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CLEVELAND - Don't deny it, you were worried. And you had good reason to be nervous. You had seen far too many of these road games over the years, where the Bills met a little adversity and went to pieces like a wine glass crashing onto a marble floor.



How confident could you be in a team that had lost its last eight road games by an average margin of 18 points? The Bills have been folding on the road for years. You needed some tangible evidence that this group was different, that it wouldn't crumble at the first sign of a crisis.

Chris Kelsay understands. This is his 10th year with the Bills. Kelsay has lived through some of the worst road meltdowns in team history. He knows how it looks and feels when doubt creeps in.

"I think in my entire career here, I've experienced that," Kelsay said Sunday, "where you look around on the sideline and guys are hanging their heads."

But late in the third quarter, when the Browns scored to pull within three points, 17-14, Kelsay noticed something unusual on the Buffalo sideline. Calm. Confidence. Belief.

"Yeah, we kept our composure," Kelsay said after the Bills beat Cleveland, 24-14. "Instead of imploding, like we've seen in the past, we just kept our cool. We knew that all along the sidelines. At least, I sensed there was never a moment of doubt that we would win this game. And it showed."

You could say that. The Bills jumped to an early 14-0 lead, then seemed to let up. But after letting the Browns back in the game, they did what good teams do on the road. They took care of business. They played like the better team. In the fourth quarter, they made a physical statement, dominating both sides of the line of scrimmage and putting an emphatic end to their longest road losing streak in 26 years.

That was not a good Browns team.

Things are sure to get tougher in the next few weeks, when the 2-1 Bills host the Patriots before a two-game road swing to San Francisco and Arizona. One road win doesn't make them a contender, but there are no bad road wins. The team I saw Sunday is the one I felt had a chance to win 10 games and contend for a playoff spot.

They lost their most explosive player, running back C.J. Spiller, with a shoulder injury in the first quarter. Tough break, two weeks after losing Fred Jackson. Did they curl up and quit? No, they handed the ball 20 times to their third-stringer, Tashard Choice, who rushed for 91 yards.

Sure, it'll be tough to sustain the offense in the coming weeks without Spiller and Jackson, who has a chance to play next week. But if their No. 3 back can average 4.6 yards a carry, who says they can't give New England a challenge next week in Orchard Park?

Bill Belichick won't have to exaggerate when he gushes about the Bills' offensive and defensive lines.

"Oh, they did an outstanding job," said safety Bryan Scott, who had an interception and has a takeway in all three games. "Our offensive line is giving time in the pocket. They're giving guys holes to run the ball. Defensively, I don't know how many sacks we had, but once that pressure comes and the quarterback gets antsy, it allows you to jump routes like we did."

They had four sacks. All four starting defensive linemen were involved in a sack. Mario Williams had 1.

This is the sort of performance people imagined when Mario Williams and Mark Anderson signed on to flank Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus on the defensive line.

The defense was mainly sensational for the second straight week. Trent Richardson, the third pick in April's draft, was supposed to cause major headaches. He had 27 yards on 12 carries. Richardson had six catches for only 24 yards. He didn't have a play of more than 10 yards all day.

The Bills, meanwhile, ran for 138 yards and 4.1 a pop. They lost an explosive weapon when Spiller went down. Their physical identity remained. It doesn't seem to matter who carries the pill.

The pass protection was superb again. The Browns couldn't get a sniff of Fitzpatrick when they rushed four men. The Bills gave up their first sack, on Fitz's fumble.

"It's good to know we've got guys who can stand up when times are tough and be effective," said left guard Andy Levitre. "You've got to bring that energy on the road, because you don't have the fans in the stands. A lot of fans came down today. But most away games you don't have a lot of fans to bring you that energy. You have to bring it yourselves as a team."

When a visitor dominates the line of scrimmage, it tends to take the home crowd out of the game. Cleveland's crowd was surprisingly small.

By late in the fourth, the fans were either booing or on the way to their cars. Or rooting for the Bills.

The Bills took them out with a devastating fourth quarter. On the second play of the quarter, Anderson got a sack on a play when Mario Williams collapsed the pocket. After a short punt, the Bills drove 68 yards for a touchdown on 10 plays, taking a 24-14 lead on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson, who made a sensational move.

Meanwhile, the Bills' defense was terrorizing Brandon Weeden, Cleveland's rookie quarterback. In the fourth quarter, Weeden was 6 for 10 passing for 37 yards. He was sacked twice. He threw two interceptions.

A tough quarter? The guy must have felt like he'd been drawn and quartered.

Coach Chan Gailey told his team afterward that it had been an all-around team effort. That it was.

How about these four plays from the last TD drive: A 22-yard run by Choice; a 6-yard run by Johnny White; a 9-yard reception by fullback Corey McIntyre; and an 11-yard catch on third and 9 by rookie T.J. Graham, who got a nice block from tight end Scott Chandler.

Linebackers Nick Barnett, Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats each had a tackle for a loss. Jairus Byrd stuffed Richardson for a 2-yard loss on the last play of the third quarter. Leodis McKelvin had an interception. Aaron Williams had a couple of pass breakups.

"I mean, we had fun," Mario Williams said. "We knew everything was on the line and we were light. It was like we were going to perform and do what we needed to do. Everyone was light on their toes. We just bounced off one another and played ball."

Having fun? Light on their feet? Bouncing off each other? That doesn't sound like the team that used to implode and lose its composure when times got tough on the road.

Kelsay said it was a lot of fun out there, too. I can't remember him saying that too often in his 10 seasons.

Things have certainly turned around since the opening debacle at the Jets. The fun might be just beginning. Enjoy it while you can. You'll find reasons for worry soon enough.







email: jsullivan@buffnews.com