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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Overachieving, do-anything-it-takes Bills are getting it done

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TORONTO -- Who the heck are these guys?

You look at the Buffalo Bills roster, and outside the diehard fans in the Buffalo area and their fans here at their second home north of the border, most would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of players on this roster.

OK, so Fred Jackson is now getting some love. And quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is putting up big numbers and just signed a nice $59 million contract extension. Receiver Stevie Johnson also gets some attention.

Anybody else? Anybody?

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You might not know their names, but you need to know their talent. They're good.

First-place good.

After dominating the Washington Redskins 23-0 here at the Rodgers Center in their annual trek north, the Bills head to November in first place at 5-2.

The offense has been a given for the past two months, scoring at least 20 in the first seven games, which is something not even the Jim Kelly-led Super Bowl teams did. But the defense did something Sunday no other team had ever done before: Shut out a team with Mike Shanahan as head coach or offensive coordinator.

"I don't think I've ever had that since I've been coaching," Shanahan said. "College or pro. It's pretty humbling to take."

The Buffalo defense sacked John Beck nine times, a shocking number considering they had four in their first six games.

"As long as our defense plays like that, we feel like we can beat anybody," Jackson said.

Eight different players had at least a half a sack of Beck, with rookie Marcell Dareus leading the way with 2 1/2. Dareus did some from the nose tackle position, a spot he move to this week because of an injury to Kyle Williams.

What makes the Bills story so amazing is who they are. They are a bunch of overachieving, do-anything-it-takes players.

"Our team is made up of guys who are trying to prove what they can do," Johnson said. "We've always been told no. We were drafted late or weren't drafted at all. That drives us."

Like a collective chip on your shoulders?

"A big one," Johnson said.

They play like it. They play hard. They play tough. They play with emotion.

Come to think of it: They play like they understand the importance of not only playing in the league, but doing everything you can to stay there.

"One thing about us," Jackson said. "We all have taken the hard road to get here. That's why we play the way we do."

It starts with Fitzpatrick. He was the 250th player taken in the 2005 NFL Draft, spent some time with two other teams and looked to be little more than a journeyman until last season. Now he's the franchise passer for a team looking for one since Jim Kelly left in 1996.

Looking at Fitzpatrick, he doesn't look the part. With a bushy beard, a dumpy body, an awkward release, he sure doesn't have the Tom Brady swagger. But he gets it done with his Harvard smarts and his willingness to take chances.

"He's our brain-iac out there," Johnson said.

As for his willingness to take shots, that was on display early against the Redskins. On first down on the Bills' first scoring drive, he hit David Nelson for 26 yards to get the drive going. He had Jackson wide open on a short cross, but took the big chance into three defenders for the big play.

That's something recent Bills quarterbacks -- see Trent Edwards -- would never do. Fitzpatrick finished the game 21 of 27 for 262 yards and two touchdowns. He now has 14 touchdown passes on the season.

Fitzpatrick took a shot on a completion to Jackson late in the first half that kept him on the ground for a while. Jackson turned the short pass into a 46-yard gain to set up a field goal, delighting the crowd.

"I thought, 'Boy, Toronto doesn't like me,'" Fitzpatrick said. "I didn't know he broke the tackle and ran down the sideline. I said, "that's a lot of excitement for a quarterback getting hit.''

He got up, took the next snap, and showed his teammates how tough he can be.

Jackson is the other star of the offense. Like Fitzpatrick, he has a great story. He wasn't drafted out of tiny Coe College, spent two seasons playing in a third-tier indoor league and somehow did well enough to earn a tryout from then-Bills general manager Marv Levy -- a Coe graduate.

After a year in NFL Europe, he got his chance to play for the Bills in 2007 and he's now the star runner. Jackson ran for 120 yards on 26 carries against the Redskins and caught three passes for 74 yards. He became the first Bills runner to go over 1,000 all-purpose yards in the first seven games since Thurman Thomas did it in 1991.

"To be compared with a Hall of Famer like him is an honor," Jackson said.

One difference: This kid has no attitude away from the field. Thomas was always big-timing people and acting like the star. Jackson goes to the interview room in his uniform -- pads included. There is no big-time about him, other than his play. After the path he's traveled, how could there be?

I told him he might be the only star runner to go to the podium padded up. I also told him not to change.

You get the idea he won't.

That's who this Bills team is right now, a bunch of craving-the-limelight players who just go about doing their jobs. And right now they're doing them well.

It's a nice change from the smugness of New England or the cockiness of the Jets, the other two contending teams in the division.

The next month will define this team. They play the Jets at home next week and end the month against them on the road. In between, they have trips to Miami and Dallas. If they can get through that at 2-2, they could be a playoff team. If it's 3-1, they will get in.

For now, they're atop the AFC East looking down on everybody else in the division.

You know the other contenders in that division. One team has guys who have won three rings behind their glamour-boy, TMZ-worthy quarterback. The other has the brash, loud, coach who loves the media attention.

This group? Their coached by an aw-shucks southern boy who happens to be an offensive wizard and made up of hungry players yearning for attention.

"You might not know a lot of us now, but we're doing what we can to change that," Johnson said.

Study the roster. I have a strange feeling that come January you'll need the knowledge.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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