Green Bay linebacker Bryce Paup was feeling like the rest of America when the Buffalo Bills came calling last spring.
"I wanted to sign with a team that was capable of winning a championship," said Paup, who signed a $7.6 million contract with the Bills. "I didn't know if they had enough left to get back on top. But this team has a never-say-die attitude."
One year after they were supposed to disappear from the NFL's elite following a 7-9 season, the old and stubborn Bills are only two games away from a fifth Super Bowl appearance.
Buffalo (11-6) will be in a familiar role when the Bills play the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) today at Three Rivers Stadium in an AFC semifinal playoff game.
The team still revolves around the same basic crew that seemed ready for retirement packages. Jim Kelly. Thurman Thomas. Bruce Smith. Cornelius Bennett.
The Bills' resilience is a sign of their greatness -- and it will be tested again today because Smith probably will be sidelined because of the flu.
Still, they may finally be getting the recognition they deserve.
"It got to the point where everyone was saying, 'Oh no, not those guys again,' then to, 'Will they ever go away?' " said Kelly. "But I think everyone is rooting for us now. They want us to win the big one. America loves an underdog."
The veterans still produce. Kelly's passes sometimes wobble like Billy Kilmer's, but he has thrown for 3,130 yards and 22 touchdowns this season. Thomas' legs betray him with cramps and muscle pulls after long runs, but he still had 1,005 yards rushing. Bennett led the team in tackles during the regular season with 134, and Smith was fifth with 107.
"Our veterans know how to win," said receiver Steve Tasker. "You can't put a price tag on experience. Doing the season, a guy like Jim Kelly carried us, and then down the stretch the veterans knew how to turn up the intensity level, and become more focused.
"We're peaking right now. A lot of teams have problems winning on the road during the playoffs, but that won't happen to us. We won't get rattled. We've been there, done that. Marv Levy won't allow that to happen."
Levy has led the Bills to the playoffs despite numerous injuries to his skilled players. He did so by mixing veterans with rookies and producing a strong running game and a solid defense .
Levy, 67, also had to overcome his own medical problems. He underwent surgery to have a cancerous prostate removed on Oct. 17, and was back at work three weeks later. The Bills went 1-2 during Levy's absence.
"That was really a down period for us," said Tasker. "We had Thurman out for 2 1/2 weeks at the same time with a hamstring injury, and the announcement about Marv took our breaths away. But when Marv came back, we saw him out jogging the next day, like he had never been sick. It was encouraging."
Levy and Thomas returned about the same time, and the offense jelled shortly afterward, led by a patchwork offensive line featuring veteran center Kent Hull, rookie guard Ruben Brown, second-year guard Jerry Ostroski, and tackles John Fina and Glenn Parker.
The group transformed Buffalo from a no-huddle passing club to a run-oriented, ball-control team. Thomas has rushed for more than 100 yards in three of the last four games and rookie running back Darick Holmes had 698 yards rushing when Thomas took a rest.
With the exception of a season finale against Houston, Buffalo has averaged 444 yards and 35 points in its last wins against St. Louis and Miami twice.
Buffalo had an AFC playoff record of 341 yards rushing in a 37-22 win over the Dolphins last week.
Kelly is getting maximum protection, having been sacked 15 fewer times this year than last. The club is no longer totally dependent on his throwing arm.
"I can't remember when they've played this well," Thomas said recently about the offensive line. "It's been a long time. It all starts with those guys staying healthy. They haven't blocked and played this well in at least two or three years."
The Bills' defense hasn't been this aggressive in years either. Levy brought in Wade Phillips to replace Walt Corey after last season, and Phillips' first order of business was putting pressure on the quarterback.
The Bills already had Smith, but they signed Paup, former Dallas Cowboys lineman Jim Jeffcoat and Denver Broncos nose guard Ted Washington. The Bills had 47 sacks this season.
Smith, the team's all-time sack leader and an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, suffered from severe headaches and had a 103 temperature when he arrived at Rich Stadium in preparation for the team's flight to Pittsburgh. Smith, who was too sick to drive, was sent home by team doctor Joseph Armenia after an examination.
Doctors have ruled out possibilities that Smith was suffering from a 24-hour flu. Buffalo did arrange for a plane to stand by in case Smith felt better in the morning. "He's probably going to watch the game from bed," Smith's wife, Carmen, said last night.