You are going to hear a lot of Buffalo jokes this week, but not here. That the Bills are back in the Super Bowl after two straight losses, representing that collection of pinball wizards known as the American Football Conference, will doubtless become fodder for Leno's monologue and other traditional comic points, such as the Dan Rather news. But nary a dirty word will be spoken in this column. We should be thankful for the Bills, not complaining about them. Instead of emptying out the jokebook, we should be raising a toast. Just think what life would be like without them. If the Bills weren't around to give the AFC at least a shred of respectability, not to mention a chance, the Cowboys would be playing the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. Now, if you saw the Dolphins wallowing in the AFC title game last Sunday, you know that Cowboys-Dolphins would have pushed you to "Nick at Nite" by halftime. Cowboys by, what, four touchdowns? At least the Bills give us a reason to debate the outcome. They come equipped with genuinely substantive evidence on their behalf, namely Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith and Marv Levy's vocabulary. Some reasonably sane people are even picking them to win. The opinion here is Cowboys by 10 on a second-half surge, but the point is that at least the Bills are keeping the point spread under two touchdowns and a field goal. If any other AFC team were in Pasadena, the game would be about as interesting as watching George Toma spray-paint an end zone. Buffalo jokes? We shouldn't be telling any. Let's go the "It's a Wonderful Life" route and see what life would have been like without them. Two years ago, the Bills beat the Raiders in the AFC title game by 48 points. Forty-eight! Now, if the Bills hadn't existed, those monumentally mediocre Raiders would have played the Giants in the Super Bowl. Wouldn't that have been fun? The Giants did beat the Bills that day in Tampa, but only after Scott Norwood's last-second field goal went wide right. That was a first-rate game, the best Super Bowl in a decade. In fact, the opinion here is that the Bills were the better team and should have won. The Raiders would have lost by four touchdowns, minimum. Buffalo jokes? No way. OK, the Bills did get clobbered in the Super Bowl last year, losing to the Redskins in a 13-point game that was twice that with six minutes left. And they whined miserably about everything down to the price of iceberg lettuce. It was an ugly performance by any measure. But before you dismiss it as a total wipeout, consider this nightmare: The Broncos. Again. Yes, grid ghoulies, it would have happened last year had there been no Buffalo. The Bills beat the Broncos by a trey in the AFC title game. The Broncos came that close to visiting their horror show on the rest of us yet again. No, the Bills wound up doing no better, but anything was preferable to another year of John Elway giving that Duke Wayne sigh and saying, "We're just gonna keep giving it our best shot." Had the Broncos shown up again, we could have sued the NFL for abandonment. Even the Broncos' own fans didn't want them to make it, not after three losses in four years by a combined 136-40. The game could have been blacked out -- nationally -- and no one would have cared. Anyway, the Bills saved us. Now they're back for a third try, and yes, it's getting a little tiresome. Sure, it could be another blowout: These Bills did lose to the Jets and Colts, not exactly a Super exacta. But they have talent and savvy and stand a better chance of not getting squashed, and, anyway, remember the alternatives. The Steelers lost to the Bears by 24 points in December. The Oilers couldn't hold a 32-point lead. The Dolphins would be a 5-11 team in the NFC East. L The Chargers couldn't score on the Dolphins in the playoffs. The Chiefs are a halfway house for aging quarterbacks. The rest of the AFC should drop scholarship football. The Bills are the little pearl in the mud. They might not win. Probably won't. But they might keep it close, and considering the Super Bowl's remarkably dull history, we must score all victories, moral or otherwise. So: What do Buffalo wings and the Buffalo Bills have in common? My lips are sealed.