Still a lot to like about these Bills

CINCINNATI -- You should have seen it.

NFL death poolers wept.

An announced crowd of 41,142 at Paul Brown Stadium (that includes cheerleaders, their pom-poms, beer vendors, their beers and anyone else within a 1-mile radius) roared in semi-disbelief.

Even the Cincinnati Bengals players themselves celebrated as though team numbskull/owner Mike Brown had just traded Carson Palmer for a half dozen first-round draft picks.

In case you're wondering if the Buffalo Bills have arrived, wonder no more. They have. Otherwise, there's no logical explanation for what happened Sunday at this ghost town of a stadium.

The Bengals defeated the Bills 23-20 on a 43-yard field goal by Mike Nugent as time -- and Buffalo's warm and cuddly unbeaten streak -- expired. Who cares, right?

Except that the Bengals acted as though they had just won "American Idol." Linebacker Rey Maualuga spent the final seconds of the game sprawled stomach-down on the Cincinnati sideline as Nugent prepared for the kick. When it went through, I thought Maualuga was going to hug somebody to death.

I saw a Bengals assistant coach do one of those airborne body slams with a player -- and get knocked to turf. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis beamed. Tens of Bengals fans vowed to return for the next home game.

"I told the guys first thing [last] Monday that we are looking forward to the Bills and we are going to have to play a 60-minute football game," Lewis said afterward. "And obviously that played out here today."

The Bills dropped to 3-1, but they're gaining admirers. When was the last time you heard an opposing coach say his team would have to play a 60-minute game to beat Buffalo? In the past, Bills' opponents could phone it in after 45 minutes, or earlier.

These aren't the same Bills of 2010. Yeah, I know: They just lost to the Bengals and they blew a 17-3 halftime lead and a 20-13 fourth quarter-lead to do it. They gave up 458 yards, were out-first downed, 25-12, and generally staggered around like they still had a hangover from last week's huge win against New England.

But the 2010 Bills would have curled into the fetal position. The 2011 Bills are sort of hard-asses about the whole thing. Ask them if they couldn't handle the pressure of being the latest NFL feel-good story and you get this:

"Is it going to look like that to us, or to you?" Bills cornerback Drayton Florence said "What does it matter how it looks, though? Does that really matter? A lot of stuff pisses me off, but we don't let the outside influence piss us off."

"You could have been 4-0," said a reporter.

"But we're 3-1 now and you just got to move on," Florence said. "Green Bay won the Super Bowl last year. How many games did they lose? One loss is not going to determine our season, just like three wins isn't going to determine our season."

This is why there's hope for the Bills, even though they play the Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday, then go on the road to face the New York Giants, get a bye and then play the Washington Redskins, the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington, Texas. Instead of the self-pity act, they're doing a slow, postgame burn -- and that's a good thing.

"That was a game of playing average in the first half and poorly in the second half," said Bills coach Chan Gailey, who didn't do much to hide the disgust.

Consider it progress. For much of the 2010 season, playing average in the first half and poorly in the second half was a win-win for the Bills. A year ago they didn't win their first game until mid-November. Now they have those three victories, just one shy of the 2010 total.

If you don't care how butchers make sausage, then you wouldn't have minded watching how this game unfolded. It was mind-numbing and then, near the end, actually compelling.

The Bills should have won this thing. But the Bengals, led by rookie quarterback Andy Dalton (18-of-36 for 298 yards, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown and two interceptions), a chippy defense (one Bills offensive TD) and running back Cedric Benson (104 yards), grinded down the Bills. It also helped to get a crucial incomplete pass call on a Buffalo third-and-1 a little more than midway through the fourth quarter.

"It was clearly a catch," said wide receiver Stevie Johnson, who supposedly dropped the pass from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "I don't know what the refs were looking at. … We still had another opportunity out there, but that call definitely changed the game."

Maybe. Probably. Bottom line: The Bengals, playing in front of vast empty sections of seats (I also counted 27 empty luxury suites on one side of the stadium), took the punt, drove 80 yards in 10 plays to tie the score, and later won it on their final possession.

"I think with the way they celebrated, they were pretty motivated in being the underdog," Fitzpatrick said. "But for us, we are the underdog every week in our minds because nobody wanted us or thought we could do anything this year."

The Bills began Sunday as America's newest collectible. How could you not love their backstories: Fitzpatrick, the Harvard grad who lasts until the 250th pick of the 2005 NFL draft and eventually finds a home and success in Buffalo … the small-market franchise that hasn't been in the playoffs since 1999, hasn't won a postseason game since 1995, hasn't had a winning season since 2004.

Now they don't care if you love them. Imagine that?

"The train left the station after the [end of preseason]," Bills safety George Wilson said. "For people to jump on our bandwagon after the first three weeks, we'll find out who the true fans are after we face a little adversity."

Strangely, I'm not giving up my seat. There's still a lot to like about these Bills -- even if you couldn't see it Sunday.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.