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BILLS POISED TO STAKE PLAYOFF CLAIM

The Buffalo Bills had a nice win over the Detroit Lions last Sunday.

Now, they have a chance to make their strongest statement of the season.

If the Bills defeat the 4-1 New England Patriots Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., they will find themselves in the thick of the race for the AFC Eastern Division championship. At 4-2, they would also rank among the winningest teams in the AFC.

Suddenly the team no one thought would be much of a factor is one victory away from commanding serious recognition as a postseason contender.

Of course, the chore of beating the Patriots on the road is fairly immense. The Pats have the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL, led by quarterback Drew Bledsoe and running back Curtis Martin. They also have the league's third-best defense, and the second-highest sack total (22).

Odds-makers have installed the Bills as nine-point underdogs.

But Buffalo players were hardly trembling Wednesday at the thought of taking on the defending AFC champions, with whom they split last year's season series.

"It's just somebody's opinion based upon the past," quarterback Todd Collins said of the large point spread. "In the NFL, I don't think there's any great teams. The Patriots are the team to beat (as defending AFC champions). But I don't think there's a feeling like, 'Oh, I don't know if we can really play with these guys.'

"You can see that around the league today. Detroit goes down and beats Green Bay, the Super Bowl champs. We come out and beat Detroit."

After two consecutive wins, the Bills are beginning to believe they have what it takes to hold their own against any of their opponents.

"We're confident in this locker room," offensive guard Jerry Ostroski said. "We always have been. We've always known that once we get the demons out of here, we'll be OK. And we're slowly starting to get to that point. Hopefully, this week, we can get rid of all of them.

"Our defense is playing extremely well, our offense is starting to get it going, and our special teams had their best game of the year last week. If you look at all those aspects, you could probably say
that, 'Hey, maybe they should be in the situation of being one win away (from moving into the thick of the division race).'

"We realize, if we take care of ourselves, we'll be competitive. But if we go out and lay an egg like we have in some of the other games, we're not going to do anything."

Linebacker Chris Spielman said a win Sunday would go a long way toward changing how the rest of the country views the Bills.

"It's a chance to maybe get some attention where people say, 'Hey, this team's still pretty good,' " Spielman said. "I think if you went in (the Patriots') locker room and asked them, 'Do you guys look like you're 10 points better than them (the Bills)?' I think they would honestly say no -- honestly, not just to appease anybody."

The Bills insist they don't view the Patriots as being any less of a powerhouse after their 34-13 loss in Denver Monday night.

"You can take the '85 Bears, the great Packers teams or whatever and take them to Denver on a Monday night, and it's going to be hard to win," Ostroski said. "That's a tough place to play, we know it. That doesn't take anything away from the Patriots. They're a heck of a football team."

"A lot of things happened (in that game)," coach Marv Levy said. "The Patriots fell behind, they had to throw the ball a great deal during the course of the game. Each game is an entity unto itself. I don't think, as good as Denver is, the score is an indication of the difference between the two teams."

As much as a win would help Buffalo, a loss would not mean the end of the world. Not with 10 games remaining on the schedule after Sunday.

"This is a great opportunity for us," Collins said. "But regardless of how the game goes Sunday, there's still a lot of football to be played.

"We're just trying to improve each week and get better. If we don't get better, then we're going to have problems."

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