ORCHARD PARK, N.Y., DEC. 2 -- Despite a recent eight-game winning streak, despite having lost only two games, despite being perhaps the best team in the AFC, the Buffalo Bills found themselves playing for credibility today.

Nearly blowing a 24-point lead didn't help that cause, but the Bills survived the Randall Cunningham Show for a 30-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Rich Stadium. The loss ended Philadelphia's five-game winning streak and dropped the Eagles to 7-5 and into a tie with the Redskins in the race for the top NFC wild-card spot.

Before the first quarter was over, Jim Kelly had completed all eight of his passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Bills to a shocking 24-0 lead. "We didn't tackle; we didn't do anything," Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan said. "The first quarter . . . My God, it was unbelievable. There were people running through the secondary and we couldn't tackle them."

But the rest of the afternoon proved to be one long Cunningham highlight film, complete with a 51-yard run from scrimmage and a touchdown pass for all-time, a 95-yarder to rookie wideout Fred Barnett. That, combined with his 18-yard pass to Keith Jackson and his one-yard pass to Keith Byars, got the Eagles within 24-23 with five minutes left in the third quarter.

The Bills extended their lead to 30-23 with Scott Norwood's two field goals, but the Eagles lateralled away a chance to tie the game when Seth Joyner tried to turn an interception at midfield into a touchdown. What he got was a turnover, leaving Cunningham only 13 desperate seconds to work with.

The Bills (10-2) knocked down a final heave and took sole possession of first place in the AFC East, thankful Cunningham had no more time. Buffalo, one of the best defensive teams in the league, had every reason to be wary after what happened just before halftime.

Trailing by 24-9 and facing third and 14 from his 5, Cunningham found himself in trouble trying to throw the ball from his end zone.

Linebacker Cornelius Bennett roared in from one side. From the other, the quarterback's blind side, came three-time all-pro defensive end Bruce Smith, right arm extended like a meat hook ready to behead an unsuspecting Cunningham.

"Out of the corner of my eye, and I mean way down here by my ear, I saw a seven and part of an eight," Cunningham said, refering to Smith's looming number. "I said, 'I'll be darned if he hits me.' " So Cunningham, his body bent in the fetal position, ducked Smith's grasp and scrambled free.

He ran left, saw Barnett and said to himself, "Set up, and throw the ball to the deepest guy."

Easier done than said, only in the case of Randall Cunningham (71 rushing yards, 231 passing, 3 touchdowns).

Running the wrong way, throwing back across his body into a 22-mph wind off Lake Erie, Cunningham launched a spiral 58 yards. Barnett, who has the vertical leap of an NBA guard, beat Jamie Williams on the jump ball to make the catch, then pulled away to complete the 95-yard touchdown.

Bills receiver Andre Reed, asked who else in the NFL could make that play, said: "None, I'll tell you that right now. I couldn't believe it. Any other quarterback, with Bruce and Bennett coming down on his neck like that, is thinking, 'Forget it, I'm going down, I'm taking the sack.' "

So instead of trailing 26-9 after a safety, the Eagles had pulled within 24-16. After the first series of the third quarter, Philadelphia had pulled within 24-23.

Kelly, who had hit his first eight passes, missed eight of his next nine as Buffalo's offense, often going without a huddle, sputtered. The Bills, though they sacked Cunningham six times, had to be worried on every down that he'd make some improbable, game-changing play. "He keeps you on the edge of your seat every minute," Bills Coach Marv Levy said.

Bennett said the Eagles' dependence on Cunningham may have played into Buffalo's hands. "I think they relied too much on Randall," he said. "I think they went to the well too often in terms of letting Randall try and do it all."

Actually it was Joyner who tried to do it all. He picked off a Kelly pass near midfield with six minutes to play, which would have put Cunningham in great position had he fallen on the spot. But Joyner, as is customary for the Eagles, tried to lateral to cornerback Eric Allen streaking by.

The Eagles have made it work before, most notably against the Redskins last season at RFK Stadium. This time, though, Allen never got the pitch. The Bills recovered, but Ryan and his players had no regrets.

"Everybody wants to drip about {Joyner} lateraling the ball," Ryan said, "but that's the way we play football. We're not going to take away those wins we got by lateraling the ball on defense, so we're going to keep on doing it."

With that break, the Bills moved the ball enough to pick up first downs and keep the clock moving.

It didn't resemble the first quarter when James Lofton's 63-yard touchdown reception, Andre Reed's 56-yard touchdown reception and Thurman Thomas's four-yard reception helped put the Bills ahead by 24-0.

But it did keep Cunningham off the field, and it did get Buffalo a rare December victory. The Bills were 3-15 in the month over the last five years before today.

"We made the people who said we couldn't win in December look stupid," Bennett said, "and we'll make them look even more stupid the rest of the month."