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THOMAS' OUTBURST WAS WORTH SHOUTING ABOUT

TEMPE, Ariz. -- You may have forgotten this until about 10 o'clock Sunday night, but Thurman Thomas is back in a Bills' uniform. Thurm's return may have slipped the mind of Joe Pendry, the team's offensive coordinator, but something that happened just before halftime reminded him.

Doug Flutie threw a low-rent sideline pass to Eric Moulds that was nearly intercepted by Aeneas Williams, Arizona's Pro Bowl cornerback. Since the Bills had already blown a 14-0 lead to the Cardinals, Thurman threw a major-league tantrum, heaving his helmet to the sidelines as he shuffled off the field.

It cost the Bills a 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct infraction, but, as they say in hockey, "it was a good penalty."

It was good because Thomas' tantrum reminded the Buffalo braintrust that entrusting the winning of a game almost entirely to Flutie this season usually results in a defeat.

"That's exactly what I was trying to do, fire up the team," admitted Thomas. "I knew the pass was incomplete. It wasn't going to make a difference.

"At halftime I did a little talking and then Wade gave his speech. Some of the guys were talking as Wade started to talk and I told them that's the problem sometimes around here. People want to talk about stuff and not listen to the head coach. I told them to go out, play the game and shut up."

Thomas' tantrum also may have reminded Pendry that he was doing the same sort of thing he did last week when the Bills were upset by the Giants. In that game he failed to attack New York's battered defensive backfield, the most inviting target of opportunity.

In this game he spent the first half ignoring the fact that Arizona has the second-worst run defense in the NFL. The Buffalo running backs got the ball only nine times in the first half, as opposed to 23 passes by Flutie. Doug started off well enough, completing 10 of 13 passes in the first quarter, including a 15-yard touchdown pass to Moulds. He was 8 for 10 on third-down pass plays for the night.

But defenses adjust. Suddenly Flutie was like an artist who does a magnificent job on the lower left-hand corner of his canvas, but then the rest of the painting starts looking like the work of a second-grader.

That's what led Thomas to blow his stack.

Thurman got their attention in the dressing room. When the Bills took possession of the football for the first time in the second half, they ran the ball on 12 consecutive plays. The streak didn't end until Flutie retreated 17 yards on second-and-eight and Patrick Sapp sacked him. At least Steve Christie salvaged the lead, 17-14, on a 33-yard field goal.

Unlike so many episodes in Buffalo games this season, that wasn't the end of the running commitment. On the next possession the Bills ran seven times in the first eight plays before Flutie threw an off-balance pass that was intercepted by Tom Knight.

For the second half, when Buffalo took command of the game, the ratio of running plays to passes was a robust 25 to 9. In a stretch run at playoff time, that often wins games.

For shocking the strategists into doing the logical thing, Thomas deserves a standing ovation. It was the most fruitful tantrum in Bills' history.

Don't get the idea Thomas contributed merely with his famous temper. In the second half he got the ball nine times and gained 48 yards, more than five yards a carry. The most important may have been a squirming run up the middle for three yards to convert a third-and-one and set up Christie's eventual field goal. In the fourth quarter he made one of his patented, compact-himself-into-a-ball so he would be hard to grasp and bounced off a couple of tacklers for a 9-yard run that kept fueling the drive that culminated in Jay Riemersma's touchdown catch.

The successful running game short-circuited any opportunity for Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer to pull out a victory in the fourth quarter, which has become his specialty. As it turned out, he didn't have the ball enough.

The Cardinals did make a noble run at it. All three of their playoff competitors in the NFC East, Washington, Dallas and the Giants, lost earlier in the day. That kept Arizona alive in the playoff figuring. That's where the emotional fire to overcome Buffalo's early 14-0 lead came from.

But the Bills had incentive of their own. Miami, their major competition for a playoff spot, won on a missed field goal in the final minute. Buffalo had to keep up. Thurman and his bouncing helmet provided the spark.

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