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BILLS MAY BE TIED AT THE TOP, BUT IT STILL DOESN'T FEEL LIKE FIRST PLACE

Nine games in. Tied for first place in the division. Back in August, when the Buffalo Bills were stumbling through the preseason, you would have taken it in a heartbeat, wouldn't you? You were hopeful but wary, confident that the Bills would be improved but prepared for them to be average, a team in transition.

So it must be an unexpected joy to see them tied atop the AFC East in the middle of November. When you're in first place, looking out over the NFL's vast, mediocre landscape, all things seem possible. But you might as well enjoy the view while you can.

Somehow, it doesn't feel like first place. I can't smell it. I can't taste it. First place was the Bills of 1988 or '90 or '91, racing out to 8-1 records after nine weeks and looking back with contempt at the trampled opposition in their wake. That's how first place is supposed to feel -- inviolate, inevitable and secure.

This Bills team seems more like an intruder, like someone who wandered into the wrong party by mistake. Yes, they're 5-4; they control their own destiny; they could win the division and make the playoffs, maybe even get a bye. But they still seem like an average team to me, a team that's tied for first place and fighting for its life at the same time.

Maybe it's the way they got into first -- by not playing. They had a chance to validate themselves as a contender against the Patriots two weeks ago and got humiliated on their home field. Regardless of what the standings say, they have a long way to go to prove that they're anything more than average.

"No, it doesn't seem like first place to me," said fullback Phil Crosby. "Right now, we've still got a lot more playing to do. We've still got a lot more jelling to do as a team, too."

They also need to prove they can beat a formidable opponent. The five teams they've beaten have a combined record of 14-31. No other team with a winning record has a string of victims with an aggregate winning percentage as low. Overall, the Bills' nine opponents have a combined record of 34-47, tying them with Minnesota and Tennessee for the softest schedule.

So the Bills have had a much easier road to this point than experts anticipated before the season. Remember all that talk about a monster first-half schedule? They've beaten three woeful NFC North foes (Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota), an expansion team (Houston) and a Miami team without its starting quarterback.

Granted, they count as wins in the standings. There's no need to apologize for beating bad teams. The Sabres would hold a parade if they knocked off a bad team right about now. But the Bills have a much tougher road ahead in the final seven weeks. Their next six opponents are all in the thick of the playoff race (or comfortably in front, in Green Bay's case).

That makes today's game with the Chiefs an especially big one. A loss would drop them to 5-5. It would be their first two-game losing streak of the season. It would make them 2-5 in the conference and put them in dire circumstances in the likely event that tiebreakers are needed to determine the playoff teams in the jumbled AFC.

What's more, a loss today would confirm what a lot of observers have suspected all along, that the Bills are an average team in need of a few reinforcements to make a legitimate playoff run.

"Oh, this is big for us, there's no question," said quarterback Drew Bledsoe. "From here on out, because of the nature of things, every game is going to be huge. Does it feel like first place? It feels like a dogfight is what it feels like. It feels like we're in an absolute dogfight in our division.

"I think there's kind of a general feeling that if we played a little better in one or two of these games, we could really be in control. I think a lot of teams feel that way. But we're in position right now, along with just about every other team in the AFC, to make a run here down the stretch."

There isn't likely to be a run if the Bills don't play a complete game today in Arrowhead Stadium, one of the National Football League's most difficult venues. The beleaguered defense, which has yet to stop an offense with a capable quarterback and diversified attack, must at least slow down a K.C. offense that's among the most explosive in the game.

Bledsoe's offense must get back on track. After averaging 32.2 points in the first six games, they've dropped to 18.0 in the last three. Do you think the New England game film might have found its way into the Chiefs' hands? The young offensive line has allowed 34 sacks. If Bledsoe has to drop back 40 times a game behind this line, it's only a matter of time before he gets hurt.

First place? Technically, yes. But as Eric Moulds has been preaching all year, winning isn't always enough. The Bills are aspiring to a higher standard, and they have a long way to go to reach it.

"It's good to know that we're in first place," said Larry Centers, "and hopefully it'll be good for our confidence. But we were in first place when the season started. It kind of feels like we're right back at square one, in that we have an opportunity."

If they want to be taken seriously as a contender, as a first-place team, they need to seize the opportunity. Starting today.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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