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PRO BOWL SHUTOUT DOESN'T FAZE BILLS 'D'

There was nary a nose out of joint in the Buffalo Bills' locker room Wednesday.

The Bills have the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL. None of their defensive players made the Pro Bowl.

No big deal, defender after defender said. We have bigger goals in mind, they insisted.

"That's not the game I want to be in," said Bruce Smith. "I want to be in the Super Bowl."

"No Pro Bowlers is fine," said Phil Hansen. "It says we have a pretty good nucleus. We have a synergy. . . . Everybody works together for a better good, but there's no individuals greater than the whole."

The Bills' defenders instead congratulated the two teammates who did make the NFL all-star game -- guard Ruben Brown and fullback Sam Gash. Both Brown and Gash were heavy favorites to make the squad, picked in a three-way polling of players, coaches and fans.

Brown, a 27-year-old, fifth-year player, made it for the fourth straight year. He's only the eighth Bill ever to earn such a streak. Gash, 30, made it for the second time in his two seasons in Buffalo.

No defense in the NFL has allowed fewer yards than the Bills and only two teams have yielded fewer points than the measly 15.2 per game the Bills have conceded. However, the Bills' best defenders didn't have much of a gripe this year due to tough competition at their positions.

"No one really had an exceptional performance," said Smith, who saw his string of seven straight Pro Bowls end. "We've been playing well collectively and that ranks us No. 1. It's not the end of the world."

Inside linebacker Sam Cowart arguably had the best credentials, with a team-high 157 tackles. But his position is loaded with talent, and only two inside linebackers made it to Hawaii.

Baltimore's incomparable Ray Lew
is was picked as the starter. Miami's Zach Thomas was his backup. Cowart could take solace in the fact that San Diego's Junior Seau and Pittsburgh's Levon Kirkland, two other brilliant middle linebackers, also failed to make the team.

"There's some good linebackers in the AFC. As long as I play hard for the Bills and we're winning and we have a shot at the playoffs that's enough for me," Cowart said.

Bills nose tackle Ted Washington had made the Hawaii trip the past two years, and he's part of the reason the Bills are ranked No. 3 against the run. But he was hindered in the middle of the season by a strained rib muscle.

"I wasn't disappointed," Washington said. "We have a new thing now, rotating our linemen. Once that started, and with me being injured most of the season, I wasn't looking for it. I'm playing nowhere near last year and the years before."

Washington, who hasn't missed any games, said he has felt good for several weeks.

"I'm better now," he said. "The past few weeks I've played a lot better. But before that it was a problem. The rotation is helping keep our starters fresh, and I know it's going to help us if we make the playoffs."

Washington lost out to Oakland's Darrell Russell, Denver's Trevor Pryce and Seattle's Cortez Kennedy, who have 9 1/2 , 12 and 6 1/2 sacks, respectively.

Smith has 5 1/2 sacks, not nearly enough to earn him a 12th Pro Bowl berth. He was not surprised.

"There were other guys in the AFC -- one of them had a phenomenal year, the rookie (Jevon) Kearse (of Tennessee)," Smith said. "There were two other guys who played extremely well. (Jacksonville's Tony Brackens and Baltimore's Mike McCrary also made the team at defensive end). My hat goes off to them. My attention is focused on this week's game and securing a playoff berth."

Brown, meanwhile, has had an outstanding season. His selection is the latest feather in a plume-filled cap his agent will drop on some team's negotiating table this winter. Brown's contract is up this year. The Bills have a franchise tag available to try to retain him.

"Every year I'm excited," Brown said. "Everyone I've faced this year basically has brought their 'A' game, and for them to say I was one of the better players is a tremendous compliment. I feel blessed. But I think we have other guys who should be Pro Bowlers, like John Fina, who has had an excellent season."

Gash is the first running back with no carries to be selected to the Pro Bowl since 1970.

"That's a trip," Gash said. "I'm excited. It's a big honor. I wasn't expecting to make it again."

Of course, Gash made it by virtue of his outstanding blocking.

"Sam has the hardest head in football," said New England middle linebacker Ted Johnson, a former teammate of Gash and one of his adversaries this Sunday. "I have more respect for him than anybody. He's the ultimate professional, and we miss him here."

This will be the first time since 1986 the Bills send as few as two players to Hawaii. Last year six represented the team. Besides Washington and Smith, the others were Eric Moulds and Doug Flutie.

Moulds has had a good year but missed two games to injury and ranks 19th in the AFC in catches. Flutie ranks fourth in the AFC in combined yards passing and rushing and 12th in quarterback rating.

"It's an honor to be named to the Pro Bowl but it's not dishonorable not to go," Flutie said. "Everybody would love to be a perennial Pro Bowler, but it's not disappointing. We've got more important things to worry about, like getting to the playoffs."

The Bills might take heart in one bit of Pro Bowl trivia. The last time a team ranked No. 1 in the NFL on defense and didn't have a single Pro Bowl defender was 1992. Dallas' defense was No. 1. It won the Super Bowl.

"It don't mean nothing right now," Washington said. "The season isn't over. We're not in the playoffs. See me at the end of the season."

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