WHEN FANS swarmed onto Rich Stadium turf as the Buffalo Bills captured the American Football Conference Eastern Division Championship, it was almost a symbolic act -- the fusing of fans and team in Buffalo's football story.
Even in the lean years of 2-14 seasons, and despite normal grumbling amid defeats, fans gave their Bills respectable support.
So after years of yearning for a champion, the fans were entitled to celebrate with gusto the gritty 9-6 victory over the Jets. Afterwards in the locker room, linebacker Darryl Talley voiced the perfect description: "Fan-demonium."
Of course, the joyous outpouring would not have occurred without the systematic efforts of the Bills organization -- from owner Ralph Wilson, general manager Bill Polian and coach Marv Levy on down -- to rebuild and revitalize the team.
So far this year, these cool-headed efforts have come together in a pattern of impressive triumphs.
Especially the Bills defense has done itself proud. Game after game, Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan, Fred Smerlas, Mark Kelso and others, including those special-team stalwarts, have performed brilliantly to harass quarterbacks and cut down runners.
And the offense, while not always dominating the opposition, has done enough to win, using the clock to advantage, catching the key Jim Kelly pass, making the critical third-and-short yardage and allowing Scott Norwood to boot the clinching field goal, as he did again Sunday in overtime.
Maybe the best word for the Bills this year is efficiency. Neither flawless nor overpowering, the Bills have nonetheless grown into an efficient team, a focused team of blended talent with the determination and character to play hard and well enough to win. That character is nowhere more evident than in Smerlas and Kelly, two savvy leaders who never quit no matter what the scoreboard or the clock says.
As the cerebral Levy appropriately reminded everyone just moments after the Bills clinched the division title with an 11-1 record: "We liberated Paris, but it's 600 miles to Berlin." (How many other football coaches would toy with that analogy?) In other words, four more games still remain in the regular season. Then it's the critical playoff contests that can lead to the Super Bowl. That's Berlin, and the miles in between.
But the Bills are a team that includes the fans, and even the entire Western New York community, as seven consecutive home-game sellouts in 80,000-seat Rich Stadium this season enthusiastically attest.
Never more than this year have the Bills formed part of this community, and the community part of the Bills.
All of which should make those 600 miles to Berlin, starting by way of Cincinnati next Sunday, rewarding ground to cover.