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Buffalo abuzz as upstart Bills look like contenders

By Steve Keating

ORCHARD PARK, New York (Reuters) - The hour-long backup at the border connecting Canada to the United States early on a sunny Sunday morning offered a hint that something was happening in Buffalo.

Something different.

The buses and cars that inched their way across the border were not packed with the usual cross-border shoppers looking for bargains but with flag-waving, horn-honking Buffalo Bills fans looking for a win.

Later, in the dark of night, the flood would reverse, with giddy Bills fans returning home declaring an unlikely victory over Tom Brady and New England Patriots to customs officials.

A team as downtrodden as the Rust Belt economy a year ago, the Bills are the surprise package of a young National Football League season (NFL) and their 3-0 record is matched only by the Detroit Lions and Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.

While the Lions, who became the first NFL team to go winless through a 16-game season in 2008, may have fallen on harder times than the Bills, their recovery was as clearly mapped out as the auto industry bailout.

The Bills, started last season a woeful 0-8 and finished an uninspiring 4-12, have only once won more games than have lost since 1999, when Buffalo made its last playoff appearance.

"We know what it feels like to be on the losing end," Bills center Eric Wood told reporters. "We were kind of the loveable losers last year.

"Everyone rooted for us because we tried so hard but that's not what it's about in this business and that's not what keeps you around."

Winning games and being competitive is what keeps the turnstiles humming and seats filled.

Over the last decade as the Bills record and the Buffalo economy slowly eroded so did fan support.

Facing a recession and declining support at home, the Bills ownership put together their own stimulus package by selling five regular season games and three preseason contests to their northern neighbors in Toronto for $78 million.

The shockwaves of the Bills' win over the Patriots has been felt in Toronto, which has seen a bump in interest for the October 30 clash with the Washington Redskins, but it is in Buffalo where the fast start has shaken things up by providing a boost to a city that has had little to cheer about.

"I didn't know really, until after the game yesterday, the significance of that game and beating that team (the Patriots) for our fans, for the city," said Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "As players, it meant a lot to us but you could tell even more to our fans."

A seventh round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams in 2005, Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate, came to Buffalo via Cincinnati and eventually got the Bills starting assignment by default.

While Harvard has produced a dazzling list of Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, scholars, Supreme Court Justices and U.S. Presidents, there are no Super Bowl winning quarterbacks among the school's alumni.

But Fitzpatrick, whose nine touchdown passes are second only to Brady's 11, could change that as he is at the helm of the NFL's highest-scoring offence through three weeks.

Buffalo's other big offensive weapons have emerged from equally anonymous backgrounds.

Stevie Johnson, Buffalo's seventh round selection in 2008, has developed into a big play wide receiver while undrafted running back Fred Jackson, whose path to Buffalo included stops in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, is fourth in the league with 303 rushing yards.

Buffalo's quick start has also been helped by a determined and opportunistic defense has an NFL-high six interceptions.

Like the city they call home, the Bills are proving to be resilient and masters of the comeback.

After routing the Kansas City Chiefs in their season opener, Buffalo needed stirring comebacks against Oakland and New England to become the first NFL team to win consecutive games by rallying from 18-point deficits.

"This is a league about what have you done lately and you can't rest on your laurels, you've got to go to work," said Bills coach Chan Gailey.

"The objective is to win the game, whatever you have to do to win the game but we'd like to not have to set records for coming back."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)