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Result conveys image of a contending team

Duke Preston grew up in San Diego. His parents still live there. His father, Ray, played nine seasons for the Chargers. Last Wednesday, his mother, Susan, called to tell Duke what people were saying about the game with the Bills.

"She said the talk was about next week's game against the Saints in London," Preston said Sunday after the Bills beat the Chargers, 23-14.

Don't believe it when athletes claim they don't pay attention to predictions. They listen. They read. When it serves their purposes, they exaggerate. And the Bills believed no one was giving them a chance Sunday.

Coach Dick Jauron, normally not one to play the "no respect" card, said it was a dominant theme in the locker room during the week.

Despite a 4-1 record, the Bills felt no one was taking them seriously.

"Absolutely," Jauron said. "All week. Actually, for two weeks. We talked about it a good deal. It's hard for a team that's winning all the time to feel that way. It's not hard for us. We tend to hear and read things that lead us to believe that may be the way to feel."

The Bills knew the world was waiting. Call it what you will -- a statement game, a defining moment, a coming of age, a signature victory. The skeptics were demanding one more compelling bit of evidence that a young, upstart team was a legitimate contender.

Well, the statement has been made. It's clear and resounding, like the plaintive voice of the preacher, like a gunshot in the night. The Bills are for real, a legitimate force in the league, a young team that's capable of big things -- this year.

How can you draw any other conclusion after watching the Bills outclass a talented San Diego team that reached the AFC title game a year ago and was a popular choice to reach the Super Bowl this season?

Look, I realize there's a lot of football to be played. The Bills still have issues. But every team in the NFL has issues. There are no great teams. The gap between the middle and the elite has closed dramatically. I'm not sure there are any elite teams.

The Bills are 5-1 for the first time since 1995. They're in the driver's seat in the AFC East, heading into a three-week stretch of divisional games that begins Sunday in Miami.

If there's a team that's clearly superior, I haven't seen it. They outgained the Chargers by more than 100 yards. They dominated time of possession. At winning time, it was the Chargers who seemed physically spent, the Bills who looked like the elite team.

As statements go, it's a lot more promising than our 401(k). And do you know who the message was intended for, most of all? Themselves. When a team hasn't won big in nearly a decade, belief begins at home.

"No doubt," said Lee Evans, who had eight catches and a TD. "When you have success against some of the best, it breeds confidence. If we play the way we're capable of playing, we give ourselves a chance, and that's really all you can ask for in this league."

The Bills suffered all manner of adversity last season, beginning with the Kevin Everett injury in the opener. But young players learned what it takes to compete. Now they're learning how to win those games. It happened sooner than expected. But in today's NFL, where so little separates teams, a few players can make a huge difference.

In Trent Edwards, the Bills found the young franchise quarterback they'd been searching for since Jim Kelly. In Marcus Stroud and Kawika Mitchell, they found the veteran influences to bolster a young defense.

Edwards, coming off a concussion, played a near-perfect game, completing 25 of 30 passes for 261 yards. Edwards completed passes to seven different receivers. The Chargers' Philip Rivers had been leading the NFL in passer rating. Rivers made three crucial mistakes -- two lost fumbles and a horrible interception. Edwards made none. He looked like the veteran.

"We are gaining a lot of confidence," Edwards said. "This is definitely a statement game for us."

Mitchell said so during the week. Then he went out and played his best game as a Bill. The outside linebacker seems to thrive on the big moment. Last December, with the Giants on the verge of collapse, Mitchell came to Buffalo and dominated the Bills. He played like that Sunday. Watching Mitchell fly around the field, I was reminded of Darryl Talley in the glory years, in the big games.

Remember Talley talking about "plugging in" to the crowd? I thought I saw Mitchell plugging in Sunday. Maybe that was what caused the power outage. The linebacker with the crazy hair got so amped up he short-circuited the whole darned county.

Actually, the Bills showed a lot of poise with the electricity out. The players gave credit to the coaching staff, which made the most of the bye week. Preston, who replaced the injured Melvin Fowler at center, said the coaches helped the O-line to keep Edwards upright. The defense held up without Aaron Schobel and Terrence McGee.

"One guy goes down, the next guy has to step in and be accountable," Evans said. "A lot of guys learned how to play last year. It's paying off right now as we move through the season."

The Jets and Dolphins both lost Sunday. If the Pats lose to the Broncos tonight, the Bills will be two games clear of the division. Playoffs? Did someone guarantee playoffs?

"Last year, we felt we were one or two plays -- and a little bit of knowledge -- from being a good football team," said Donte Whitner. "Guys put in the work in the offseason. That's why I made the guarantee. Everybody thought I was crazy. I didn't care. I know what we have in this locker room, and we're going to continue to build on it."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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