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OK, SO SEATTLE didn't upset the Dolphins in Miami Sunday. It didn't matter all that much, because the Bills' chance to munch on the NFL's big enchilada still hinges on the Rich Stadium extravaganza six days from now.

By now, every fan knows what is at stake when the Bills meet the Dolphins.

A Buffalo victory would assure a third straight AFC East title and the vitally important home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The bonus is the Bills would get a bye on the first weekend in January, providing a precious week of recovery for Jim Kelly's injured knee as the star quarterback attempts to return to the lineup for the playoffs.

Those are the rewards. The dilemma is how to go about possessing them.

"From what I've seen," says linebacker Shane Conlan, who played his best game of the year in the 17-13 victory over the Giants, "it's still defense that wins championships."

Defense, plus a strong running game.

With Kelly out of the lineup and Frank Reich his replacement, the offensive formula is productive running supplemented by judicious passing. At least, that is how it went last year when Reich replaced the injured Kelly and won all three of his starts.

In the landmark Monday night victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the Bills ran for 134 yards. The next week, they ran for 204 against the Jets. That was followed by an avalanche of 280 yards when the Bills defeated Miami, 31-17. All three games were played in Rich.

With Kelly a spectator, the big guy for the Bills is likely to be Thurman Thomas. The talented little guy is a money player. When Reich needed help, he got it from Thurman.

Thomas zinged the Rams for 172 yards last year -- 105 rushing and 67 on pass receptions. He ran for only 49 in the 35-3 blowout of the Jets, but came back with a huge game against the Dolphins. He carried 27 times for 148 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown run, and added 21 additional yards on two catches.

Except for the Rams game, in which Buffalo had to open up late, Reich didn't pass much during his three-week odyssey.

Does this mean the Bills will revert to conservatism in their offense again? It shouldn't.

One reason is Miami has a far better defense than a year ago. In its 30-7 battering of the Bills in the second game of the season, Buffalo gained only 44 yards rushing.

That was three months ago. Washington's running game battered the Dolphins two weeks ago, but Miami came back to nullify Seattle's running attack Sunday.

The other reason is the Bills have been so successful with their no-huddle offense that it might be a major mistake to junk it because Kelly is hurt. It just helped beat one of the best defenses in football.

Reich worked with the no-huddle in practice all year and has confidence in it. After Kelly was hurt Saturday, he advised Reich to urge the coaches to stay with the no-huddle.

Then there is the matter of climate. What sort of Sunday weather should Bills fans be pulling for? Consider Miami's track record in cold weather.

In the 25-year history of the Dolphins franchise, the latest previous game they ever played in Western New York was Nov. 29, 1987. The Bills scored a 27-0 shutout.

Since Dan Marino has been with the team, starting in 1983, it has played only four games in northern, undomed stadiums after Dec. 1, including January playoff games. The Dolphins beat a bad Green Bay team in 1985 and a building Philadelphia team in '87. In 1988, they lost at Pittsburgh, 40-24. Last year, they lost at Kansas City, 26-21.

How about a windy day, windy enough to bother Marino's long ball yet not too gusty so it eliminates passing. And cold. Not frigid cold. That might produce a freak result, but cold enough to remind the Dolphins they are above the Mason-Dixon Line.

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