the O-line Sunday. McNally was called into the locker room for a rare session with the media. It was a long time coming.

"Well, we say they're drinking the Kool-Aid," McNally said. "They're working every day. But I don't see the forest for the trees. I'm in there all day long, coaching. We just do what we do every day, and the results are coming a little bit. Next week is a different week. You have a reprieve for about two hours. Then you have to do it again."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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