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LATE LAST week, as he prepared for Sunday's game against the New
York Jets, Bruce Smith, the All-Pro defensive end of the Buffalo
Bills, stroked the salt-and-pepper stubble that dusted his chin
and cheeks. "Eleven years," he said, rubbing his face. "Eleven
years in this league gives you this white stuff."

This season was supposed to be the autumn of Smith and the
Bills, the year we looked at them and said, Nice run, fellas,
but this is a young man's game. See you on the golf course.
Coming off a 7-9 year, with several key players lost to free
agency and only one significant addition, linebacker Bryce Paup,
Buffalo figured to be an also-ran in the formidable AFC East.

It hasn't turned out that way. With the possible exception of
the 10-1 Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills are the NFL surprise of
the year. At 8-3 after its 28-26 win in New York and with three
of its five remaining games to be played at home, Buffalo isn't
simply closing in on a playoff berth; it's also a couple of
Kansas City or Oakland Raider losses away from home field
advantage throughout the playoffs. And you know what happens in
Rich Stadium in the dead of January. Strange things, man.

Coach Marv Levy has cobbled these Bills together from an odd
assortment of parts. Over the previous three seasons, with the
Green Bay Packers, Paup averaged eight sacks a year; through
Sunday night he was leading the NFL with 14--twice as many as
that tandem of longtime Buffalo stalwarts, Smith and linebacker
Cornelius Bennett--and he has given the Bills the rush from the
left side that Smith, who attacks from the right, has sought for
years to take some of the pressure off him. With tailback
Thurman Thomas in the twilight of his career, rookie Darick
Holmes from Portland State, who was the fifth-to-last pick in
the April draft, has stepped in to rush for 509 yards. Star
wideouts Andre Reed and Russell Copeland are injured, but
31-year-old Bill Brooks, plodding rookie Justin Armour
(hourglass 4.67 speed in the 40) and special teams mainstay
Steve Tasker are doing quite nicely in the Bills' three-wideout
sets. Among them they caught 12 Jim Kelly passes for 207 yards
and two touchdowns on Sunday.

Before this year Tasker had not played wide receiver since 1981,
at Dodge City (Kans.) Community College. He also had not
returned a punt since 1984, when he played for Northwestern. On
Sunday he ran back three punts for 39 yards, caught four passes
for 91 yards and ran one reverse for seven yards. "I guess I'm
our utility infielder," he said.

The success of the Bills actually began during the past
off-season when Smith approached general manager John Butler and
said, "I need some help rushing the passer, and we need to look
at free agency." Butler went out and bought himself a pass rush
in free agents Paup, defensive end Jim Jeffcoat and nosetackle
Ted Washington, and he did it for the cap-friendly price of
$3.27 million in 1995. Nearly $2 million of that went to Paup,
whom the Bills wanted so badly that it took only two phone calls
and some perfunctory negotiations to get him to Buffalo.

Paup's signing effectively pushed 35-year-old linebacker Darryl
Talley--the most popular player among the Bills--out the door, and
Paup felt the locker room coolness in a spring minicamp. "The
first practice I came out, and there were Bruce and Thurman
wearing Darryl's number," he says. "I said to myself, Uh-oh.
What have I gotten myself into?"

The right scheme, as it turns out. The Packers had thought that
the 247-pound Paup was too light to play head-to-head with
linemen, but for the Bills he plays over the tight end in the
regular defense, and on passing downs he lines up at an interior
line spot or drops back into pass coverage. This hasn't done
much to ease Smith's burden. With his 23 quarterback pressures,
Smith is drawing as much attention as ever, which has helped to
make the 27-year-old Paup's breakthrough year possible. And in
the process Paup has revitalized a team tired of hearing how
washed-up it was.

"We were too old," Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson said on Sunday
with a chuckle. "We lost all our stars. That's what everybody
said, right? This is really something to see. We've got some
incredible character players."

A character coach, too. On Oct. 17, the 67-year-old Levy had
surgery for prostate cancer. The operation was successful,
Levy's doctors say, and his return to the sidelines, after 3 1/2
weeks of recuperation, motivated the Bills. Levy is more of a
father figure to his players than any other coach in the game.
He loves life and football, in no particular order. On Oct. 2,
two weeks before his surgery, Levy, who at the time was keeping
his illness a secret from his players, was on the field at
Cleveland Stadium before a Monday-night game against the Browns.
He turned to Butler and said, "Look around you, John. What a
place this is. Babe Ruth hit home runs here. Jimmy Foxx hit home
runs here. Think about the great football players who played
here, Jim Brown and Otto Graham. Isn't it magnificent? I mean,
is there any place you'd rather be than right here, right now?"

Forget Buffalo's four straight Super Bowl losses: Right here,
right now, is there any team you'd rather see have the inside
track to Tempe, Ariz., on Jan. 28?

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN IACONO While Brooks (above), who scored twice, barely missed a third touchdown, Paup was on target with this sack of Boomer Esiason. [Bryce Paup sacking Boomer Esiason; Bill Brooks jumping forfootball]