Rust Belt gets lift as Bills and Lions off to fast starts

By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - Industrial America needs something to cheer about in the current economy and, with their surprising starts, the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions are bringing some welcome pride to the rust belt cities.

Just three National Football League (NFL) teams are 3-0, and while it is no surprise that the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers are one of them, few would have predicted Buffalo and Detroit to be undefeated three weeks into the season.

Neither team has reached the playoffs in 11 years and both began last season with 0-3 records, but there is suddenly real optimism among fans in two industrial cities that have endured their fair share of economic challenges in recent times.

The Washington Redskins can become the fourth team with a perfect start if they beat the Dallas Cowboys later on Monday, but even their surprise start is overshadowed by what the Bills and the Lions have managed.

Plenty can still go wrong for the Bills and Lions, but fans of each team can take some comfort in knowing that 76 percent of the teams that started a NFL season 3-0 since 1990 have enjoyed postseason football.

Few places need a boost more than Detroit and the city will surely believe they have a chance of their first postseason appearance since the 1999 campaign.

Since earning the dubious distinction of becoming the first NFL team to go winless through a 16-game season in 2008, the Lions have steadily improved, winning two games the next season and showing positive intent with a 6-10 record last year.

Sunday's victory came in overtime against the winless Minnesota Vikings when Stafford threw two touchdown passes to help the Lions erase a 20-0 halftime

deficit.

"The belief is unreal in here," said Lions center Dominic Raiola. "We've been through hell and back. "I've been 0-16. Can you get worse than that? No."

The Bills' success has been more emphatic thanks to their outstanding 21-point comeback win against AFC East divisional rivals the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Part of the reason that Buffalo has been without playoff football for so long is that they have not beaten New England in their past 15 attempts over eight years.

The result from their latest matchup has earned Buffalo sudden respect in the game for a team which has been, frankly, ignored by most pundits in recent years.

"It's cool, it's good for our team and it's good for our city to get some recognition. I was just fine how it was last year, being able to walk around here and talking to like three (reporters)," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

"It's a good problem and obviously I'd love it to continue because that means that we're winning games and we're still competitive."

Both teams will try to make it 4-0 next week with Detroit visiting the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Suddenly, football is exciting again in towns where civic pride certainly needs sustaining.

(Reporting by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Frank Pingue)