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BILLS PUT FOCUS ON CHANGES, INJURIES

During a normal Miami week, little else is discussed in the Buffalo Bills' dressing room except the upcoming game with those dreaded Dolphins.

But this isn't a normal Miami week.

Instead of Dan Marino's super-quick release or Jimmy Johnson's super-slick hair, the focus Wednesday was on the Bills' drastic lineup changes on both sides of the ball.

One gets the sense the team is holding its collective breath as it enters the second half of the season with a new quarterback, Alex Van Pelt, and without its most inspirational leader on defense, linebacker Chris Spielman.

Van Pelt practiced Wednesday for the first time as the new starter in place of Todd Collins, whom coach Marv Levy benched after last Sunday's loss to Denver.

"We'll have to see what happens," wide receiver Quinn Early said. "I think Alex is a good quarterback. He came in and did a great job for us Sunday (in nearly rallying the Bills to victory from a 20-point deficit). I think it's important for us to help him make some plays as receivers and running backs."

"Being that his first start is against Miami, you really don't want to tell him too much and put a lot of pressure on him," running back Thurman Thomas said. "You want him to be relaxed in the pocket, be relaxed on the field when he's out there. If he makes a mistake, I'm sure I'll be the first one right there to tell him, 'Hey, forget about it. Come back the next play or the next series and do something a little bit better.' "

As if the quarterback switch weren't enough of a shock, the Bills received another jolt Tuesday when it was revealed that Spielman would miss the rest of the season with a career-threatening herniated disk in his neck.

Spielman was out of town Wednesday seeking additional medical opinions about possible surgery.

"It's going to be tough," linebackers coach Ted Cottrell said of the impact of Spielman's absence. "The guy's got more than nine years of experience. He's seen a lot of stuff. Plus, his leadership and knowledge during the game . . . that's going to be awfully hard to replace."

Nevertheless, third-year inside linebacker John Holecek is going to give it his best shot, despite being listed as questionable with an ankle injury.

"I'm a little nervous," Holecek said. "I'd be a lot more excited if I didn't have this ankle problem, but I'm trying to get over this injury. I have three days to make it feel better. On game day I don't plan on feeling any pain."

"He'll be ready," Cottrell said. "He played a ton during the preseason and did well. He's done well in practice. He knows what to do. John's very smart. He's a tough guy and he can run. I have no question that he's going to do all right."

Another concern is the status of defensive end Phil Hansen, who is listed as questionable with an injury to his right wrist that he suffered when it was bent backward during the Denver game. He had a cast removed after Wednesday's practice, for which he was a spectator.

"I'm going to make every attempt to (play) if I can," said Hansen, who underwent surgery on the wrist in high school and college and has no feeling in three fingers on his right hand. "I just got the cast off, and getting it moving again is tough."

If he can't play, Sean Moran would take his place.

The Bills are also expected to play Sunday's game without their dime-scheme linebacker, Marlo Perry, who is listed as doubtful with a hamstring injury. Damien Covington will take his place, with depth provided by Holecek and Dan Brandenburg. Covington's name did not appear on the injury list, but he did have a huge ice pack wrapped around his right hand from an unspecified injury he said he suffered during Wednesday's practice.

As insurance, the Bills re-signed veteran inside linebacker Mark Maddox Tuesday. Maddox had been working out to remain in playing shape for most of the past several weeks, but had recently stopped because he was making plans to pursue business opportunities outside of football.

"The last two-three weeks I did take off because I was starting to prepare to do something else," said Maddox. "I was thinking of opening up my own health club, maybe a bread specialty store. I had just talked to someone on Monday and I said the chances of me getting picked up are slim to none. And then (general manager) Mr. (John) Butler called me on Tuesday."

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