- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

Eight weeks ago, Buffalo was a 1-5 team with a rookie coach and a rapidly aging quarterback. Today the coach seems more seasoned, the quarterback less creaky and the Bills have reversed course.

Buffalo, which averaged just 13 points during its poor start (the lone victory over then-winless Miami), has averaged an astounding 32 points in its current 7-1 run to improve to 8-6. The turnaround is so complete the Bills have won their last three on the road — perhaps feeding off rookie coach Mike Mularkey’s newly mandated cheeseburgers — to exceed their total in their previous 16 away games.

“We’re executing the plays a little better and not making some of the mistakes we were making earlier in the year,” Mularkey said. “Three of our first four losses, we had a chance to win, and I think the players recognized how close we were. We believe in our approach, and that’s never changed since we’ve been here. As soon as you start changing and making adjustments is when [the players] start questioning things. We haven’t done that. We’ve stuck to our guns the whole time.”

Terrence McGee, a fourth-rounder last year, has not only smartly replaced departed free agent cornerback Antoine Winfield, he has become the 11th player to return three kickoffs for touchdowns in a season and made the Pro Bowl as a return man. Buffalo’s five return touchdowns tie an NFL record.

The defense, led by Pro Bowl picks Takeo Spikes and Sam Adams, has forced 32 turnovers — 22 in the past five weeks — and is third both overall and against the pass, fourth against the run.

Quarterback Drew Bledsoe has shown there’s still some life in his 32-year-old arm — as long as the line gives him time to find veteran receiver Eric Moulds or rookie speedster Lee Evans. Bledsoe was 9-for-12 for 198 yards on Buffalo’s four touchdown drives in a 42-32 victory over Miami on Dec.5 and has been sacked just 10 times during the 7-1 tear.

“Early in the season, we really didn’t know what we were doing, but as the season has gone along we’ve developed some confidence and clicked as an offense,” Evans said.

Running back Willis McGahee has six 100-yard games in nine games since replacing Travis Henry as the starter. McGahee, three inches taller and 15 pounds bigger than his 5-foot-9, 215-pound predecessor, has scored nine touchdowns to Henry’s none. In the 38-9 rout of Seattle on Nov.28, McGahee became the first Bill in 25 years to rush for four touchdowns in a game.

With a game at 2-12 San Francisco on Sunday before a finale against 13-1 Pittsburgh, Buffalo’s first winning season since 1999 is almost certain. With only defensive tackle Pat Williams and offensive tackle Jonas Jennings heading for free agency, a decent amount of salary cap room available and just six starters in their 30s, the Bills’ future is much brighter than it appeared two months ago even if they don’t make the playoffs.

Second-season success — Jacksonville (8-6) is on the verge of a playoff spot. If the Jaguars make it, Jack Del Rio will become the 11th active coach to reach the postseason in his second season. Eight others made it in their debuts and two did so in their third years.

The only exceptions among those with at least two seasons of experience are Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis and San Francisco’s Dennis Erickson (neither of whom has reached postseason), New England’s Bill Belichick (fourth year), Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher (fifth) and Oakland’s Norv Turner (sixth).

Coming home — In a move designed to put to rest those persistent Chargers-to-Los Angeles rumors, San Diego has moved its training camp down the California coast from Carson to Chargers Park.

“We don’t want there to be any doubt about our commitment to the San Diego community,” Chargers president Dean Spanos said.

San Diego, which trained at UC San Diego from 1976 to 2002, will be the 14th team to hold camp at its facility. Dallas, which trains in Oxnard, Calif., and Kansas City, which trains in River Falls, Wis., are the only teams that hold camp more than one state removed from home.

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