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ARCHITECTS OF BILLS' SEASON ENJOY A WIN BY DESIGN

It's called the blueprint. Just like the plan for a two-story house, it demonstrates how to enter and how to exit; how the best traffic plan works and how one part of the structure supports the other.

Except the blueprint in this case is a design for the Buffalo Bills to negotiate the 1997 NFL season successfully.

With Dan Henning on board as the Bills' new coordinator, it was supposed to go this way: The defensive unit and the special teams make the big plays, provide the favorable field position and generally control the games.

The young offense, with its developing quarterback, Todd Collins, would not be saddled with the responsibility of winning, especially late in the games. Just give the defense plenty of rest, don't make killer mistakes and hold your poise.

Sunday afternoon, against the Detroit Lions, the blueprint began to materialize into something resembling a sanctuary. Not all the beams were plumb and a few of the door frames seemed to be crooked, but it was something the Bills should be able to live with, if not in.

The Buffalo defense didn't squash Barry Sanders. No one really does. But Sanders didn't run wild either, and that is a major blessing in any game against Detroit. Barry got his yards, 107 of them; Herman Moore, the wonder wide receiver, caught eight passes for 116 yards, but they weren't killing yards either.

This game, from the standpoint of the Buffalo defense and special teams, wasn't about yardage. It was about big plays.

Phil Hansen made the biggest, hacking his way through the Lion blockers into the Detroit end zone and, with the help of Bruce Smith, tackling Sanders for the safety that put the Bills ahead to stay with 2:12 left in the game.

How big was it? In the history of the franchise, Buffalo never before won a game on a safety.

Antowain Smith's 56-yard touchdown run two plays later provided the clincher, but the safety is what won it.

The safety would never have happened if it weren't for a superb "pooch" punt by Chris Mohr that nestled tantalizingly near the 1-yard line, where Eric Smedley made a sliding save.

"It was a tremendous lift," Collins said, "both the safety and the punt to get it down there. That and the kickoff return that Eric Moulds had (53 yards early in the second quarter) that we turned into a touchdown to Andre Reed. That is how you play football and win."

Not everything went according to the blueprint.

Detroit ran off 19 more plays than Buffalo and held possession for seven more minutes. That is not the way to rest a defense, especially on an unseasonably warm day in October.

The offense also continued to fail on third down. It converted just 2 of 11, which could have been a disastrous percentage. What kept outright calamity away was the play-calling of Henning at a critical moment.

It came with about four minutes left in the game, shortly after the Lions tied it, 13-13. The Bills were confronted by the dreaded third-and-1 on their 24-yard line. Buffalo had converted that setup just once in six attempts over four games.

If this had been a season ago, chances are the call would have been to send a running back into the interior of the line. Henning, however, is not a slave to the expected. His call was a naked bootleg around right end by Collins. The quarterback made the first down with 4 yards to spare.

Eventually, the Bills pushed it up to the Detroit 40, setting up Mohr's fateful punt. That's how it goes when the blueprints are followed.

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