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The Bills did more than overcome a huge handicap to win a prestige football game Saturday afternoon.

They demonstrated they have enormous heart and talent, maybe enough to hold their division lead over Miami in the race for the championship of the AFC East, even without Jim Kelly.

This season, the Bills proved they can do many things they weren't able to do in the past.

They have won in December -- three straight games under crisis conditions.

They have won big on the road.

Finally, they unmasked their NFC bogeymen. First, it was the arrogant Philadelphia Eagles of Buddy Ryan. Saturday, it was the mighty Giants, who lost their first game of the season in the Meadowlands.

This was Mega Gut-Check time for the Bills. They got a Double A Plus.

With 5 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Buffalo's immediate football future passed in front of it. Jim Kelly writhed on the ground, holding his knee.

"I heard him scream, so I knew it was pretty serious," said Carl Banks, the linebacker who started the freak play in motion.

Banks had struggled with Bills tackle Will Wolford, who ended up falling against Kelly's left leg, and thousands of stomachs then flipped all over the Niagara Frontier.

"Jim Kelly is our leader," said Kent Hull, the Bills' center. "A football team has to reach for something extra when it loses its leader. We had to show we can respond to adversity."

The loss of Kelly is a huge blow. For 14 games, he played quarterback better than any man in the history of the franchise. Against the Giants, he was rolling.

With Kelly in command of the Bills' no-huddle offense, you could see the hot breath of the Giant defenders steaming out of their face masks. Some of them were doubled over from exhaustion.

When Kelly went out of the game and Frank Reich came in, there was only one circumstance in the understudy quarterback's favor: the Bills had the lead, 14-10.

Reich was not asked to bring the Bills from behind as a relief quarterback. That is not his strength. He functions most efficiently in a structured situation, when he has a full week of preparation, with him as the central figure.

Reich produced only one score Saturday, but it was vital. He drove his unit 55 yards for Scott Norwood's 29-yard field goal, a drive that began darkly, with a 9-yard sack.

"Frank Reich did it for us before, but we couldn't let the Giants get the lead because Jim Kelly was out, and he's in a class by himself bringing a team from behind," said linebacker Shane Conlan.

Powering the Bills defense was Bruce Smith.

Smith continually disrupted the flow of the Giants' offense. They ran away from him a dozen times in the first half. Time after time, in key situations, Smith either made the play, forced it or caused the Giants to re-route.

Last week, he committed the sports equivalent of blasphemy in New York, saying Lawrence Taylor's time as the NFL's premier defensive player had ended and now he himself was the guy.

Saturday, Smith backed it up.

After the game, Smith tried to downplay his brazen comments: "Anyone who knows me, or has been around me, knows I don't brag."

What's that old saying? "If you can do it, it ain't braggin.' "

Smith did it.

Now he and the Bills' defense will have to keep doing it. Reich, who won all three games he started in relief of Kelly last year, has to play up to that standard a week from today against Miami in Rich Stadium.

"Two years ago, we played without Bruce Smith for a month," pointed out Hull. "Last year, we won the three games Jim Kelly missed when he was injured.

"This team finds a way to win," Hull said.

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