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IT WAS THE middle of the fourth quarter and the Bills, having completed their own landslide, were attempting to hold back a Philadelphia avalanche.

This game was not about tactics gone wrong. This one was about toughness, nerve, poise, grace under fire.

It was also about the Buffalo team's past, December swoons and a failure to meet the standards of the National Conference's best.

There were less than seven minutes to play. The outcome would be one of two extremes: A joyful victory, the most meaningful of the season, or a devastating loss.

There were two potential answers on the same play.

On third and 6 from Philadelphia's 46, Jim Kelly threw a short pass over the middle toward Thurman Thomas. The Eagles' brilliant linebacker, Seth Joyner, intercepted.

Downfield, James Lofton's personal pregame analysis clicked in his head: "I knew we would score plenty of points and I knew their offense would score. I was worried about keeping the Eagles' defense from scoring.

"I know that sounds crazy, but I had watched enough Philadelphia film to see that they have most of their best players on defense and the defenders have a propensity for getting the ball into the end zone.

"When I saw No. 59 (Joyner) make the interception, I could tell he was going to try to throw it around."

That was Joyner's intention, but Thomas figured it out. As Joyner tried to lateral, Thomas slapped the ball like a pressing basketball guard. Loose ball.

When the officials unscrambled the pile, Lofton was at the bottom of it, clutching the ball to his breastbone.

It was his most underrated play on an afternoon that the 34-year-old Lofton, who turned pro when Jimmy Carter still had a high popularity rating, made a satchel-full of big plays.

It began with his eye-opener, a 63-yard touchdown collaboration with Kelly on the second play of the game.

"What surprised me was that we had a dry field," said Lofton. "Since I came to Buffalo a year and a half ago, that's the first fully dry field I can remember in our stadium. It never seems to go five straight days without raining."

Dry was all Lofton required, no olive or twist of lemon. Once he beat the Eagles' double zone on a post pattern, he cut across field and went for the touchdown behind Jamie Mueller's block.

A little more than 13 minutes later, Lofton and Kelly combined on another cross-country number, 71 yards to the Eagles' 4.

Lofton hasn't made plays that length since 1984, when he was an automatic Pro Bowl selection with the Green Bay Packers.

Lofton's five catches for 174 yards moved him past Hall of Famer Don Maynard into third place on the all-time NFL reception yardage list. He also moved ahead on Maynard into sixth place all-time in receptions.

The Bills' victory creates a nice little scenario for next weekend. Philly, furious about losing and now in serious need of victory, plays in Miami. The Eagles, possibly the most arrogant team in the NFL, were positive of kicking wholesale butt in Rich Stadium.

No one has less regard for the AFC than the Eagles. Privately, they felt the Bills had built their 9-2 record by munching on candy bars.

For a while, Buffalo appeared to be strolling down Kandy Kane Lane as the Eagles chipped away at their big lead.

Then, with less than 10 minutes to play, the Bills' defense remembered that this was 1990, the season they clean up their reputation.

Philly drove to the Buffalo 34, but Darryl Talley sacked Cunningham for a 14-yard loss on third down and then Steve Tasker blocked Jeff Feagles' punt.

"When Houston beat us last Monday night," reminded Lofton, "we quickly became nobodies."

Today, the Bills look like the AFC's best hope in the Super Bowl.

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