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Fans, players find Losman easy to love

How much sleep did he get before the opener? Not as much as he would have liked. J.P. Losman had been looking forward to his first NFL start since February. He was a nervous wreck Saturday night, if you want to know the truth.

"I knew I wasn't going to get much sleep, so I took a sleeping pill," Losman said after the Bills' 22-7 win over the Texans. "I had to force myself to swallow it. But I woke up early, anyway."

He popped up out of bed around 7 a.m., like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning, ready for the Texans. Losman looked out the door of his room in the Bills' team hotel and saw Lawyer Milloy, the veteran strong safety, coming down the hallway.

Milloy told the kid quarterback he couldn't sleep, either. Milloy had opening-day butterflies in his stomach, too. So it didn't matter if it was your first NFL start or your 143rd. It was natural to feel this way. After months of waiting, it was six hours before the opener, and it still seemed like an eternity.

Everyone wondered how Losman would do. Milloy wondered, because you never know with a first-time quarterback in the NFL. His teammates wondered. The fans in Buffalo wondered. Above all, Losman wondered. During the week, he had admitted that one of his biggest problems would be calming himself down for the big game.

Then the game came and Losman was just fine. With some athletes, you never know until the games are for real, until the big money comes out onto the table, until a young talent confronts big-time pressure and refuses to flinch. Losman's big moment arrived Sunday and something awakened in him.

Losman wasn't skittish in the pocket. He was decisive and accurate with his throws. He was crisp with his play fakes and handoffs. He wasn't tentative in his reads. He didn't look like a rookie. He played like a veteran, like a leader, like a guy who belonged in the NFL. After all the bumbling and self-doubt of the preseason, all the hours of practice and film study finally came together on one glorious late-summer day at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"He surprised everybody today," said free safety Troy Vincent, who led an inspired defensive effort with two interceptions. "Maybe not so much a surprise. I think that was the performance everyone hoped that he would have -- that he needed to have for us to be successful."

All along, the party line has been that Losman doesn't have to win games, he just has to avoid losing them. But the Buffalo coaches aren't a conservative bunch by nature. They devised a shrewd game plan that had Losman starting in the shotgun and throwing a lot early to move the Houston defenders away from the line of scrimmage.

Losman was up to the task. He completed his first six passes for 80 yards as the Bills marched to an early 3-0 lead. The offense scored on all five of its possessions in the first half as the Bills took a 19-7 lead. Losman was 13 for 18 for 143 yards at halftime and the fans chanted his name as if it were Kemp or Kelly.

"I walked up the tunnel at halftime and the fans were going crazy," Losman said. "It was my first half in the NFL. It couldn't have gone any better. Coming out for the third quarter, I said to myself, 'Focus on the defense. Don't get too pumped up. Calm yourself down when you go back out there.' "

On his first play of the second half, though, Losman saw a blitz coming from his right and threw the ball into the left flat -- directly into the hands of Houston linebacker Antwan Peek. If Peek had caught the ball, he probably would have scored a touchdown and turned the game around. He dropped it.

"Someone was smiling at me from above on that one," Losman said. He said he should have known Peek was dropping into zone coverage and would be in the vicinity of his pass. He walked to the huddle, said "Thank you" and promised not to make the same mistake again.

There's a lot to like about the kid. He gets it. He knows how to say the right things, how to connect with Buffalo fans. He even lives in the city. After the game, Losman ran up the tunnel, slapping hands with the people whose hands were low enough to reach. He even said he hoped the fans enjoyed the "product" on the field.

Losman said he knows it won't always be this easy. This was a perfect setting for his debut. It was at home, in good weather, against a Houston team that finished last in the NFL in sacks a year ago. The pressure will intensify next week when the Bills travel to play a Tampa Bay team that stunned Minnesota on the road in the opener.

Still, this was a solid beginning, a cause for optimism. Not once Sunday did I think to myself, "God, if only Bledsoe were still here." Losman will have his rough days, like any NFL quarterback. But in his first start, he looked and sounded like he might become the star they expected when they traded up to get him in the 2004 draft.

The Bills, meanwhile, could have the makings of a playoff team if Losman continues to get better. The blueprint for success was all there Sunday. Terrific defense. Solid special teams. Willis McGahee wearing down the opposition in the running game. In fact, it looks a lot like the team that won six straight games down the stretch, except the quarterback is younger, faster and a lot more excitable.

"Most important of all, he kept the defense fresh," Milloy said. "That's what we want out of him, nothing more, nothing less. As long as he keeps us fresh, we're going to keep giving him the ball. Last year, when we were hurt together, I told him, 'Look, this league is about winning or losing. It doesn't matter what your stats are. As long as you're the quarterback on a winning team, you're going to be a star. It's as simple as that.' "

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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