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All week long, the Bills insisted replacing Jim Kelly with Frank Reich wouldn't change a thing.

Sure, Kelly, injured in last Saturday's victory over the New York Giants, would be missed but there was more than enough talent to overcome his absence.

Right on both counts.

Returning to the run-and-stop-the-run script they had used to dominate Miami in six of their last seven meetings, the Bills punished the Dolphins, 24-14, Sunday before a delirious record crowd of 80,235 at Rich Stadium to clinch their third straight AFC East title..

It was an impressive -- and club-record 13th -- triumph in the showdown game the Bills and their fans had waited 13 games for -- since Sept. 16 when the Dolphins hung a 30-7 loss on Buffalo at Joe Robbie Stadium.

Reich? He was better than anybody had any right to expect. The 29-year-old backup threw touchdown passes to James Lofton and Andre Reed as he completed 15 of his 21 passes for 234 yards.

Except for a fumble he lost on the Bills' first series of the game, Reich was almost flawless.

"Today, Frank did everything right," said running back Thurman Thomas, who did little wrong himself. The third-year running back regained the NFL rushing lead with 154 yards on 30 carries and scored the Bills' third touchdown on an 11-yard run early in the fourth quarter.

The consistency of Thomas' performance was illustrated by the fact he averaged 5.1 yards per attempt, even though his longest gain was 13 yards.

"Thurman was hitting the holes as well as he has all year," Reich said.

The Bills finished with 206 yards rushing and 429 in total offense, almost routine fare for them against the Dolphins at Rich Stadium the last four seasons.

"Today, I think we could have run the ball anywhere we wanted to," Thomas said.

Miami's supposedly improved running game was a phantom. The Dolphins gained only 35 yards on the ground in 12 attempts. Miami ran only once in the second half, a 2-yard run by Sammie Smith, who was held to 28 yards on nine attempts.

"They were able to run with it . . . and we couldn't run with it," was how Dolphins coach Don Shula summarized things.

Miami managed 309 yards in total offense, with Dan Marino passing for 287, including second-half touchdown throws to Mark Duper and Mark Clayton (with 1:00 left), but the Bills pressured the Dolphins quarterback enough to carry the day.

Marino was sacked three times -- Jeff Wright, Shane Conlan and Mike Lodish did the honors -- and had one pass batted down at the line of scrimmage by Darryl Talley.

The difference in third-down situations told the story of how the two offenses compared. The Bills faced six third downs where they needed 2 yards or less and converted four. Miami faced 13 third-down situations but only one required short yardage for a first down. Marino was sacked twice on third down, threw three incompletions and didn't get the necessary yardage on one completion.

Reading defenses and adjusting to Miami's defensive calls at the line of scrimmage were Reich's strengths.

"Frank did a great job," said Bills coach Marv Levy. "He was very poised, threw the ball well, made good decisions, ran our offense very well."

The Bills received the opening kickoff and came right out in the no-huddle offense. And Reich came out throwing.

"I felt we had to loosen them up a bit to make it easier on our offensive line," said Reich, who is free to call his own plays in the no-huddle.

Reich's fumble on a scramble ended the first Buffalo possession and a dropped pass in the end zone by Reed and a third-down sack ended the second, both in Miami territory.

The next time they got it, though, the Bills cashed in. It came after Pete Stoyanovich of the Dolphins flubbed a 28-yard field-goal attempt, only his third miss of the season and first inside 44 yards.

Officially, it was an 80-yard drive in 13 plays. Actually, it was 85 yards, even longer. It began with a 5-yard false-start penalty, setting the ball back to the Buffalo 15, and the Bills had to overcome two holding penalties along the way, one of which erased a brilliant run by Thomas.

The first touchdown came on a 7-yard pass to Lofton, who was moving across the middle of the end zone.

"That was a play where Andre (Reed) comes across the middle and the whole defense jumped on top of him," said Reich. "Then it was just a second until I could find a hole. I saw James was open, and I just waited until he got to the next seam and threw.

"Fortunately, I had all day to throw."

The 7-0 lead stood up until halftime, thanks to Cliff Hicks' interception at the Buffalo 7-yard line with 1:14 left in the first half.

Miami had one other turnover and it came on the second-half kickoff. Marc Logan muffed Scott Norwood's high, short kick and Carlton Bailey recovered for the Bills at the Miami 32.

In six plays, Reich had the Bills in the end zone, threading the needle on a pass to Reed, who caught the ball between J.B. Brown and Jarvis Williams.

"We were running the ball real well," Reich said. "I just sensed that Andre could beat that guy (Brown) out there and I told him to run a little quick post.

"I just stepped back and tried to look off the safety, and I saw J.B. Brown on Andre's back and tried to throw it into Andre's body so he could try to make the play. When you throw it like that to Andre, you have all the confidence in the world he's going to come up with it."

Marino came right back and hit Duper for a 30-yard scoring pass to make it 14-7, but the Bills answered with a 21-yard field goal by Norwood. Reich's 43-yard bomb to Don Beebe set it up.

Beebe unfortunately suffered a fractured right leg with 21 seconds left in the quarter. He is out for the rest of the season.

The running of Thomas, who was bothered by muscle spasms in his lower back in the second half, was featured in Buffalo's last touchdown drive. Thomas scored it from 13 yards out, hitting inside tackle, bouncing off one tackle and into the clear at the 1:48 mark of the fourth quarter. He was given the rest of the afternoon off.

"A huge play, given the qualities Marino and the Dolphins have to come back," Levy said.

The Bills ran the ball out of a three-receiver set most of the game, with Thomas as the only back behind Reich.

"Frank did a helluva job of mixing it up and they were never too positive of whether we were going to throw or not," said Bills left offensive tackle Will Wolford. "We did a good job keeping them off guard. We didn't hit many eight-man fronts when we ran the ball."

Reich was sacked once and the Bills averaged 4.4 yards per running play as they dominated the Miami front.

Levy told his team it has a lot to be proud of, then couldn't resist a shot at those who doubted the character of his team.

"It has been a bit of a battered team, and they've won championships and operated in an area where everyone has been ready to throw up a white flag the minute anything goes wrong, but not our football team," Levy said.

"They've won four crucial games without Jim Kelly in the lineup over the last three years and four games without Bruce Smith in the lineup.

"It's a great football team, with a lot of moral fiber and a lot of character, and they showed it."

More important, it's a team with a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage.

The Bills were eliminated from the playoffs by losses at Cincinnati and Cleveland the last two seasons.

"In the last two years, we've seen how much home-field advantage has hurt us," Reich said. "This year, we don't have any excuses. We have the home-field advantage. It's what we've been fighting for all year long. Now it's up to us to do something with it."

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