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You're never sure what to expect when an NFL general manager calls you into his office in midseason. Good news or bad? Pink slip or pay raise?

Former Illini linebacker John Holecek had a good feeling when Buffalo Bills GM John Butler summoned him a week ago. Butler wanted to talk contract, and Holecek said OK. Before he knew it, Butler and Holecek's agent, Brian Kelley, worked out a deal.

In his first year as a full-time starter, the fifth-round draft pick in 1995 inked a four-year, $12.5 million contract extension Tuesday.

"To extend the contract in the middle of the season is a good sign," Holecek said. "I wanted to stay here. It's a great administration, and I like the coaches."

They obviously like Holecek, who was coming off one of his bigger games. He had 11 tackles Sunday as Buffalo knocked off previously undefeated Jacksonville.

After an 0-3 start, the Bills have won three straight, starting with an upset of San Francisco and capped by Doug Flutie's game-winning bootleg against the Jaguars. On the sideline, they celebrated as if they'd won a Super Bowl.

"We've just had some bad breaks the first three games," Holecek said. "The second three games, the little things have gone our way. We always expected to be in there."

Holecek is making things happen, leading the Bills with 36 tackles from his middle linebacker spot. He started the last eight games of 1997 because of Chris Spielman's injury, so it hasn't been tough adjusting to the full-time job.

"I haven't made too many adjustments," Holecek said. "There's no week off. You always have to get healthy for next week because you're not the backup anymore."

Holecek, who calls the plays in the defensive huddle, said Bruce Smith and ex-Illini Henry Jones are the true leaders of the defense, but he gets some of that duty.

"I don't (yell) at anyone or anything like that," Holecek said. "I just play as hard as I can."

Holecek said the team has faith in either Flutie or Rob Johnson, an apparent free-agent bust. The Bills are on enough of a roll that the signal-caller doesn't matter.

"Right now we take each game by itself, and we cannot be looking ahead," Holecek said. "We're not looking at the playoffs yet. We just want to add one more to the winning streak."

They'll try that tonight in Carolina. Beating the Panthers will be an easier task than fending off the insults this morning when his teammates see the Illinois-Purdue score. Holecek, whose father sends him newspaper articles on the Illini, is used to the taunting.

"It's pretty much standard now," Holecek said. "It's past the point of embarrassing for Henry and I, so we laugh about it and go on our way."

Ex-Illini of the week

Turns out the Tennessee Oilers do have an offense. OK, so what if it was the Bengals they rolled over for 515 yards, tackle Brad Hopkins had to be doing something right. Hopkins and the rest of the line finally blocked for Eddie George as Tennessee rolled up 171 yards on the ground.

Brian Dietz is a News-Gazette staff writer.