BUFFALO, JAN. 11 -- While most of the major also-rans in last season's chase for the NFL title faded dramatically this season, the Buffalo Bills were quietly better. Lots better. Whether that counts for much depends on what happens here Saturday against the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the AFC playoffs.

With quarterback Jim Kelly's knee apparently mended enough for him to reassume command of the offense, the Bills are about a touchdown favorite against the resurgent Dolphins.



The Dolphins have the best regular season winning percentage (.672) of any team in major professional U.S. sports over the last 20 years, edging the basketball Lakers and Celtics and the hockey Canadiens. Still, they have been absent from the last four NFL playoffs.

"When we were younger -- {Mark} Clayton, myself, {Mark} Duper -- we went to the playoffs my first year, the Super Bowl the second, the AFC championship the third," quarterback Dan Marino said earlier this week. "It was like: 'This is going to happen all the time.'

"I look at this as an opportunity we have to take advantage of, because after five years. . . . you realize the opportunity is not always there."

The Bills know the feeling, having been a dropped end-zone pass (by the since-exiled Ronnie Harmon) away from overtaking the Browns on the next-to-last play of an AFC semifinal last year. They used that as motivation to build, from 9-7 to a best-in-the-AFC 13-3.

Others who fared better in the postseason plummeted. Together, the AFC champion Broncos and the NFC runner-up Rams could muster just 10 victories this season. The AFC runner-up Browns and NFC semifinalist Vikings were a combined one game worse -- and all four teams were divisional doormats.

Some insist the Bills actually won this game two days before Christmas, when a very good defense and backup quarterback Frank Reich produced a 24-14 victory here over the Dolphins that clinched home-tundra advantage.

The cheery news that greeted the Dolphins on their arrival today: forecast for temperatures in the upper twenties and a "brisk" wind. That would be 50-some degrees colder than the Dolphins faced in rallying for victory at home last week against the Chiefs. They are 1-6 in games when the temperature falls below 30.

Buffalo also is concerned about the weather, Coach Marv Levy saying that a special "Blizzard Package" of plays has been added to the game plan. Whatever the conditions, Thurman Thomas will not be kept on ice.

In Week 2 of the regular season, Thomas was held to 23 yards on eight carries in a 30-7 loss to the Dolphins in Miami. In the Week 15 rematch, Thomas ran for 154 yards on 30 carries. The Dolphins may well be without one of their best defenders, linebacker John Offerdahl, who sprained his arch in the 17-16 victory over Kansas City and did not practice this week.

The Dolphins advanced beyond the regular season in large part because of an improved ground game. Sammie Smith will be going against a Buffalo defense that numbers suggest may be sensational and suspect.

Buffalo finished 15th in the NFL in rushing defense, but only five teams allowed fewer yards per rushing attempt. There were only four runs of 20 yards or longer all season.

"I've heard a couple of other guys comment: 'If we can stop {Smith} early it seems like he doesn't run as hard,' " said Buffalo nose tackle Jeff Wright. "I think there's a little bit of truth in that, but you never can understand what a man can do and what he can't."

"They don't do anything very sophisticated," Marino said of the Buffalo defense. "They just line up and play good, solid defense. They have outstanding people so they can do that kind of thing."