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RETURN TO LINEUP EASES ANTOWAIN'S PAIN

There may be those who think the Buffalo Bills' final regular season game doesn't mean anything because they are already in the playoffs.

Don't count Antowain Smith among them. He feels Sunday's matchup with the Indianapolis Colts is very important to the Bills.

But perhaps it is even bigger for Smith. After missing the last two games with turf toe, he is anxious to re-establish himself as the Bills' feature running back.

"Sunday can't get here fast enough for me, to tell you the truth," Smith said. "It's been real tough standing on the sidelines and not being able to play while the rest of the guys are out there fighting. I'm just glad to be able to get in there, see where I'm at and try to do some of things the team needs to get this win on Sunday."

Smith hasn't been fully healthy since spraining right toe in the final minutes of the Bills' 23-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 11. He tried to play through the injury the next two games, but it severely hindered his ability to perform.

Even the bye week did little to ease his pain. After reaggravating the injury against the New York Giants, the Bills decided rest was the answer.

Smith said the toe is about 90 percent, but he feels it's time to get back on the field. He also realizes the Bills' running game has been rolling along without him.

The combination of Jonathan Linton and Thurman Thomas has averaged 129 yards the last two games, both Buffalo victories.

However, the Bills are going to need Smith in order to make a serious run in the playoffs. Buffalo's offense usually runs at peak efficiency when he is on top of his game.

The Bills are 3-0 this season when Smith has more than 20 carries and 4-0 when he gains 60 or more yards.

"It's very important to have Antowain back because we need everybody we can in order for us to do the things we need to do," running backs coach Bishop Harris said. "We are pleased with the way Antowain looked this week. His spirits are high and he's back in that aggressive mode I like to see. I think he's ready to compete."

Linton, whose minutes will be affected by Smith's return, also is happy to have his running mate back.

"Getting another weapon in the lineup is always good," Linton said. "Antowain coming back is another force defenses have to think about and deal with. He's looking fine.

"He has fresh legs, making good cuts, good reads and catching the ball really well out of the backfield. He's been doing some good things out there and I think he's ready to go."

There could be a chance for Smith and the Bills' ground attack to have a good showing Sunday. The Colts rank 11th in the AFC against the run and have been particularly porous in recent weeks.

In last Sunday's 29-28 win at Cleveland, Indianapolis gave up 141 yards rushing to a Browns team that was averaging an NFL-worse 67.3 yards per game.

"Hopefully, we'll go into the game looking to establish something on the ground," Smith said. "We can't get discouraged if things don't go right early because the Colts are going to make some plays. If we stay with it and stay fundamentally sound, we can put some numbers up in the running game."

Although Smith will play Sunday, how much time he gets has yet to be determined. The last thing the Bills want is for him to have a setback a week before the playoffs.

No matter how many snaps he gets, Smith hopes it's enough shake off the rust.

"I just want some carries to get a feel for things, get into a rhythm and build some momentum for the playoffs," Smith said.

"I won't be completely healthy until the offseason, but who is 100 percent this time of the year anyway? I'm as healthy as I'm going to be, so I'm looking forward to getting back on the field and playing again."
The Bills are gaining a running back for Sunday's game, but they are losing a fullback. For one game, anyway.

Those Colts linebackers can rest a little easier as human battering ram Sam Gash was placed on the inactive list Friday so he can rest his sore ribs.

Gash, who was named to his second straight Pro Bowl, sat out the last two practices.

He could have played Sunday if the game was vital to the Bills' playoff chances. He is expected to be ready next week when Buffalo begins preparation for the postseason.

Also on the early inactive list are center Jerry Ostroski (knee), linebacker Dan Brandenburg (lower leg) and guard Joe Panos (neck).

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