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Bills aiming to pick up signature win

George Wilson is constantly amazed at the passion this city has for its sports teams. Late last season, Wilson spent time in the hospital with injured ribs. It seemed everyone on the hospital staff knew who he was. Imagine, some obscure defensive back, and they treated him like royalty.

Last week, Wilson took his car in to get some new tires. One of the workers thanked him for all the excitement and fun the Bills have generated among the fans this year.

"He said, 'Man, you guys have us coming into work early on Monday morning, just to talk about the game the previous day,' " Wilson said. "When you have people getting up early on the hardest day to get up and go to work, you know you're doing something special. It's humbling to hear that, because you never know whose life you're affecting."

The heck with Wall Street. It's a bullish time for Buffalo sports fans. On Saturday morning, we woke up to find both the Bills and Sabres leading their divisions. How long has it been since both our pro teams' stock was soaring as we lurched toward another Buffalo winter?

The guys at the garage will have lots to talk about Monday if the Bills win today. The Bills are 4-1, alone atop the AFC East, one of only four NFL teams without two losses on their resume. A win today would make them 5-1 for the first time since 1995, which was the last time they won a playoff game.

Still, there's reason to be wary. The Bills are a good team, with a promising future. But how good are they, really? Was the Arizona debacle a momentary blip, as Perry Fewell suggests? Or was it a sign of a team that profited from a soft early schedule and was due to find its level?

The Bills have been remarkably resilient. They've come from behind three times in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Trent Edwards has been magnificent in the clutch. But they struggled to beat Oakland, had some brutal patches against St. Louis, and got blown out in Arizona.

The four teams they've beaten have a combined record of 6-15. That's roughly equivalent to the 31-81 record of their seven victims last season. The win in Jacksonville was a nice step. But they do not have a true signature win under Dick Jauron, one that begs for attention, an insistent rapping on the door of the NFL elite.

Of course, it's difficult to say what constitutes the elite these days. Are the Titans really this good? Are the Colts back on track? Can you take the Steelers seriously with their protection issues? How about the San Diego team that comes to Ralph Wilson Stadium this afternoon? If the Chargers are so good, how come they're 3-3 and ranked near the bottom of the NFL in defense?

The Chargers are something of an enigma. But they're an elite team. From top to bottom, they have the best talent in the conference. I don't care what the records say.

When he worked in Buffalo, Chargers General Manager A.J. Smith talked about "statement" games -- games that announced a team's intentions to the world. This is a statement game for the Bills, a chance to show their skeptics they're a worthy contender, not some upstart that got off to a good start and is destined to fade.

"They're a very good team," said linebacker Kawika Mitchell. "So if we can go out and beat them, especially after the loss we just had, it'll mean a lot to our team. We have to continue to make the statement we've been trying to make."

"It's a measuring stick of where we are," said defensive end Chris Kelsay.
Yes, the Bills are hobbled. They might be without two cornerbacks and their top pass rusher, Aaron Schobel. But the Chargers have injuries, too. Every team the Bills have played so far has been compromised in a major way.

If you're a contender, you rise above tough circumstances. You win when you're not at full strength. The Chargers aren't whining about LaDainian Tomlinson's bad toe.

This isn't a must-win game, by any means. But another bad loss would raise serious doubts about the Bills. They need to look the part of the contender. They need to remind us that the gap between the top of the AFC and the middle has shrunk considerably.

"If this year isn't an indication of that, I don't know what is," said Wilson. "Watching film throughout the season, I think you see the talent in the NFL is spread throughout the league, as well as the wins and losses."

Wilson, aka the "Senator," said it's a good time to play the Chargers. Coming off a bad loss and a bye, they welcome a chance to play an elite opponent at home. It's been four weeks since they played at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Something tells me they'll be up early for this one.

"It's very fulfilling to take that field, knowing the 12th Man will be there," Wilson said. "If we get this one, they might even run out on the field. Did you notice, we haven't had a streaker yet!"

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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