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A golden opportunity awaits Bills

Do you know what impressed me most about the Bills through the first two weeks? Not the new offensive line, Alex Van Pelt or the run defense.

It was the jewelry.

First, the news came that Donte Whitner had $400,000 worth of jewelry stolen from his house during the game last weekend. Later in the week, I read that Terrell Owens had recently purchased a pair of $137,000 diamond earrings. T.O. refers to them as his "signature earrings."

I'm OK with the signature jewelry. Owens can play in a golden tiara if it doesn't cause him to drop the ball. But do you know what the Bills could really use? A signature win -- a victory that validates them as a rising team, different from the three 7-9 mediocrities that preceded them.

"It would definitely be big for us to get a signature win against one of the top-rated teams in the league," said special teams ace George Wilson. "We played well enough to win the first game, so we know what we're capable of."

The first two weeks were an encouraging jolt. Trent Edwards was terrific. Van Pelt is quickly making people forget he's a novice coordinator. The young O-line, which is barely out of its car seat, has been surprisingly efficient.

They're 1-1 and should be 2-0. But we've seen this before. They beat the teams they're supposed to beat, but can't find a way to finish off the real contenders. Beating the Saints would be a big step.

"Yeah, it's vital right now," said defensive end Chris Kelsay. "I think this year is a must-win for us. Whatever it takes. Whatever we need to do. We dropped some close games in the past. You're looking at three 7-9 seasons with Coach Jauron. We just need a couple of those games to get over that hump."

A must-win year? Jim Kelly said before the season that jobs were at stake, for what it's worth. Many people assume Dick Jauron needs a winning season to keep his job.

I'm not so sure. The Bills have the most inexperienced offensive line in recent NFL history. The injuries are piling up. They changed offensive coordinators. If they finish 8-8, or even 7-9, I could see Ralph Wilson lauding Jauron for guiding a young team through a tough transition.

But it would help if Jauron beat a top team now and then. His career isn't lined with signature wins. It's one long, unsightly scrawl. In Jauron's three seasons here, the Bills have played 23 games against teams that would finish the season over .500. The Bills are 2-21 in those games.

That's Jauron's coaching signature. He beats the bad teams. When the real teams come calling, Jauron plays not to lose and generally finds a way not to win.

The Saints are being cast as this year's Arizona, a team that rises from muddle of average NFL teams and makes a Super Bowl run. Like the Cardinals, the Saints have an explosive offense led by an elite quarterback, Drew Brees. They have a deep corps of gifted receivers. The defense is better than people think, able to get after quarterbacks and create turnovers.

We know what happened when the Bills met Arizona last season. The Cardinals won, 41-17, and became one of the annual NFL surprises. In the nine years since the Bills' playoff game, 57 of 108 playoff spots have gone to teams that missed the previous year. The Bills' drought seems even more exasperating by comparison.

The Saints missed the playoffs the last two years. Suddenly, they're a chic Super Bowl pick. People act as if the Bills will be fortunate to hang with them at The Ralph.

"We know what we're up against," Kelsay said. "At the same time, we realize nobody is unbeatable. Outside this locker room, nobody is giving us a chance. We like that. Nobody was giving us a chance against New England."

Bills fans must get tired of seeing teams lift themselves from the mire. The Saints did it in '06, and now they're back after two mediocre seasons. The 49ers and Bengals are hot items. Even the Texans.

When does the Bills' time come? This was supposed to be the year they took the next step. They signed Owens and drafted some promising players. Jauron has had four years to assemble a competitive team.

Jauron is a defensive coach by trade. It shouldn't be a shock when the Bills find a way to stop the top offenses. It should be an expectation. The days of measuring Jauron against the also-rans are over. He should be judged by the way his team performs against the NFL's contenders.

Bills fans have waited long enough. They deserve a coach who allows them to think big, to dream about the only jewelry that truly matters: A ring.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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