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Reich bails out Bills again, 10-7


PHILADELPHIA -- Their AFC dynasty was on the verge of collapse yesterday when the Buffalo Bills rescued a game -- and perhaps a season -- that seemed spent.

Save the postmortems for later. Just when you thought it safe to count out a fourth straight Super Bowl appearance for the Bills, they found new life.

How big was yesterday's 10-7 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in frigid Veterans Stadium?

"Seven years being a Buffalo Bill, this is the biggest victory I've ever had," All-Pro linebacker Cornelius Bennett said. "If we lost, all hell would have broken loose.

"It was in the air. . . . Had we lost today, there would have been doubt in our minds, in the coaches' minds, in the front office."

Had the Bills lost yesterday, there would have been more than heartache in the air. There would have been enough acrimony and locker-room sniping to dust off their pre-Super Bowl reputation as the Bickering Bills.

As it was, they had lost two games in a row, and three of four, and several Bills fingers were already cocked.

Buffalo fended off impending disaster, though, with a clutch, fourth-quarter relief effort by old standby Frank Reich. Replacing injured starter Jim Kelly, the former Maryland quarterback generated a touchdown and a field goal in the Bills' last two possessions.

Steve Christie's redeeming 34-yard field goal with 2:18 left -- he had missed three previous attempts -- sends the Bills (9-4) into Miami for next week's AFC East showdown with the first-place Dolphins. Miami (9-3) plays Pittsburgh tonight.

For the second straight year, Reich quarterbacked a dramatic Bills victory. He authored the NFL's biggest comeback in last year's playoffs, when he brought the Bills from a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38, in overtime. He started in place of the injured Kelly that game.

This comeback was special for another reason. Although Reich has a 6-2 record as a starter in Buffalo, he had never won a game in relief.

"It was fun, and exciting, to be able to do that," Reich said. "I was able to get a monkey off my back. I had the stigma that, when I come off the bench, it doesn't get done for whatever reason."

Reich got the chance after Kelly decided it was in the team's best interests to step aside. Kelly sprained his left ankle on a pass completion in the third quarter. He was replaced by Reich for the last three plays in the series, then went back into the game in the fourth quarter. At that point, lacking mobility, Kelly pulled himself.

"I probably could have stayed in," he said. "But I knew what kind of defense they were playing, and I couldn't move around in the pocket. I knew what kind of ability Frank had. I thought the best thing was for Frank to take over."

The Eagles, whose playoff hopes have virtually expired at 5-8, came after Kelly with blitzes. He was unable to capitalize, however, throwing two interceptions and losing a fumble.

After a scoreless first half that was a comedy of errors, the Eagles took a 7-0 lead in the third quarter on a 19-yard pass from Bubby Brister to Calvin Williams of Dunbar.

The Bills, meanwhile, had five possessions inside the Eagles' 25-yard line -- and two inside the 10 -- without scoring.

It was a sign of the times for the three-time defending AFC champs, who have scored just 27 touchdowns in 13 games.

"It's frustrating offensively not to score the way we're used to scoring," Reich said.

Somehow, he found the antidote in the fourth quarter. It was big plays. Twice in a 71-yard, 13-play touchdown drive, the Bills converted fourth-down plays.

The first came at the Eagles' 37. On fourth-and-4, Reich threw a perfect pass just over the head of linebacker Seth Joyner to Ken Davis, who scampered 9 yards to a first down.

The next big play came on fourth-and-2 at the Eagle 5. Again, the call was for Davis, who punched through the middle for a 3-yard gain to the 2.

From there, Reich faked to Davis on second down and threw a 2-yard TD pass to tight end Pete Metzelaars, uncovered in the end zone. Metzelaars caught the ball in an awkward, split-legged position, then fell down.

"It was kind of embarrassing how the throw was," Reich said. "They [the Eagles] had knocked down a similar pass to the other side, so I wanted to throw in the flat before they could get their hands up."

Christie's point after tied the score with 3:44 to play. Moments later, Vai Sikahema lost his second fumble of the game on a kickoff, and the Bills had the ball at the Philadelphia 22.

Buffalo, which lost running back Thurman Thomas to injury, played it safe. Davis got the ball three straight times, positioning Christie for his game-winner. Christie had been wide left on three earlier attempts from 42, 29 and 51 yards.

He made good on his reprieve shot, though. "I sort of saved face," Christie said. "I missed a few, and I'm thinking, man, I cost this team a game."

The Bills had to dodge a frantic, 45-yard field-goal attempt by Matt Bahr at the end before celebrating their reprieve. In the end, no one appreciated it more than Kelly, whose mother, Alice, had suffered a heart attack last Thursday. The Bills voted her a game ball yesterday.

"My mother means everything to me," Kelly said.

The comeback moved Bennett to post-game oratory in the locker room, where he told his teammates how he felt. "It was special," he said. "If we never win another, I'll never forget it."

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