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Downing the Dolphins is always a step forward

The rivalry isn't what it used to be. We all know that. Players don't trade insults during the week. The Florida columnists don't write stale jokes about Buffalo. The name Bryan Cox doesn't register with young fans. It's a sign of advancing age when a Bills fan still harbors a deep, genuine disdain for the Dolphins.

But you know what? I could almost feel those old emotions bubbling up in the fans Sunday. The Bills beat Miami, 17-14, and it felt different somehow, more meaningful than the wins over Detroit and Cleveland and Cincinnati.

It matters. Beating Miami always matters. You could tell by the roar in the visiting locker room afterward. You knew it when Ralph Wilson, who never stopped believing the rivalry matters, appeared with a big smile on his face.

"This team amazes me," said Wilson, who hadn't held court in the locker room after a game in at least two months.

Amazing? I've been struggling to maintain perspective about this Bills team. We've been fooled too many times into thinking they were on the verge of a breakthrough. But if the Cleveland win left me cold, this one certainly moved me.

It's one thing to accept a lower standard, another to be encouraged by a team's improving and resilient performance. Fans ought to be encouraged. The Bills have won four of their last six games. They aren't nearly as bad it seemed when they were 0-8 and looking down the gun barrel of a winless season.

Eric Wood, the young offensive lineman, stood in the midst of his teammates before they broke the team huddle before the game and hollered, "Fellas, the Dolphins are trying to make the playoffs. We're trying to make a name for ourselves."

George Wilson said it set the tone. The coaches and players had watched the film of the opener, and they knew they were a much better team, a maturing team. This was a divisional rematch, a chance to show how far they had come in 14 weeks and to knock Miami out of the playoffs.

"I said it when we were 0-8," said Ryan Fitzpatrick, who threw two lasers for TD passes. "You need to get one win, and then they start coming. You start to learn to win as a team, and then it'll start coming."

Two years ago, Fitz played on a Bengals team that started 0-8 and went 4-3-1 the rest of the way. He told us it could happen. Like Chan Gailey, I'm starting to trust the guy. The notion of "learning how to win" can be a cliche. But if Fitz says they're learning to win, who am I to doubt him?

Maybe they needed to beat some bad teams in order to go on the road and finally beat one with a winning record. Who cares if they try hard? It's the results that matter, and a lot of young guys are figuring out how to finish games.

"You can do the shoulda, coulda, woulda from the beginning of the season if you want," said punter Brian Moorman. "But that's in the past. This second half of the season, the things that didn't happen to finish off games are happening. It's a testament to the coaching and to these players."

Maybe if Fitzpatrick plays in the opener, they sweep Miami. The Dolphins have more talent overall. But in the NFL, you need the quarterback, and the Bills are better at the position now. Chad Henne, the starter, is a mess. Henne went 33 for 45 and seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown all afternoon.

Henne reminded me of Trent Edwards. He was afraid to throw down the field. He settled for passes in the flat. The Bills' defense knew he was skittish. They played as if they knew he couldn't beat them. The Miami coaches and crowd seemed to know it, too.

"You hate to say a guy isn't one of the upper-tier quarterbacks in the league," said linebacker Chris Kelsay. "But people have had success against [Henne], rushing the passer and forcing him into bad decisions, throws into traffic."

Henne got the Dolphins back in the game late, but he couldn't make the critical throws. On a third-and-9, he rushed an incompletion, failing to see Brandon Marshall breaking open downfield for a possible TD. On Miami's final possession, with the clock ticking down, he settled for safe, short throws. The boos cascaded from the stands after he checked down on the game's final play.

No wonder the media here looks fondly on Fitzpatrick, as a franchise QB the Dolphins would love to have. Fitz made a couple of signature bad throws early. But he has his coach's trust and keeps on throwing. Fitz bounced back again.

Twice, Fitzpatrick made big throws to UB product Naaman Roosevelt, who made his first two catches in the NFL. It doesn't seem to matter who lines up. Fitz has faith in them. And it was no small thing that the Bills felt they had the better QB on Sunday.

"We're a different ballclub than Week One," said Wilson, who had an interception. "I mean, night and day. Completely different. We knew we let one get away from us in Week One. We didn't want to allow them to keep their playoff hopes alive. If we're going fishing [in January], we're not going to be the only ones."

"The Senator" was rolling now.

"This win speaks volumes," he said. "Not just for us, but for the people of Western New York. We know how much they detest the Fish. So at least tomorrow, the people of Buffalo can go to work and rejoice and have some good talk around the water cooler about how the Bills squished the Fish today."

OK, it wasn't like beating Don Shula in his final game, or Jim Kelly outdueling Dan Marino in the snow. But they knocked out Miami, and when has that ever been a bad thing? Go ahead. Ask the person at the water cooler if it mattered.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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