HERNDON, Va. -- Marv Levy, who has a master's degree in English history from Harvard, has no trouble recognizing alliteration when he sees it.
That's why the Buffalo Bills coach can appreciate the tag hung on his team last season: Bickering Bills.
"Bickering Bills is a nice alliterative term," Levy said yesterday.
But he still says it wasn't an accurate description of last season's team.
"It wasn't a team that bickered, in my opinion," Levy said.
He brushes off quarterback Jim Kelly's public criticism of a lineman for missing a block on a play during which Kelly was injured.
"Jim Kelly said one thing after a game in which he was injured and frustrated, and it was blown up as being a very interesting item," Levy said.
It wasn't just one thing, though.
Later in the season, running back Thurman Thomas criticized Kelly on a cable TV show, and the Bills called a news conference in which Kelly and Thomas both read prepared statements, supposedly to smooth things over.
"So, it was two things," Levy said.
Before reporters had a chance to mention another item, Levy added: "We had coaches on our staff have a fight. I'll tell you something. One of the Redskins coaches said to me later in the year: 'How'd that get out? We had one of those a couple of years ago and it never got out.' "
Continuing to downplay last year's strife, Levy said there hasn't been much of a change on the team this year.
"I don't think there's much difference to the way our players are now as opposed to the way they were then," he said.
If nothing else, the record is better. The Bills finished 9-7 last year and lost their first-round playoff game in Cleveland.
This year, they head into RFK Stadium in Washington on Sunday with a 13-2 record, and they've clinched the home-field advantage throughout the American Football Conference playoffs.
Levy's explanation for the difference has nothing to do with bickering or its absence.
"The difference in this year's team, in my opinion, is their practice habits," he said. "It has nothing to do with intra-squad relations. It's the best practice team I've ever been with. I attribute that to some excellent leadership from a wide variety of players."
He said Bruce Smith, a defensive lineman who announced two weeks ago that he has become the league's best defensive player, is one who has provided leadership.
Smith said the arguments the team had in the past weren't that important.
"Every team in the league has arguments," he said. "You have 47 different personalities, and everybody is not going to agree with one another, so I think it's a matter of how you handle it, and maturity really played a big factor."
Smith said the younger players have matured with experience.
"When you're young and a little wet behind the ears, you need to grow up, and I think that's exactly what happened," he said.
Smith, who has the flu and a minor knee injury, said he doesn't expect to play the whole game against the Redskins because the Bills don't have anything at stake.
But Levy said the team will try to win.
"I think it's important to keep winning," he said.
He said he won't do anything in particular to protect Frank Reich, who quarterbacked the team to a victory over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in place of Kelly.
"We're not going to walk on eggs in the game," Levy said. "It's not like a preseason game."
With the home-field edge in the playoffs, the Bills have a good shot at their first trip to the Super Bowl.
They won back-to-back American Football League titles in 1964 and 1965, the season before the Super Bowl was founded.
In 1966, they lost the AFL title game to the Kansas City Chiefs, who went on to lose the first Super Bowl, to the Green Bay Packers. The only other time the Bills came that close was the 1988 season, when they lost the AFC title game to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Since the weather tends to be chilly in Buffalo in January, the Bills' home-field edge may help them a lot.
Levy, though, isn't counting on it for an edge.
"I never felt you'd better count on anything except how you prepare and how you play," he said. "If you begin to look for external reasons why you ought to win, I think you kid yourself. We don't use the term 'home-field advantage.' "
What term does he use?
"I tell the players that you can play at home as long as you win," he said.
NOTES: Coach Joe Gibbs said he'll probably activate RB Gerald Riggs to replace Kelvin Bryant, who has a knee injury. . . . Gibbs said he'll wait until later in the week to decide whether to activate DL Tracy Rocker for Eric Williams, who has a sprained arch. . . . OL Mark Schlereth and OL Reggie McKenzie, both of whom suffered sprained ankles Saturday night, were able to practice yesterday and should be able to play against the Bills.