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FAST BREAKS Big plays from McGahee, Evans and Clements help Bills ground down the Jets in Meadowlands This time, McGahee came up magnificent

No current Buffalo athlete absorbs quite as much public ridicule as Willis McGahee. People have questioned McGahee's intelligence, his desire, his ability to stay healthy, even his choice of sweaters. Bills owner Ralph Wilson recently referred to his star running back as a "disappointment."

McGahee has brought some of it on himself. He hasn't always said the right thing, or hit the right hole. There is a general perception -- and I think there is more than a grain of truth to it -- that he isn't wild about Western New York and would rather be in an NFL city with a gentler climate and more vibrant night life.

Go ahead and question the guy's head. But do not question his heart. On Sundays, you don't have to worry. McGahee will be there, injury or not. Two years ago, with the Bills chasing a playoff spot, he gutted it out and played in San Francisco with a bad knee. He played this season despite three cracked ribs.

On Sunday, McGahee played on a sprained left ankle against the Jets. He played hurt, and he played sick, too. And he was magnificent. McGahee rushed 16 times for 125 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown, to spark the Bills to a rousing, 31-13 victory over the Jets.

McGahee left everything he had on the Giants Stadium field -- and a little something on the sidelines, too. After the long TD run, he threw up near the Bills' bench. He sat out the rest of the first half. He spent part of that time sitting on the bench without his jersey and shoulder pads, eating a ham and cheese sandwich.

"My stomach got upset," McGahee explained. "I didn't get to eat anything [before the game]. I had to come out here earlier than I usually do. It came on me and I just started feeling weak and light-headed."

The Bills' coaches had McGahee work out beforehand to make sure he was ready to go. On Wednesday, he had been hobbling around in a protective boot. On Friday, he was able to practice. There's no way McGahee was going to sit out this game. He loves competing against the Jets and his old college pal, Jonathan Vilma.

McGahee was so excited, he forgot to eat. Then he went out and, as usual, ate the Jets' lunch. He gained more than 100 yards against the Bills' AFC East rivals for the fifth consecutive time. He spent much of the day jawing with Vilma -- when he wasn't otherwise occupied with the sandwich, anyway.

"I've been here with Willis for three years," said left tackle Jason Peters, who helped open the massive hole for McGahee's big TD run. "I know he doesn't like to miss games. He might miss a practice here and there, trying to get healthy, but he doesn't miss any games."

You don't hear this word associated with McGahee very often, but it applied Sunday: leadership. The Bills were without three defensive starters -- Angelo Crowell, Terrence McGee and Donte Whitner. They needed the offense to carry a big share of the load. They needed McGahee to be a leader and he was there for them -- bad ankle, queasy stomach and all.

"It was very inspiring," center Melvin Fowler said. "Willis is a tough player, and he left it all on the field. How much more can you ask from a guy? It was just a great effort today."

McGahee gave the Bills the early spark they needed, taking a toss from J.P. Losman, darting through a big hole on the left side of the offensive line and outracing the Jets' defenders to the end zone. Despite the bad ankle, he flashed the explosive speed we've been waiting to see ever since he arrived in Buffalo.

"If I wouldn't have broken that, you all probably would have rode me like there was no tomorrow," McGahee said. "So I was like, 'I've got to get this, I've got to get this.' I didn't want to get caught from behind, because I was really sick. The O-line did a great job blocking. It was there and I had to hit it, regardless of the pain. I had to suck it up and I wanted to be out there for my teammates.

"It was throbbing," he said, "but once you get in the game, your adrenaline is flowing and you really don't pay attention to it as much. But I'll feel it tomorrow."

McGahee gave way to Anthony Thomas after the long TD run and sat out the second quarter. He returned after halftime, his ankle still sore but his stomach appeased. He ran with uncommon purpose in the Bills' clinching drive at the start of the fourth quarter -- pounding away at the Jets' defense and carrying tacklers with him.

The Bills held the ball for nearly seven minutes. McGahee had a 16-yard run. He fought for the first down on third-and-1. He slammed up the middle for 11 yards. Like the McGahee of 2004, he appeared to gather strength as the game went along and was the toughest player on the field in the fourth quarter.

As London Fletcher said, the defense was happy to kick back on the bench and watch. It was another significant step in the Bills' development. Against Houston and Jacksonville, they showed they could pull games out at the end. This time, they got an early lead in a road game and never let up, dominating in the fourth.

It was an encouraging way to begin the final quarter of the season. Even if their playoff chances are remote at best, the Bills seem determined to finish strong, to use the final four games as a foundation for bigger things in 2007.

"We're learning how to finish," McGahee said. "What can you say? It's too bad that it took us this long. But we're all working together now. Team game."

Great team win. Wilson was in the locker room afterward, beaming. He walked up to me while I was talking with Fowler and said I'd better write something positive. I asked him if he still considered McGahee a disappointment.

"Did I say that?" Wilson said with a laugh. "I hope you have it on tape."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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>THE WINNING EDGE

1. Big plays. The Bills had three touchdowns of more than 50 yards in the first half to take command of the game.

2. McGahee guts it out. He had a very sore ankle. He had an upset stomach. Yet Willis rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown.

3. Backups fill the bill. The Bills held the Jets to 143 yards net passing despite playing without four starters much of the game.

- Mark Gaughan

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