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Bills lead charge in new-look AFC

No matter how long you stare at them, the AFC standings after three weeks just look a bit off kilter, don't they? Not upside down per se, but refreshingly out of order, and jumbled to the point where our customary quick glance can't take it all in.

It makes for some great early season buzz in the conference that has been owned by the Patriots and Colts the past five or six seasons. If the playoffs started today, the AFC postseason bracket would be a snap to figure out because there are only six teams with winning records in the conference.

The division winners would be Buffalo (3-0) in the AFC East, a division nobody but New England has won since 2002; Tennessee (3-0) in the AFC South, a division nobody but Indianapolis has won since 2002; upstart Baltimore (2-0) in the AFC North; and surprising Denver (3-0) in the AFC West, where San Diego has claimed three of the past four division titles. The two wild cards would be New England and Pittsburgh (both 2-1).

For strangeness, nothing compares to the sight of seeing the Bills at 3-0 for the first time in 16 years, the first team other than New England to be atop the division since Week 4 of 2005. Buffalo hasn't made the playoffs since 1999, the AFC's longest active drought, and hasn't won the division since 1995, the year the Bills got a league-leading 17½ sacks out of NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bryce Paup (yeah, that's how long ago it was).

There wasn't a thing pretty about the Bills' latest win -- that 24-23 last-second nail-biter over visiting Oakland -- but the resilience Buffalo displayed in mounting its second consecutive fourth-quarter comeback victory should serve Dick Jauron's team well later this season when the stakes are even higher. The Bills scored 17 points in the game's final eight minutes, overcoming a host of miscues, missed opportunities and bad field position in a game that previous Buffalo teams would have routinely found a way to lose. The week before, at steamy Jacksonville, it was a 10-point fourth-quarter rally that got the job done.

You can see this thing building week by week in Buffalo, and Tuesday morning I asked Bills offensive coordinator Turk Schonert if the victory over the Raiders might be the kind of game that convinces Buffalo it's both good enough to win even when it doesn't play it's best game, and not so far along that it can take any opponent for granted? Every young team on the rise needs to learn both of those lessons along the way.

"No doubt about that,'' said Schonert, the Bills' first-year coordinator. "It was one of those days on Sunday where nothing seemed to be going our way. There was a lot of adversity we had to overcome, but nobody panicked and they all stayed the course. Our confidence on offense is growing.''

Down 16-7 late in the third quarter, the Bills and starting quarterback Trent Edwards put that new and improved resilience on display for all to see, driving 96 yards (actually 106, thanks to a 10-yard penalty) on 17 plays, in a clock-grinding 8:55. Running back Marshawn Lynch's 3-yard touchdown run capped the marathon march, and even though Oakland re-established its nine-point lead later in the fourth quarter, Buffalo had assumed control of the game and was in the process of exerting its will on the fatigued Raiders' defense.

"That drive took a big effect on them,'' Schonert said of Oakland. "It took a lot out of them, because we had the ball for most of the second half. They only ran 17 snaps in the second half. Our defense was fresh, and it showed in the fourth quarter. The Raiders couldn't generate the same pass rush as they had in the first half, and we felt we were in better shape than they were.''

What you have to like about these Bills so far is they're very democratic in their offensive approach. Edwards, with his fourth fourth-quarter victory in 12 career starts, is rapidly proving why Buffalo felt the third-rounder out of Stanford was the steal of the 2007 draft, but he's far from the whole story. It's the running/receiving of Lynch and backup tailback Fred Jackson, the pass catching of Lee Evans, Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish and tight end Robert Royal, and the play-calling of Schonert, who has imbued the Bills with a willingness to take chances and seize the momentum in a game.

"Everybody's getting involved for us, and the players are seeing that,'' said Schonert, whose offense ranks 9th overall in points, with 26 per game. "It's not just a one-man show any more, throwing to Lee. We're using everybody, and everybody's making plays. When that happens for a team, everybody gains confidence and starts believing.''

With this week's game at St. Louis, where the Rams are 0-3 and either at or near the bottom of the league in most major statistical categories, the unbeaten Bills will now take their act back on the road, where another potential lesson in the dangers of overconfidence awaits.

