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Bills aiming to make their mark today

PHOENIX -- One sure sign of a good team is it can win games when it doesn't play its best. When all facets of the operation aren't functioning well, or when luck and circumstance conspire against them, good teams summon an intangible, winning quality that pulls them through in the end.

It's pretty clear after four weeks that the Bills are a good football team. They're talented and resilient, a young group mature beyond its years. If they can stay together (and extending Lee Evans was a timely gesture), great things could be in store for them in the months and years ahead.

One quarter into the season, the Bills are 4-0, the talk of the NFL, an item on the cable shows. They've put themselves in position to make the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons -- and to think, they haven't put their very best game on the field yet.

That was the prevailing theme within the team during the week. As always, it emanated from the top, from Dick Jauron, who sets the tone for his squad. When his players talk, you can hear the coach's talking points echoing through the dressing room.

They're off to a rousing start. By the way, has everyone found a place to watch the game? Today against the Cardinals, the Bills could go to 5-0 for the first time since 1991 -- 3-0 on the road for the first time since '93. They've got the quarterback. The outside world has discovered Trent Edwards, who is on a lot of early short lists for league MVP.

But are the Bills a genuine Super Bowl contender? Or are they merely a young and improving team that profited from a favorable early schedule and is bound to find its level in the weeks ahead, a team that's a year or two away from legitimate title contention?

Yes, 4-0 is 4-0. As Edwards said, it beats the alternative. The Bills are a smart, humble group, excited about their possibilities but aware of their flaws. They know they need to play better, and they're eager to make a statement today against a solid Arizona team that returns home on a two-game losing skid.

"Yeah, we need to," said defensive end Chris Kelsay. "We haven't played our best game yet. We were disappointed with the way we played [in St. Louis], especially in the first half. It was pretty ugly, really. So we know there's potential to play better. At least, we hope there is.

"If we play the way we did in the first half against the Rams, it could be a completely different story," Kelsay said.

"Don't get me wrong," said tight end Robert Royal. "We're very excited. A lot of teams are worse off than us. But we all know we're better than we've been playing. We have to start games a lot faster, get going in the right direction quicker."

The offense has been shabby in first halves. They've gotten away with it, thanks to coaching, defense and Edwards' late-game heroics. But if the Bills continue to stumble early in games, it's going to catch up to them.

You don't succeed very often on the road if it takes 30 minutes for the engine to turn over. You certainly don't win playoff games that way. They need to run the ball better. James Hardy has to become a viable option. The offensive line has to protect Edwards better early in games.

"It's not necessarily a bad thing to feel like we haven't peaked yet," Edwards said, "but we need to make sure we're peaking here pretty soon or else we're going to get beat by some pretty good teams."

I figured the Bills could be a playoff team if they had a top-10 defense and an average offense. In that regard, they're right on schedule. The offense is 16th in the NFL in total yards. The defense is seventh in yards allowed.

The Bills are tied for eighth in scoring, though, and fifth in points allowed. So again, they appear to be a team that performs better than its raw statistics.

They've also been lucky. Every team they've played has been in a crisis of some kind. Seattle was missing its two top receivers, Jacksonville its starting interior offensive line. The last two victims, Oakland and St. Louis, fired their coaches. Last I heard, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt was in no apparent danger.

If any team had a run of good luck coming, it was the Bills, who suffered through a relentless siege of injuries a year ago. Luck matters in sports. Staying healthy matters. Star players are falling left and right. The Cardinals' Anquan Boldin, who leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns, is out today.

In the St. Louis game, Edwards was hit on the arm attempting a pass and the ball deflected to Josh Reed, who wasn't the intended receiver.

"Those things happen," Jauron said. "Sometimes they go for you and sometimes they go against you. Hopefully, when your luck is running pretty good and guys are working hard, more go for you than against you. Generally it will even out."

Maybe it starts today. The Bills are due to slip up. It's the NFL in the age of parity. Teams lose on the road, even when they're better. Jauron likes to break the season up into four-game quarters. So this is the start of a new quarter. We'll find out a lot more about them over the next month.

It's refreshing to know that, despite a 4-0 start, these guys feel they're capable of a lot more. They're playing to a different standard now. Time will tell if they're up to it. Other teams will treat them like a contender, and they'll get everyone's best game.

My advice is, relax and enjoy it. Because whenever it happens, if this team's best days are still ahead, we're in for one heck of a ride.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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