IF YOU ARE A sports fan of even casual intensity, the Buffalo Bills brought your Christmas present about 36 hours early.
The Bills, by smoting Miami in their high-stakes game at Rich Stadium Sunday, gave the area an athletic lift it needed.
The Sabres may be upsetting the community stomach and major league baseball seems to be a longer shot by the day, but the Bills won an opportunity to control their future for the rest of the football season.
Home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs was exactly what Bills loyalists wished to find under their tree.
There was a happy by-product connected with the Dolphin stomping. The Bills' slate of past failures virtually has been wiped clean.
December often had been a gloomy month for our heroes, filled with losses and disappointment. Now they own December. They are 4-0 against their most hostile opposition.
The road has been a hazard for them in the past. This year, they succeeded away from home. One of their most prestigious victories came over the Giants, who almost never lose in Giants Stadium.
Finally, there was the evening of scores with the bullying NFC. Domination by conferences is supposed to run in cycles, but the NFC cycle had gone from 1984 until this month, when Buffalo reversed the turntable almost single-handedly for the entire AFC. The victory over Philadelphia was the beginning, then the Giant game was the convincer.
In the last week, the same assessment has been heard over and over from NFL people: "Buffalo has the strongest AFC team in years."
The strength of the Bills' quarterback depth was the latest revelation about this team. There had been some doubt about Frank Reich, whether his three victories as an emergency starter in 1989 was just one of those happy stories that was unlikely to repeat itself.
Instead, Reich, in confidently supervising the dissection of Miami, was more convincing than he was last year against the Rams, Jets and Dolphins.
The Bills demonstrated they are more than a one-trick pony.
The rest of the NFL is now convinced, even though Jim Kelly had a marvelous season and was the premier quarterback in the AFC, Buffalo doesn't necessarily need him to win big games. His return for the playoffs will be a major bonus, of course.
The Bills now have won with their running attack in high gear as well as with the running game in low.
They won big with the no-huddle strategy and they won without it.
They won with the highest-scoring offense in the league and they won by force of their defense. They also won through special teams.
Put that all together and you get: Super Bowl team. Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
Applications for the Bills' Super Bowl ticket lottery began arriving in the mail Christmas Eve, incidentally. There was nothing presumptuous about it.
The home-field advantage is an enormous perk for a team with Super Bowl ambitions. The Bills know it and so does the opposition.
"It's especially valuable to a team from a cold-weather city with an open stadium," says Tom Jackson, the ex-Denver linebacker who now works as an analyst for ESPN.
"We used to love to have teams like the Raiders and San Diego come to town when the weather got stormy. They never liked it."
Coming to Buffalo, the Dolphins might have made the first steps toward defeat in their own heads. The week was filled with constant talk about combating the cold in Rich Stadium. Even such an iron man as Don Shula was grousing about Miami coming to Buffalo in December for the first time in 25 years. Shula was saying things like "we'd much rather play them in our place."
Sure, but that's the rub of the green. Or in this case, the slip of the ice.