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Original Issue

The NFL

THESE BILLS ARE DUE

Sunday was a perfect day for the staggering Bills to get well, what with an overcast sky and cold 15-mph winds bearing down on their helpless prey, the 0-7 Patriots, at Rich Stadium. Because of injuries New England was playing without four of its starting front-seven defensive players, quarterback Hugh Milieu (separated shoulder) and, for most of the game, wide-out Irving Fryar (strained hamstring).

It was the Patriots, however, who took a 7-0 halftime lead and, after falling behind 9-7 in the third quarter, were poised to go in front again with 10 minutes to play. With third-and-nine at the Buffalo 13, New England was a play away from kicking a wind-aided field goal, but quarterback Tom Hodson, in danger of being sacked, foolishly tried to make a big play and fumbled away the ball. Buffalo was off the hook and eventually won 16-7.

How sweet it is, cakewalking through the AFC East. The front-running Dolphins were upset for the second week in a row, 26-14 by the Jets, so the Bills, who are coming off four straight poor performances—they lost back-to-back games to the Dolphins and the Raiders and looked bad in beating the Jets and the Pats—have lucked back into a share of the division lead with a 6-2 record. Something isn't right with the two-time defending AFC champions. Even the loyal Buffalo fans, who booed their team off the field at the end of Sunday's first half, sense it.

Offensively, the Bills aren't surprising anyone anymore. For three years they had six or so key plays that quarterback Jim Kelly executed to perfection out of the shotgun in the no-huddle offense. But defenses have caught up with Buffalo, so this year the Bills have cut their use of three-wideout formations from 85% of the time to 65% and have tried to throw off opponents with a more traditional offense. Kelly looked awful on Sunday, throwing two interceptions in which Patriot defenders appeared to be the intended receivers.

The move to a more conservative offense has bottled up Thurman Thomas, who can't run to the outside as well as he could when Buffalo spread its attack. Thomas rushed for only 33 and 52 yards against Miami and the Raiders, respectively, and had just 29 yards on Sunday before an elbow injury sidelined him in the second half. The Bills couldn't move the ball consistently against New England, the league's 24th-ranked defense, which put in no new wrinkles for Sunday's game because it was so banged up.

"We've been getting chased for so long, and now we're doing the chasing," says Buffalo special teams ace Steve Tasker. "I don't know how we'll handle it."

STATS OF THE WEEK

•After playing 431 minutes this year without rushing for a touchdown, the Packers finally ran for six points in a 27-13 win over the Lions.

•With a 30-28 loss to Atlanta, the Rams have lost 13 straight NFC West games.

•Since May 13, 1989, the Cowboys have made 29 trades involving players, and the Giants have made none.

•New Orleans quarterback Bobby Hebert is 13-0 lifetime against AFC teams. The 6-2 Saints play the Pats this Sunday.

WHAT'S A JOE TO DO?

The 49ers choose their words carefully when talking about Joe Montana's future with the team, but he doesn't seem to figure in their plans beyond this season. If Montana, who has been sidelined by elbow surgery for all of the 1991 and '92 seasons, attempts to return in '93—and one friend said last week that Montana is so determined to play again he'll do just that—he may have to make his comeback with another team.

"We've made an organizational decision that whatever happens, number one, we'll treat Joe with ultimate respect and consideration," says Niner president Carmen Policy. "And two, we will do what's in our best interests to field a competitive team."

The 49ers, who are buoyed by Steve Young's Pro Bowl-caliber season, aren't counting on Montana to be healthy for any significant stretch of time. They could give him a choice of either retiring with the appropriate pomp and circumstance or obtaining his release so that he could try to make a deal with another team. In the second scenario, it's logical to think that the Raiders, who have a history of picking up such reclamation projects, would try to work out an incentive-laden contract with Montana.

NO FURTHER REVIEW
Instant replay hasn't been missed—there weren't any erroneous game-turning calls in the first hall" of the season—and the flow of the game has improved as well. "I'm glad it's gone," says Oiler wideout Haywood Jeffires. "We're going with what the referee calls, and hopefully it doesn't affect the outcome of the game." Dropping replays also has shaved two minutes off the average length of games (excluding overtime).

DISPATCHES

The Cowboys have to find a backup for Emmitt Smith, someone to run the ball six or eight times a game, or risk burning out their star back at an early age. If Smith, who carried 30 times for 163 yards in Dallas's 20-10 win over the Eagles, continues at his current pace of 25 carries a game, by season's end he'll have 1,006 career carries at age 23. Too much, too soon....

Six months before the scheduled 1993 draft, there's no clear-cut No. 1 pick. Of the seniors who were highly touted prospects in the preseason, Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer has not distinguished himself, and Washington tackle Lincoln Kennedy has played to mixed reviews. The up-and-comers now include Alabama's pass-rushing defensive ends, Eric Curry and John Copeland, and Louisiana Tech tackle Willie Roaf.

GAME OF THE WEEK
Dallas a! Detroit, Sunday. A year ago the fast-improving Cowboys played the Lions at the Silverdome and lost by 24 points. In a return trip to Pontiac, Mich., for an NFC divisional playoff in January, Dallas lost by 32. The Cowboys then spent a chunk of the off-season acquiring quicker defensive players and designing new schemes to combat run-and-shoot offenses, such as the Lions' Silver Streak. "It's going to be nice going to that dome now," says Dallas wideout Michael Irvin, "because we've torn our [defensive] house down, and we've just about got it rebuilt." It also helps that at 2-6, Detroit is a shell of its '91 self.

THE END ZONE
Twenty-six thousand fans flocked to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Oct. 27 to applaud the Braves for a job well done, but Atlanta's best player in the World Series wasn't there. Deion Sanders was at Georgia Tech's football stadium, baseball field, track, football practice field and weight room, filming—what else?—a Nike commercial.

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JOHN IACONO

The Pats stuffed Thomas, who fumbled once before being sidelined with an injured elbow.

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TIM DEFRISCO/ALLSPORT USA

Smith is a midseason All-Pro because he has a nose, albeit a broken one, for the ball.