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Sam Cowart has been an NFL linebacker for a little over a year now. He has learned quite a bit in that time. For example, he knows well enough to defer to the big fellow who plays in front of him, Ted Washington.

"Ted's my man," Cowart said Sunday night after the Bills' 17-3 victory over the Jets. "He makes it all possible for me."

Washington, the Bills' Pro Bowl nose tackle, is as good a defensive lineman as you'll find -- when he's sufficiently motivated and conditioned and on top of his game.

At other times, he can be just another good player. That's why the Bills' defense can be so confounding. When Washington is tying up two blockers and stuffing the run and making life miserable for opposing offenses, the Buffalo defense looks like one of the best in the game.

On occasion, it even approaches greatness. But if a defense intends to be great, it has to lift a team when its offense is staggering. It has to give a struggling offense the chance to find itself.

One of those defining moments came during the second quarter. The Bills and Jets were locked in a scoreless tie. The Jets were facing fourth-and-goal, about a foot from a TD, having put together a 13-play, seven-minute drive.

Bruce Smith stood with his hands on his hips, knowing that entire seasons can be altered on plays like these. Washington waited a few feet away, glowering, as if insulted by the fact that Bill Parcells would try to punch the ball in on fourth down.

Finally, the timeout ended and in a dubious bit of strategy, Parcells had a non-entity named Jerald Sowell carry the ball straight up the gut.

While Sowell was being handed the football, Washington was knocking Jets center Kevin Mawae halfway to the lake. Cowart and John Holecek were waiting to bury Sowell as he stumbled forward, without an escort, for no gain.

"Without a doubt, Ted made the play," said Holecek. "It wasn't even close. We didn't have much to do as linebackers. I was trying to scrape and get there, but the guy was already down when I got there. All I had to do was put my hands on him and make sure he was down, because Ted just closed it down."

Cowart was the first man off the field after the stop, shouting and gesturing to the exultant sellout crowd in refurbished Ralph Wilson Stadium.

And as so often happens, the goal-line stand sent a jolt of energy into the offense, which put together its most impressive drive of the season. Having watched the defensive line make a physical stand, the O-line made one of its own, blowing the Jets off the ball on a 99-yard to the go-ahead TD.

"It got the whole stadium pumped," Cowart said, "and it definitely got the offense pumped."

"It's like a turnover," Holecek said. "It's fourth-and-1 and they don't get it. You're taking points off the board, and momentum is definitely swinging back to us. What an energy boost. What a display of perseverance by our team."

"I mean, the ball was on the inch-yard line, so their chances were pretty good," Cowart said. "But (defensive coordinator) Ted Cottrell made the right call. They put us in a good situation to make the play."

Cottrell had been under some heat after the debacle on opening day in Indianapolis. Considering that the Jets were without Vinny Testaverde, Wayne Chrebet and Leon Johnson, and that the game was played in Buffalo, the defense was expected to have its way Sunday.

It didn't disappoint, limiting the Jets to 11 first downs, 190 total yards and 116 yards passing. Cowart led the way with eight tackles (seven unassisted), but he was quick to deflect credit toward Washington.

"People criticize Ted about his weight," Cowart said. "They say he's not worth the money and all that. But you have to realize the scheme he's in. You have to have a big nose guard. We only play three linemen, so the nose is going to get double-teamed every play.

"You've got to be able to absorb that over 16 ballgames," he said, "for 40 or 50 plays a game. Ted is the guy who can do that. Shoot, I know I'm glad to have him. I know the Buffalo Bills are glad to have him."

Now, if only Washington could sustain it over a full season, the way he did in 1996 and '97. There are times when you simply shake your head at the man's remarkable ability.

Early in the fourth quarter, for example, Washington raced across the field from his nose guard position and chased down reserve running back Bernie Parmalee after a 1-yard gain.

When he makes a play like that, or blows Mawae off the ball on the goal-line stand, his weight doesn't seem like an issue. At times like those, he seems to be lifting the weight of the world off his team's shoulders.

It's only one game, but when Washington knocked Mawae on his rear end, you could almost sense the season being knocked back on course again.

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