On Sunday it seemed as if we had never left western New York. It was January. It was Buffalo. It was cold. It was gray. It was loud. And it was all over pretty quickly. Now you can add the Buffalo Bills' improbably easy 37-14 AFC divisional playoff win over the Kansas City Chiefs to their two postseason routs at Rich Stadium last January, and wish the Denver Elways good luck in Sunday's AFC Championship Game. In those three playoff romps, the Bills won by an average score of 44-17. Their average yards per game: 481. The average reaction from a bludgeoned opponent: "I'm man enough to admit it," said Kansas City running back Barry Word, alone with his thoughts after Sunday's game. "They beat us like dogs."
"We haven't felt like this all year, probably since last January," said Buffalo guard Jim Ritcher. "Today we finally felt like we had things right again."
"You know," demurred Bills wideout James Lofton, "I thought our offense was a little rusty."
Rusty, shmusty. Coming off the Bills' first-round bye, running back Thurman Thomas rushed for 100 yards on 22 carries, the fourth straight postseason game in which he has attained that mark, and quarterback Jim Kelly, arguably a shade below impeccable in completing 23 of 35 passes for 273 yards, found wideout Andre Reed twice and Lofton once in single coverage with perfect touchdown strikes. The line did its part, as Kelly was sacked only once and smacked just twice by what is usually a good K.C. pass rush. And what a clutch effort the Buffalo defense made in stopping a strong rushing team, the kind that usually gives the Bills fits.
All of this came against the team that Buffalo players believed could give them their toughest test of all the teams remaining in the playoffs. The Chiefs had swamped the Bills 33-6 in a Monday night game on Oct. 7 in Kansas City, embarrassing the Buffalo defense by rushing for 247 yards.
Not so on Sunday. Buffalo led 24-0 with 20 minutes to play, and Kansas City was able to grind out more than 30 yards on only two of 13 drives. "They played us perfectly," said Word.
By lining up their defensive ends inside K.C.'s tackles, the Bills compressed the Chiefs' straight-ahead, smash-mouth running game. They used linebackers Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett, who combined for 13 tackles, to bang into Word (15 carries for 50 yards) before he got up a head of steam. "They weren't going to let the running backs win the game," Word said. "They were going to make the quarterback win the game. And that's not the way we like to play."
Steve DeBerg, who left in the second quarter with a sprained thumb, and his replacement, Mark Vlasic, threw four interceptions into the teeth of a revived Buffalo defense. Their combined passing yardage was a meager 146.
Buffalo made an adjustment on offense, too. While studying film of the Chiefs' recent games, Kelly noticed that K.C.'s banged-up defensive backs were slower than usual. He figured he would be able to get some favorable matchups if Reed and Lofton could be isolated in man-to-man coverage against Kansas City's cornerbacks. The perfect target: corner Jayice (pronounced J.C.) Pearson.
With injuries sidelining members of the Chiefs' secondary during the season, including three-time All-Pro Albert Lewis, Pearson had to start 12 games despite a severe turf toe on his left foot and calcium deposits in his left heel that will require surgery after the season. Then, in the Chiefs' 10-6 win over the Raiders in the first round of the playoffs, Pearson was poked in the eye by L.A. receiver Tim Brown, and he also sprained his right knee and his left ankle. Pearson underwent two hours of treatment—electronic stimulation, massage therapy and a whirlpool session—every day last week, and he stuck his bad foot in an Epsom salts solution for a couple hours every night. "My first few steps every morning are absolutely grueling," Pearson said.
He felt fine until the last minute of the first quarter. Lined up in man coverage against Reed at the K.C. 25, Pearson mis-stepped on a Reed fake at the line and then ate his dust downfield. A perfect Kelly spiral dropped into Reed's hands near the goal line, and the Bills were ahead 7-0. Still, the Chiefs left Pearson on single coverage with Reed, preferring to stick with its plan of trying to stop Thomas by assigning a safety and a linebacker to keep an eye out for him on passing downs. What a fatal mistake. Two Buffalo possessions later, with two linebackers blitzing and a safety playing up in case Thomas ran a short route, Reed blew past Pearson to the post and cradled another perfect pass from Kelly to make the score 14-0. "They're so tough to defend," Pearson said. "They nickel and dime you, nickel and dime you some more, and get you sucked up near the line of scrimmage. Then, bang, it's a big play."
By halftime Buffalo led 17-0 and had outgained Kansas City 298 yards to 71. It was all over but the omen.
You remember what happened in Super Bowl XXV, when the Bills went to Tampa full of themselves, and rightfully so, after blasting the Raiders 51-3 for the AFC title. The New York Giants were leading 20-19 with eight seconds to play when Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood lined up for a 47-yard field goal attempt. The kick, wide right by about four feet, remains Bills fans' worst nightmare.
On Sunday, almost six minutes into the fourth quarter, the same long snapper (Adam Lingner) whipped the ball to the same holder (Frank Reich) for a field goal try at the same distance from the same hash mark (right). This time Norwood hit it like Wade Boggs ripping a fastball, right on the sweet spot, and the ball sailed straight and true, end over end, through the center of the uprights.
For one day, at least—one typical day for a playoff in Buffalo—it was last January, and everything went just right.
The Bills stacked the deck against Word, who rushed for a mere 50 yards.