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As a new year -- and perhaps a new coaching era -- approaches, it is time to look back at some of the highlights and lowlights of the Buffalo Bills' 1997 season.

Here are the offerings from one man's tattered notebook:

Five most memorable plays

Bruce Smith and Phil Hansen combining to dump NFL co-MVP Barry Sanders for a fourth-quarter safety (that had never happened previously in Sanders' football life) to give the Bills a 15-13 lead on the way to a 22-13 victory over Detroit on Oct. 5.

The Bills' executing one of their prettiest trick plays in years when quarterback Todd Collins connected with Andre Reed on a 77-yard flea-flicker in the 22-16 loss in Kansas City on Sept. 14.

Collins made the handoff to Thurman Thomas, who headed toward the line, stopped, turned and returned the ball to Collins.

Reed nonchalantly sauntered off the line, then exploded down the right sideline past cornerback Dale Carter, caught the ball at the Chiefs' 30, juked Carter at the 18, and sprinted into the end zone.

Collins' winning 10-yard touchdown pass to Jay Riemersma in the 28-22 victory over the New York Jets on Sept. 7. Collins, under pressure (what else is new?), rolled to his right and flicked the ball that Riemersma caught while doing his best Bobby Chandler imitation, putting the tips of his toes right up to the side of the end zone before falling forward with his feet inbounds.

The disastrous reverse-option pass against Denver in overtime on Oct. 26. The Bills had been running well the whole game, and, having rallied from 20-0 to tie the game and force the extra period, had the momentum.

But then this call, on first-and-10 from the Buffalo 32, killed everything. Alex Van Pelt handed the ball to Thomas, who gave it to Reed, who, despite being right-handed, was running to his left.

Alfred Williams snuffed it out, sacked Reed for a 17-yard loss, and forced a fumble that Van Pelt recovered at the 12. Three plays later, the Bills punted, and the Broncos drove for Jason Elam's winning 33-yard field goal.

Lonnie Johnson taking the hit of the season -- if not the decade -- head-on from Darren Sharper after catching Chris Mohr's pass on a fake punt in the 31-21 season-ending loss in Green Bay.

Forgetting that it was a punt and not a pass play, Johnson felt safe looking back over his left shoulder.

Sharper came flying in to absolutely splatter Johnson, who did his best impersonation of Wile E. Coyote as an Acme piano falls on his head.

Johnson fumbled, but the Bills recovered and a penalty helped set up a touchdown. Still, it is, undoubtedly, the crowning jewel of Lonnie's legacy of miscues.

Three best quotes

"It's like telling the pope not to pray." -- Chris Spielman on not being allowed to lift weights while recovering from surgery on his neck last month.

"The final score would have been 33-9." -- Marv Levy, after being asked what impact Steve Christie's missed 34-yard field goal attempt in the last two minutes of the first half had on the outcome of the Bills' 33-6 loss in New England on Oct. 12.

"No way. I'd get killed here." -- Jim Kelly, after being asked about a possible return to the Bills.

Most valuable player

Is there any doubt? Big Ted Washington dominated play after play, game after game. Take him away, and the Bills' defense doesn't look nearly as dominant.

Most underrated player

Phil Hansen. And we're not just talking about this season, but perhaps all-time in Bills' history.

The guy ranked third on the team with six sacks, and matched Washington for consistency on one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.

All Hansen does is make plays. He's great against the run, and has a knack for putting heat on the quarterback at just the right time.

He should be going to Hawaii, but will probably never make the Pro Bowl as long as Bruce Smith and Washington are his linemates.

Most decisive game of the season

The 27-point loss in New England gave the Bills the earliest and truest indication that they were not ready to compete for anything special this season. The Bills turned the ball over four times, they converted only one of 14 third downs, and they had eight three-and-out series. The sorry performance also was perhaps the most clear sign that Levy no longer had what it took to get the best out of this team.

His postgame remarks said plenty: "I'm angry at myself. I take responsibility. Somehow or other, we didn't come here in the frame of mind to play as much as I thought we were."

Strangest story of the year

The Billy Joe Hobert saga. After replacing the injured Collins in New England, Hobert threw two interceptions in his first three passes, and basically looked horrible the rest of the game.

Twenty-four hours later, he confessed publicly to not having prepared for the Patriots. What else is a No. 2 QB supposed to do? Hobert suddenly became a regional, if not national, symbol for slackers. Forty-eight hours later, the very embarrassed Bills -- who gave the Oakland Raiders a third-round draft pick to sign the guy -- sent Hobert packing.

Hobert got another chance in New Orleans, and looked far better than at any time he wore a Bills uniform. Not only that, but his new teammates actually spoke in glowing terms about his leadership skills.

"Billy Joe is the type of quarterback that if you're not doing your job, he'll curse you out," Saints linebacker Winfred Tubbs said. "He reminds me a lot of (coach Mike) Ditka with his attitude. He's very demanding."

Saddest story of the year

Assistant head coach/running backs coach Elijah Pitts taking a leave on Oct. 1 after a cancerous tumor was found near his intestines. He is undergoing chemotherapy, and waging the fight of his life.

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