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The element of surprise has been an essential in football since Princeton and Rutgers kicked it off in 1869. Even in these sophisticated times, there is always something to dumfound someone.

"This has been a helluva surprise," says Bob "Tiger" Irsay, owner of the Colts, who play the Bills in the Hoosier Dome today. He was referring to Indianapolis' chaotic season.

"I thought we would come up with some big games," says Tiger, "but they don't wake up until the second half."

Actually, until they lost at Phoenix a week ago, the Colts had shaken their slumber, thanks to one of the premier surprises of the season, rookie quarterback Jeff George.

When the Bills last saw George, he was stretched out on the turf at Rich Stadium after Cornelius Bennett conked him in the second half of the season opener.

Since then, George lost his job, then regained it by default when Jack Trudeau suffered a serious knee injury. Default or not, George roused his team to a three-game winning streak, which included a 34-20 upset of the Bengals at Cincinnati.

George always received credit for the strength of his passing arm and his Marino-like quick release. But in the last month he has been saluted for his ability to withstand both assaults and bad times.

The kid has more fortitude than anyone thought.

"He is going to be a real, good quarterback," says Eric Dickerson, the prodigal running back. Praise from Dickerson for a fellow player is a surprise in itself.

Dickerson also has been a medium-sized piece of the 1990 surprise package. A month ago, in the Colt lineup reluctantly after a long holdout and suspension, Dickerson was moving into holes in the line of scrimmage sideways. But, all of a sudden, during the winning streak, he got interested again.

He should be a major part of Indy's game plan against the Bills.

Ron Meyer, the Indy coach, also is among the year's surprises. He is being given credit for actually coaching, and not doing a bad job of it.

Meyer, a likable sort, is not considered one of the great Xs and Os guys in the NFL by his peers. His forte is super salesmanship, motivation, putting together the emotional package. Some think he's a con man.

But with George at quarterback and the season, to say nothing of his job, sliding away, Meyer became a hands-on coach and he is doing a pretty fair job of it.

Meyer thinks the Bills' rise to another level is among the year's surprises.

"They are the best AFC team I've seen in several years," he said after the Bills beat Philadelphia last week.

"They're way improved offensively. James Lofton seems to have made a comeback. Keith McKeller is going to be one of the fine tight ends. The offensive line is a surprise, one of the major reasons they are winning so much. "They are getting help from the bench, too. Mark Kelso gets hurt and that kid (John) Hagy comes and plays free safety as well or better.

"People can talk all they want about the two teams (San Francisco and the Giants) that played Monday night, but Buffalo looks as if it could play with any team."

There are Buffalo surprises other than those mentioned by Meyer.

Jim Kelly's improvement may be the biggest story of the year for the Bills. He matured and became a far more disciplined quarterback.

Jamie Mueller was a huge surprise. Judging from his 1989 performance, the expectation was that his name would end up on the waiver wire. Instead a trimmer, racier, more determined and harder-working Mueller became a major asset for the Bills.

The most improved unit on the team is the offensive line. The vast progress made by right tackle Howard Ballard is obvious. Not so obvious is the progress of guard John Davis. Once an afterthought, Davis is now a solid player.

Not only did Leon Seals fill the vacancy created by the departure of Art Still, but he's now being recognized as one of the NFL's better defensive ends. Kirby Jackson was a surprise. His good play at cornerback allowed the Bills to bring along J.D. Williams, the No. 1 draft choice, more slowly and comfortably.

There have been many other surprises around the NFL. Some of the major ones:

Miami's defensive unit: It may be crumbling a bit now, but for most of the season it had changed from punching bag to iron sentinel. Tom Olivadotti, who seemed on his way to being merely another Dolphin defensive co-ordinator who failed, is now being hailed.

Jim Harbaugh: The young Chicago quarterback was handed Mike Tomczak's job. It was the scenario for failure but, under tight control, he has been what the Bears needed.

The Cowboys: A year ago they were awful. Now, in the final month of the season, they could make the playoffs. Jimmy Johnson is proving that a college coach can succeed in the NFL.

Steve DeBerg: The journeyman's journeyman quarterback hasn't been great, but he's been good enough to allow the talented Kansas City Chiefs to make a run at the Super Bowl.

Marcus Allen: Once Marcus was allowed back in the starting lineup, the Raiders became a serious offense again -- before Bo Jackson rejoined the team.

Rob Moore: When the All-America receiver left Syracuse early for the supplemental draft, there were a number of NFL teams skeptical of his speed, including Dallas. Moore proved to the Jets that he plays faster than he appears on the computer. He should be AFC rookie of the year.

Marion Butts: He showed the Chargers that he was more than a short-yardage bull; that a seventh-round draft choice could be a 1,000-yard man.

Philly's passing game: Buddy Ryan gassed Cris Carter, who caught 11 touchdown passes in '89, because he wanted speed and more production. He got it from kid receivers Fred Barnett and Calvin Williams, who have totaled 12 touchdown catches, many of them big-yardage numbers.

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