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A team of believers reaps the rewards

After the Dallas loss, when the Bills were at their absolute low point, coach Dick Jauron told his team to put it behind them and move on. We're about to begin a new season, an 11-game season, Jauron said, and there's no reason we can't win them all.

The Bills were just young and naive enough to believe it. And look at them now. They're unbeaten in the "new" campaign. On Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, they scored an exhilarating, 33-21 victory over the Bengals, winning a third straight game for the first time since 2004 to reach the .500 mark at the midpoint of the NFL season.

Really, who could have predicted this after the third week of the season, when the Bills were last in the league in offense and defense? Who would have guessed that a young team, ravaged by early-season injuries and misfortune, would pull itself together and climb back into the AFC playoff race? A resilient bunch of players, that's who.

"Guys are really responding to what coach Jauron said," said safety Donte Whitner. "He said we could go take all 11 games if we play together, if we believe. Guys are really believing."

It showed against a Cincinnati team that was outclassed, outplayed and likely bounced out of the AFC playoff race. The Bills played their best game of the year. The defense played another smart, resourceful game, shutting down the Bengals' running game and holding one of the league's most feared passing attacks in check.

The offensive line was sensational, preventing the Bengals from getting a sniff of quarterback J.P. Losman. Marshawn Lynch had his best day as a pro, pounding away for 153 rushing yards, breaking off a game-clinching 56-yard touchdown run and even throwing a TD pass to Robert Royal. The game plan was solid on both sides of the ball.

Losman was terrific. Under the circumstances, it was probably his best game as a Bill. He was embroiled in a quarterback controversy, competing for his starting job and his very future in Buffalo. Yet Losman was calm, confident and accurate, completing 24 of 34 passes for 295 yards as the Bills piled up 479 total yards, their biggest output in five years.

All right, so it came against the NFL's 31st-ranked defense, which generated a minimal pass rush and allowed Losman to settle into a comfort zone. Given the same opposition, Trent Edwards likely would have had his most productive game of the year, too.

We still have a raging quarterback controversy on our hands. You don't prove you're a franchise quarterback, worthy of a big contract extension, by beating one of the league's worst defenses at home. You do that against the better defenses, on the road and in games with greater playoff significance.

So Losman still has lots to prove, and there's no guarantee that Jauron will stick with him when Edwards gets healthy. Losman said the only thing he can do is make the coach's decision harder, and he did that Sunday. It wasn't just Losman's play, but the way the offense rallied around him.

It's unclear how many Bills were upset when Losman lost his starting job to Edwards. But the offense played with a palpable resolve on Sunday, like a unit that wanted to perform at its best for an embattled teammate. It was encouraging to see, regardless of where you stand on the Losman-Edwards debate.

"We're showing we're a very close team," Losman said. "I know you guys can see that. It's evident. We have a lot of friends, a lot of people wanting to do things for each other, a lot of people hanging out with each other outside the facility. And all those things are paying off. It's very intertwined, and a lot of good things are going on."

That's been lost somewhat in the furor over the QBs. But the Bills have grown as a team. Youth has something to do with it. Seeing Kevin Everett battle back from a catastrophic spinal injury was a humbling, unifying experience for a bunch of privileged young guys.

Through it all, they've hung together and they've improved. They've reached the .500 mark and earned the right to be taken seriously as a playoff contender. The stakes have changed since Edwards started the first Jets game. If Jauron believes that Losman gives them a better chance to win, however slight, he'll likely stick with the veteran.

If it were my call, I'd go back to Edwards when he's healthy. Edwards is still the future. I suspect that'll become apparent in the weeks ahead, when the "bad" Losman rears his head in crucial games. But this Bills team isn't worried about the future. Everett's injury made them even more aware how precious and fleeting an NFL career can be. Who could blame them for living in the here and now?

Jauron certainly didn't want to look ahead. As usual, he deferred any discussion of his starting quarterback until Wednesday. He wanted to enjoy this win and marvel at the way his team battled back from the Dallas disappointment.

"Really, I've never been through a first half of a season like this one," Jauron said. "It's nothing new for you to hear, but I really like these guys and the way they respond, how they pull together. It's just a real good team. Where it goes, I don't know. We have to play it out. They deserve a lot of credit, because they've been through a good deal. But the good news is, they've gone through it together and stayed together.

"They just kept believing they had a chance."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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