"You try and temper them a bit right now,'' Schonert said. "Obviously they haven't started this well around here in a long time, and with a young team, it can get a little giddy some times. A little caught up in the hype. But this team is pretty focused, pretty level, because Dick really pounds that into them. The Raiders game taught us that it wasn't the 2007 Raiders we were playing. They're improved. We're improved. That's why you have a new season every year. I think our guys get that and have bought into it.''

Everything seems new in the AFC East this season, at least since Tom Brady went down with a knee injury in Week 1. The door now seems very much open for the Bills to challenge the Patriots for the division title that everyone was conceding to New England just 17 days ago. It's already a given in the reconfigured AFC landscape that the Patriots at Bills game in Week 17 might be for a division title. Imagine that.

"Obviously when the league loses a great player like Tom Brady, it does change the landscape,'' Schonert said. "But no team is built entirely on one guy. He was an integral part of that team and he knew that offense inside out, but hey, they won a Super Bowl there one year when they lost their starting quarterback in a season. So don't underestimate the New England Patriots. Yeah, they had a bad week this week. But they're 2-1 with 13 games to go. They'll be heard from this season. Don't worry about that.''

And so will these 3-0 first-place Bills. Three weeks into the regular season, it's a thought that's still taking some getting used to.

• On the flip side, as surprising as the early season results in the AFC have been, the NFC is confounding in its own way. That's because 10 teams have winning records so far, meaning there's plenty of competition for those six playoff berths.

Since there aren't three wild-card spots to be had, at least one team has to be the odd man out in the NFC East. Dallas and the Giants are both 3-0, with Washington and Philadelphia at 2-1. That's a combined 10-2 record, and did you know that no NFC East team has lost to anyone outside the division? The Redskins lost to the Giants in Week 1, and the Eagles lost that points-fest at Dallas in Week 2. Pretty good indication of the division's strength.

Then there's Tampa Bay, Carolina and Atlanta, all at 2-1 in the NFC South. And the team that I thought would be the division's strongest, New Orleans, hardly looks like last-place material. Green Bay is the only winner at 2-1 in the NFC North, but the NFC West lead is shared by San Francisco and Arizona at 2-1, in what is shaping up as the NFL's weakest division by far.

• It's time for my weekly Jyles Tucker reference. The second-year San Diego linebacker had two of the Chargers' three sacks of Brett Favre on Monday night, backing up my contention that he's going to fill Shawne Merriman's shoes better than most imagined.

• Make the switch now, Romeo. Once you introduce the possibility of a starting quarterback change, it almost always becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy any way. Putting Derek Anderson on notice for being yanked in favor of Brady Quinn isn't really that far from the actual benching, even though it probably feels like just the last step of necessary patience to the Browns' head coach.

• Then there's the iffy quarterback situation in Houston. Matt Schaub is keeping his starting job for the time being, but another ugly loss and the pressure will continue to mount on head coach Gary Kubiak to switch to backup Sage Rosenfels.

Doesn't it seem as if we've seen this movie before with the Texans' quarterbacking? In just two games, Schaub has been sacked eight times, which is a pace that perhaps only David Carr can truly appreciate. Schaub has one touchdown pass, five interceptions and a 50.3 passer rating so far, and the pass pressure he has been under has led to many of his mistakes.

The Texans scored just one touchdown in six red zone trips at Tennessee, and went a combined 5 of 21 on third and fourth downs. That kind of negated the benefit of the 146 yards rushing and 5.2-yard average carry that Houston posted against the Titans' No. 1-ranked defense.

• If I'm a Lions fan, I'm only crazier to hear that Bill Ford Jr. would fire team president Matt Millen after eight desultory seasons, if he only had the authority. Ford Jr., the team's vice chairman, needs to be urgently and passionately making that case to his father, team owner William ClayFord, more than he does to the Detroit Economic Club.

I suppose hearing someone in the Ford family admit they question why Millen's failure has been allowed to become so acceptable is cathartic in a way. But it's also a bit of the ultimate tease, and would only make the agony of having to put up with Millen's continued employment that much more painful for fans who really care about the team's downtrodden fortunes.

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