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MCGAHEE'S SUCCESS MAKES YOU WONDER
RUNNING BACK KEY
TO OFFENSIVE REBOUND

Willis McGahee spent Sunday night flying home from Seattle and Monday afternoon flying home from Buffalo. The Bills had an extra day off after their 38-9 victory over the Seahawks, so the running back decided to spend some time back where it began and where it's going from here.

This week is all about Miami.

McGahee will celebrate a homecoming Sunday when the Bills play the Dolphins in Pro Player Stadium. He was born and raised in Miami and starred at the University of Miami before the Bills selected him 23rd overall in 2003. He keeps a home in South Florida and travels there every few weeks.

"It's going to be real good to come home and play in front of the home crowd," McGahee said Monday night by phone. "But I'm not going to let that be my motivation. I'm pretty sure it's going to be a good thing. We have to stay focused on what's in front of us -- and that's to get that win."

The matchup Sunday will be different than the first meeting in Orchard Park, in which the two AFC East rivals were winless and their seasons were looking hopeless. McGahee made his first NFL start against the Dolphins, gained 111 yards rushing and led Buffalo to a 20-13 victory. The Bills have since turned around their offense.

You wonder where they would be if McGahee was their starting running back during their 0-4 start. Could they have secured two more victories, pushing them toward the playoffs with a 7-4 record with five games remaining rather than going 5-6 with a view from the outside?

"These guys are still looking ahead at what we have a chance at, even with that start," Bills coach Mike Mularkey said. "Maybe it's something in the offseason where you wish you could've and would've. There's absolutely nothing we can do about it right now."

McGahee wasn't ready for full-time duty at the onset of the regular season. Travis Henry was still the No. 1 back and coming off consecutive 1,300-yard seasons. He was the starter. McGahee was unproven and his injured knee was untested beyond the preseason and a four-TD performance in a scrimmage against Cleveland.

A few things have since changed.

The Bills have won five of their last seven games. They are 5-0 in games in which he gains 100 yards rushing and 5-1 in games he's started. He had 116 yards rushing and four touchdowns in Sunday's win over the Seahawks. McGahee showed off his breakaway speed, short-yardage instincts and nose for the end zone in scoring one 30-yard TD and three others around the goal line. It was the best game of his young career.

"To me, scoring is better than getting 100 yards," he said. "Doing both is the prize, but I look forward to scoring more than I do getting 100 yards."

"He's got a knack," Mularkey said. "He somehow finds a way. He's been doing that dating all the way back to the Cleveland scrimmage."

The Bills had a brief scare when McGahee hobbled off the field in the first quarter Sunday. He came back two plays later looking stronger. The four rushing scores were more than the Bills had in their previous 13 games combined. He has all seven of their TDs on the ground this season.

"He came back like a warrior," guard Chris Villarrial said. "He fought through it. We did some good things but he made a lot of yards on his own. He waits for his opportunity. He doesn't rush it. And when it opens up, bam, he hits it. It's natural talent."

Could he have made the same impact early in the season? There was the 13-10 loss to Oakland in which Henry was stopped near the goal line. Henry fell down on a critical third-down play Oct. 3 against New England with the Bills trying to tie the game. Drew Bledsoe fumbled on an attempted bootleg on the next play, and Richard Seymour ran it back for a touchdown in the Pats' 31-17 win.

So maybe.

The Bills had gone nine games without a rushing touchdown until McGahee scored his first career TD against Arizona. His seven TDs have come in his last five games. He has 726 yards rushing, putting him on pace for 1,056 yards. Factor his six starts over a 16-game season, and McGahee would be on pace for 1,594 yards rushing. The Bills have not had a 1,500-yard rusher since O.J. Simpson ran for 1,503 yards in 1976.

"I wouldn't say it's all me," he said. "We have an unsung hero in (fullback) Daimon Shelton. He's like the man behind the scenes. That's who I follow when things get tough. You have to give him the credit."

Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe was criticized for taking a gamble on McGahee. Although many agreed with the decision, others thought the Bills needed more help elsewhere given Henry's production. Some wondered whether McGahee would fully recover from major knee surgery. Some thought it was a sign of arrogance.

Regardless, it has paid off.

The Bills are fortunate they have him now, especially with Henry suffering a broken leg Sunday. The Bills were waiting to see how long Henry would be sidelined. Any questions about McGahee's value have been answered. The Bills are intent on wrapping their future around a 6-foot, 228-pound back who knows the way home.

"He's a horse," right tackle Mike Williams said. "He's a guy that gets stronger every time he carries the ball. A lot of people thought the Bills were crazy for drafting him, but look at him now. He's running with a lot of confidence and we have a lot of confidence in him."

Mularkey said he was awaiting results of Henry's MRI exam and would know more about the injury Wednesday. Mularkey said the injury was not as serious as the Bills initially believed.

He said left tackle Jonas Jennings would likely miss practice Wednesday with a slight shoulder separation but should be fine. Jennings was injured in the first quarter Sunday.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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