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WERE BILLS THE LIFE OF THE SUPER BOWL PARTY?

In trying to assume a leadership role for the Atlanta Falcons, Cornelius Bennett has painted a disturbing picture for many Buffalo Bills fans this week.

The picture is this: Bills players being too hung over from a week of partying to possibly perform at their best on Super Bowl Sunday.

Bennett included himself among those who overindulged when it came to nightlife offerings at the sites of Buffalo's four consecutive Super Bowl appearances. While he said it might not have been the sole reason for the Bills' losses, it certainly didn't help.

And Bennett has gone out of his way to point that out to his teammates -- especially the younger ones -- as the Falcons prepare for their first appearance in the big game when they face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII Sunday.

"I'm trying to tell my teammates now, 'Hey, man . . . we can't be out on the street hanging out late at night if we want to win the Super Bowl,' " Bennett said during Super Bowl Media Day Tuesday at Pro Player Stadium. "Because had (the Bills) won, then I'd be saying, 'Man, let's hang out until 5 in the morning, and I'm telling you, we're going to win the game.'

"It's hard to tell a young guy, 'Stay in, chill,' or whatever. But hopefully they'll listen, especially since I have four Super Bowls under my belt. We didn't have anybody in Buffalo that played in the Super Bowl at that time. We didn't have anybody to tell us, 'Don't get caught up in the hype.' "

Bennett stressed that he wasn't advising his Falcon teammates to remain in their hotel rooms all week and never go out on the town. In fact, he said he and his teammates visited Miami's popular South Beach Sunday night and Monday night, but weren't "hanging out." Bennett defined "hanging out" as being out until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, as opposed to 1 or 2 o'clock.

He called the Bills squad that dominated the AFC from the 1990 to 1993 seasons the "party team of the 1990s" and "world-class party people."

"Everyone tried to outdo everyone," Bennett said. "I don't want to name names, but what we did was cheat ourselves and the Buffalo fans . . . I look back now and think of it as wasted opportunities."

At 33, Bennett said he is older and wiser and, therefore, able to avoid the hype this time. He also said he had a "life change," which included a new Christian faith, during his first preseason with the Falcons after joining them as an unrestricted free agent in 1997.

About a month later, Bennett pleaded guilty to charges of sexual misconduct from an incident in Buffalo in May of '97, involving a female acquaintance. He was sentenced to 60 days in the Erie County Correctional Facility, but was released last April, after 36 days, for good behavior. Bennett also had to perform 100 hours of community service, pay a $1,000 fine, and seek help for anger management and substance abuse.

He insisted he never used drugs, and that the carousing he and his former Bills teammates did during Super Bowl Week involved alcohol.

"We hung out probably a little less each year, but I mean, it's the Super Bowl," Bennett said. "And we're in a small city, Buffalo. There's not a lot to do there and when you get out, you want to explore and have a good time. A lot of us were single back then and we were just enjoying life."

At least one of Bennett's former Buffalo teammates didn't agree with the linebacker's assessment that too much partying was at the root of the Bills' Super Bowl futility.

"First Super Bowl (in Tampa), yeah, we had fun," said quarterback Jim Kelly, who is here on assignment for ESPN. "But, again, we always focused on what we had to do. (Coach) Marv (Levy) stressed, 'I want you to have fun, but when it's time to go to work, you go to work.' And we were always that type of team. When it was time to strap up the pads, when it was time to go to the meetings, we were all ready, we were all prepared for that."

Levy agreed with Kelly.

Reached by telephone Tuesday at his home in Hamburg, he said he never questioned whether his players were prepared to play, especially when he gathered with them for meetings at their secluded "hideaway" hotel, to which they moved a day or two before the game.

"I always felt, when we were at that hideaway hotel, there was a seriousness," Levy said. "I never had a guy late for meetings, never had a guy dozing. I truly believe they were at a high level of concentration and wanted to do well. I never had a feeling other than they were just dying to get out there to play."

Levy did say there was one unnamed player that he confronted during Super Bowl Week that he felt "had his mind on something other than football," and did not have on the team the following season.

"The only guy I got rid of for partying at the Super Bowl was one coach (Glenn Deadmond)," Levy said. "I knew who the party guys were all year long and you'd tell them, 'Don't be a dissipater. Hey, let's keep our eye on the target. It's a great temptation to get down here and party. Don't get carried away with it.' "

Kelly said Bills players were particularly mindful of Levy's warnings before their second Super Bowl against Washington, because of their desire to redeem themselves after losing to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV.

"We didn't go out hardly at all," Kelly said. "I mean, we hardly did anything, and look at what happened. It was probably the worst game we ever played.

"(What Bennett said) hurts me a little bit because, yeah, Biscuit is a changed man now and maybe it made him feel good to say some of those things. But from my perspective and at least everybody that I know, once we took that field on Wednesday and started looking towards the game, we were totally dedicated, one hundred percent, to winning.

"You don't go to four Super Bowls by not focusing on what you're supposed to do."

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