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COWART'S PLAY THRUSTS HIM INTO LIMELIGHT

Sam Cowart isn't one to draw attention to himself, which is why it's a little surprising he wants to pursue a career in television when his football playing days are done.

The Buffalo Bills' third-year linebacker even spent a week last summer at a broadcasting school in Dallas run by former NFL running back and current CBS sportscaster Craig James.

"It was real nice," said Cowart, who minored in communications at Florida State. "He (James) showed me a good time. I'll probably go back this offseason. I learned a lot about the business."

That's a good thing with all the media coverage he's getting.

Sports Illustrated has a story on him this week. ESPN and CBS Sports have done features on the Bills' defense with Cowart as a focal point.

He did a conference call with the national media at the request of the National Football League two weeks ago, then followed that up with a 23-tackle performance against the New York Jets.

"The attention is nice," Cowart said. "I'm just working hard trying to be consistent and trying to do my best."

Cowart is playing so well, he might be the best linebacker in football right now.

He has been all over the field, making plays from one sideline to the other. His 51 total tackles and 36 solo hits are twice as many as any teammate.

At 17 tackles per game, Cowart is on pace for 272, which would obliterate the franchise record of 206 set by Chris Spielman in 1996.

Like Spielman, Cowart has a great instinct for knowing where the ball is going to be. But Cowart is a much better athlete. Now that he plays a key role in the pass defense, he is on his way to becoming a complete player.

"You look at this defense, and the essence of it is Sam right now," said John Holecek, who plays beside Cowart to form arguably the league's finest tandem of inside linebackers. "He's having a Pro Bowl year, and I think we all expected that coming into this year."

Despite leading the league in total defense and pass defense last season, the Bills didn't send one defender to the Pro Bowl.

The poster child of the underrated unit was Cowart, who got snubbed despite making a team-high 186 tackles. But there may be no denying him a ticket to Hawaii this year.

"I'm hoping I can get a free trip so I don't have to pay to get over there," quipped Cowart, who had 35 tackles (24 solo) through three games last year. "I was disappointed no one on the defense made the Pro Bowl. For myself, I felt it would take a year or so for me to get my name out there. Fortunately, it's starting to happen."

And it's about time, says Bills coach Wade Phillips.

"Sam Cowart is really a great football player," said Phillips. "We've known that all along."

Phillips joked this week how the national media had finally "discovered" Cowart, whose talent forced the Bills to move from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.

The media might have overlooked Cowart, but the Bills' opponents did not.

"We liked Sam when he was a college player at Florida State," said Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora, whose team must deal with Cowart on Sunday. "His emergence doesn't surprise me. I knew he was going to be a good football player in the National Football League."

So much was made about how the Bills' defense would suffer from the loss of four starters and several key reserves.

But there has been no dropoff this season as the Bills go into the Colts game as the No. 1 defense in the AFC and No. 2 in the NFL.

The Bills say Cowart is a major reason.

"It's great watching him on film because I don't get to see what he's doing when he's next to me," Holecek said. " But on film you say, Wow, this guy does not make mistakes.' He's there to clean up everything."

Cowart won't accept all the credit for the defense's success.

"I'm just a part of the defense, just one part," he said. "A lot of guys are doing a great job out there. I'm just trying to fill a role and do the job that's asked of me."

Cowart and the Bills' defense have their sternest test of the season Sunday against the Colts, which has the top-rated offense in the AFC and is second only to the St. Louis Rams in the NFL.

Cowart facing Colts running back Edgerrin James should be one of the most exciting individual duels in the game. Cowart will especially be tested on passing downs because James is one of the league's best pass-receiving backs.

"It's going to be tough," said Cowart, who averaged 12 tackles (eight solo) in two games against the Colts last year. "Edgerrin is a real good back. You have to face him up and definitely wrap his legs up because he's a talented runner who breaks tackles, sees everything and has good moves in the open field."

The Bills and Colts are the marquee matchup on the NFL schedule this week, so this is yet another opportunity for the Bills' unsung defense to gain more notoriety.

And another big performance by Cowart would certainly strengthen his bid for the Pro Bowl.

"That's one of my goals," he said. "There's a lot of good linebackers in the AFC, guys like (Baltimore's) Ray Lewis, (San Diego's) Junior Seau and (Miami's) Zach Thomas. I just want to try and fit in there and be one of the best out there.

"If I don't make it, I'll chalk it up and it will be my goal at the start of next season. But I think if I can stay healthy and we continue to play well as a team, I think it will happen for me."

On the injury front, Holecek (ankle), Sam Rogers (shoulder), offensive guard Joe Panos (foot), quarterback Doug Flutie (groin) and defensive end Shawn Price (knee) were upgraded from questionable to probable, increasing the likelihood they will at least suit up for Sunday's game.

The Colts downgraded wide receiver Chad Plummer (foot) and linebacker Ratcliff Thomas (foot) from questionable to doubtful. Wide receiver Marvin Harrison (shoulder), defensive tackle Ellis Johnson (arm) and defensive ends Chukie Nwokorie (hand/ankle) and Mark Thomas (knee) remain probable. Running back Abdul al-Jabbar (knee) is still doubtful.

Although a limited number of tickets returned by the Colts are still available, the game has been declared a sellout and will be televised locally. It is the Bills' 11th sellout in their last 12 home games. . . . Tickets ($5 general admission) for the Bills Experience can now purchased at the video department of Wegmans Food Markets. The Experience is a family-oriented pregame tailgate party held every home game at the Bills Fieldhouse from 9 a.m. until kickoff. The event includes interactive games, appearances from Bills alumni and live entertainment, beginning at 11 a.m. Tickets also can be purchased at the Ralph Wilson Stadium box office, the team's Rochester office in Pittsford Plaza, the Fieldhouse lobby (on game day). Or by calling toll free at 877-bbticks.

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