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VETERAN LINEBACKER Ray Bentley said he never had seen the Bills' defense quite so emotionally high before a game. Chuck Dickerson, the team's effusive defensive line coach, said he knew it when he saw players head-butting one another on the sideline before the opening kickoff.

"Heck, they were even head-butting me," Dickerson said. "I mean, these guys played sky-high hard today. They were very emotional. On the whole, we've played pretty businesslike defense this year. But the last two weeks, we laid it on the line as far as emotion."

The defense had a lot to be emotional about. The AFC East title was at stake, and home-field advantage through the conference playoffs. With quarterback Jim Kelly sidelined, it seemed more imperative than ever to shut down Miami's attack.

And Buffalo's "D" did just that Sunday. Playing with a mixture of emotion and intelligence, it stuffed the Dolphins offense for most of the afternoon and set the tone for the Bills' title-clinching, 24-14 triumph.

"We had to redeem ourselves for that first game," said defensive lineman Mike Lodish. "Getting beat, 30-7, doesn't help your ego as a defensive player. But we came in trying to neutralize their run and neutralize Dan Marino as well as we could, and we did that."

The Bills certainly shut off Miami's erratic running game, holding the Dolphins to only 35 yards on 12 carries. Running the ball against the Buffalo front was such a futile exercise, the Dolphins ran the ball only once after halftime.

Meanwhile, Bruce Smith and Co. were harassing Marino all afternoon. Marino passed for 287 yards, but he was sacked three times, hurried numerous times and intercepted once.

In short, it was a terrific defensive team effort, and further evidence Buffalo's "D," criticized as soft and vulnerable to the run earlier in the season, again is approaching its indomitable level of two seasons ago.

"No, it's better than it was two years ago," Bentley said, "and I'll tell you why. It's playing as a unit. Everyone knows his responsibility and is relying on the next guy to do his job. The communication is incomparable to anything I've ever witnessed before.

"It just takes a look and you know what you have going. You get everybody doing that and we'll be hard to beat, because the talent is immense, and if you get that group working together as one, then it's trouble."

Miami found that out early. On its second set of downs, Bruce Smith shot through to nail Sammie Smith to force third-and-long. Then Jeff Wright chased down Marino for a sack, sending Rich Stadium into a frenzy.

Actually, the crowd already was frenzied. The fans were bordering on lunacy even before the opening kickoff.

But that's the way it is with big crowds in big games. The fans naturally gravitate toward the defense. Offenses function best in quiet. But the defense thrives on emotion and energy, and crowds are best able to express themselves through the defense. The Dolphins admitted they barely could hear their own signals. As always, the opposition's inability to hear had a significant impact on the game.

"Our fans are great," said linebacker Darryl Talley, who was brilliant from start to finish. "They come out and get excited and cheer before the game. They're here, ready to go. We walk out of that tunnel and it's like, 'Here comes that electricity.'

"All you have to do is plug in."

The Rich Stadium crowd was more than electric in the waning moments Sunday. It was downright scary.

There was 3:39 to play when the PA reminded them it was an unlawful act to run onto the field after the game. The message was repeated time and time again, as if acknowledging the futility of doing so.

"I knew they were going out there," Bentley said. "They made an announcement, 'Please stay off the field after the game,' and we cracked up, because we knew better. And we waved them on."

You had the feeling people wouldn't need much prodding.

Eight horses emerged from the tunnel shortly before the two-minute warning, their riders appearing a tad uneasy about their mission.

The announcer kept issuing warnings. Talley kept making tackles. Marino marched the Dolphins to a meaningless TD with exactly a minute left. Jim Kelly exited through the tunnel to chants of "Jim, Jim." Five of the horses were moved into position under the east goalpost.

The clock wound down toward zero and, within seconds, it was bedlam. Fans began streaming out of the stands.

Talley, fans clutching at him, walked jubilantly toward the locker room, stopping to pat one of the horses on the nose. Over to the side, Leonard Smith, the most exuberant Bill of them all, was in the first row of stands, exchanging high-fives with the fans and holding his index finger in the air.

The fans were pushing toward the goalposts with greater urgency. Sensing the inevitable, the mounted police led the horses down the tunnel. Seconds later, at 4:04 p.m. by the stadium clock, the crowd broke through in a furious, ugly mass and went after the goalposts.

It was not an attractive sight. A couple of drunk young men were pounded into submission by security men and dragged into the tunnel. A woman leaned out of the stands, cursing the police and spitting on their backs. In the back of an ambulance in the tunnel, a man held a bloody towel to his head.

"I've never seen anything like it," Lodish said of the crowd, "and I can't wait to see it when we're AFC champions."

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