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WAWROW ON FOOTBALL: Surging Bills suddenly have playoff hunger

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) _ Pat Williams is a big man with a big heart and appetite. So imagine his dilemma when the Buffalo Bills were back to their bumbling selves at the start of this season.

Most every time the defensive tackle went out, he couldn't escape the critics and questions about what was wrong with his team.

You weren't hearing anything good from nobody,'' Williams recalled.I heard it all the time, What's going on here?' orWhat's going on with Drew (Bledsoe)?'''

It got so bad Williams considered not going out for dinner anymore.

Fortunately for the 317-pound Williams, it never led to such drastic measures. To the relief of Williams and restaurant owners who stood losing a bulk of their business he can now eat out in peace.

Williams is hungry and so are the Bills, who have gained a sudden appetite for the playoffs. They've overcome an 0-4 start to win six of their last eight, a run that's put Buffalo back in contention with four games remaining.

Buffalo's chances remain slim. At 6-6, the Bills are tied with Cincinnati and Jacksonville and sit a win behind Denver and Baltimore in the race for the AFC's sixth and final berth. It's no help that the Ravens and Jaguars hold the tiebreaker for having defeated the Bills this season.

History's against Buffalo, too. Only one team, the San Diego Chargers in 1992, has overcome an 0-4 start to make the playoffs.

Arithmetic aside, after three miserable seasons under Gregg Williams in which the Bills went a combined 17-31, there's a sense of hope suddenly emerging under rookie coach Mike Mularkey.

Faulted last season for lacking mental toughness, a knock that led to Gregg Williams' dismissal, the Bills are displaying a newfound tenacity. And they've found an offense ever since Willis McGahee became the starting running back in October.

As much credit as McGahee deserves the Bills are 6-1 with him starting it's Mularkey who has brought focus to a team that was better than its 6-10 record in 2003.

If Williams irritated his veterans by using air horns for wake-up calls during his first training camp, and persistently blamed the players and media for the Bills' woes, Mularkey came in with a low-key, inclusive approach.

A former Steelers player and offensive coordinator, his best attributes are his creativity and flexibility:

_Mularkey addressed the Bills' early-season penalty problems by borrowing from Jets coach Herman Edwards in bringing officials to throw flags in practice.

_ He bolstered the team's stumbling goal-line offense by bulking up his line with Pat Williams and fellow massive nose tackle Sam Adams.

_ And he came up with the ``Cheeseburger Solution'' to help end the team's road troubles. Comparing travel itineraries with other NFL coaches on the East Coast, Mularkey learned that some serve their players cheeseburgers as an extra meal when making trips to the West Coast.

It worked when the Bills ended a six-game road skid by beating Seattle 38-9 last month.

Mularkey also has shown unwavering resolve.

At a time when the Giants turned to Eli Manning and the Cowboys flirted with Drew Henson, Mularkey didn't give in to critics demanding he bench Bledsoe in favor of first-round draft pick J.P. Losman.

Bledsoe responded with three of his most effective outings of the season, a stretch in which he's thrown eight touchdown passes, one fewer than in his previous 11 games. And suddenly, it's not inconceivable Bledsoe will be back as the starter next season.

Instead of giving up following the 0-4 start, Mularkey rallied his team with a ``Why Not Us?'' mantra, urging his players to ignore outsiders' attempts to tell them how bad they were.

And these aren't the same bumbling Bills, even if they're still far from the level of the team that won an unprecedented four consecutive AFC titles in the early 1990s.

It's that history current Bills will always be measured against _ until they actually win a Super Bowl.

There's truth to the saying Buffalo is a drinking town with a football problem, where a passionate fan base believes it has more answers than Ken Jennings on ``Jeopardy.''

Had Bills president Tom Donahoe listened to half the cranks who called sports talk shows in September, he would've resigned, Marv Levy would be back as coach and McGahee would never have been drafted.

Buffalo's an easy place to become a cynic. It's where winter lasts five months and the sports teams, as a rule, break your heart, from the Sabres' No Goal,'' to the Bills'Wide Right'' and ``The Music City Miracle.''

It's very possible this year's Bills will fall short and, perhaps, come up with a new way to lose.

But for now, the Bills have a chance, far more than anyone gave them as recently as last month.

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