TAMPA, JAN. 23 -- The Buffalo Bills are an interesting story not only because of what they've become, but because of what they were. What they have become is easy to see: After rushing into the Super Bowl with resounding victories over Miami and the Los Angeles Raiders, they are the most impressive AFC champions since the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bills have a fast-forward, no-huddle offense that may be copied again and again next season, and in end Bruce Smith and linebacker Cornelius Bennett they have two of pro football's best defensive players.

Not that the Bills haven't been imposing in the past. For a couple of years they've had quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, wide receiver Andre Reed, and Bennett and Smith.

Yet somehow the pieces never fit. The Bills argued, occasionally fought more with one another than with their opponents, and led the league in wasted talent. Coach Marv Levy says the term "Bickering Bills" is "a nice, alliterative phrase that was really never accurate."


A year ago, these were the Bills:

Kelly publicly blamed offensive tackle Howard Ballard for allowing the hit that separated his shoulder.

Asked on a television show what position on the team needed to be upgraded, Thomas replied, "Quarterback."

One assistant coach, Nick Nicolau, grabbed another, Tom Bresnahan, and rammed his head into the wall during a staff meeting.

A black player and a white player exchanged blows when they disagreed over whether blacks or whites were more valuable to the team.

A player yanked the stereo from the wall of the locker room when there was an argument over whether there should be country or contemporary music.

A black player asked only his black teammates to sign a football. He refused to let a player from a racially mixed marriage sign the ball.

Those incidents and others are why preseason pundits didn't expect the Bills to be anywhere near Super Bowl XXV and playing the New York Giants on Sunday. Just when the Bills looked like a team that would never be anything more than grumpy underachievers, they've started to look like champions.

But the new Bills started a lot like the old Bills, opening with a 26-10 victory over Indianapolis, then going to Miami and getting ripped, 30-7.

That loss was followed by the usual. Smith complained about starters being taken out too early, and Levy made it clear he was unhappy Smith would challenge his decision.

However, the situation soon changed, and the players have pointed to that week as the reason for their turnaround.

Levy appointed a liaison committee of nine players to take care of internal team problems and to set up a more formal line of communication with the coaching staff. The players also held a private meeting, talked over their predicament and decided Smith should be fined by Levy, which he was. Levy also fined defensive backs Nate Odomes, Kirby Jackson and Leonard Smith for not coming off the field quickly enough during the game.

Bills owner Ralph Wilson Jr. supported Levy's decision, saying he didn't think "players should be taking issue with the head coach."

The Bills beat the Jets, 30-7, the next week to start an eight-game winning streak, and they have been among the best teams in football thereafter.

"We got our butts whipped by Miami," Kelly said. "We knew we had a great team, so much talent. But we were wasting it. We realized we had to focus on the same goal and we've been very businesslike. We can't just show up on Sunday. I think that game woke us up. We realized, in order for us to get as good as we think we are, we were going to have to work at it."

Levy said that since that week the Bills have had the best practice habits he has ever seen. Practices are 45 minutes shorter because players have been so efficient at getting their work done.

"Winning solves everything," Kelly said.

It may be more than that. The Miami game and the problems that followed were only a final test for changes that already had been made. It's no coincidence that running back Ronnie Harmon, tackle Joe Devlin and defensive back Erroll Tucker are ex-Bills.

"The management did a good job of weeding some guys out," Bennett said. "If you didn't want to be part of things, you were gone. The biggest thing was that everyone put their egos aside."

Still, Levy, Kelly and others insist their problems were never as bad as advertised. What made them worse, though, was being reminded of them publicly.

Kelly said he was "sick and tired of hearing it. When you're having everybody getting interviewed and the first thing they bring up is that, it's hard to forget about it. It's hard when they keep shoving it back in your face."

Wide receiver James Lofton said many of the Green Bay teams he played on had worse problems. "But people would always find out about ours," he said. "Then everybody had to deal with it. Marv addressed it. Players addressed it in team meetings and among their friends and family."

Kelly hasn't always been a locker room favorite, but he has tried to do better. This season he has held impromptu, postgame parties at his home and says "80 or 90 percent of the players come."

He said the parties "just sort of evolved. People would say, 'Where are you going after the game?' We'd have a few people over, then a few more, and it has turned into the whole team. I think it's been a big plus in bringing everyone together."