This time theBuffalo Bills will win it. Their kick won't go wide. They won't come ungluedduring the week and then come up soft once the hitting starts. They'll get thetwo-time monkey off their backs and play the game of their lives against theDallas Cowboys on Sunday and walk out of the Rose Bowl as Super Bowlchamps.
They'll winbecause they're a different team now.
Remember theBills' first Super Bowl, in 1991? They rode in on the crest of a 95-point wavethat had carried them through their two previous playoff games. Theirno-huddle, three-wideout offense was a dazzling innovation, and the only thingstanding between them and immortality was a gang of hulking roughnecks namedthe New York Giants, led by an ancient running back, O.J. Anderson. The Giantswere coming off a street fight against the San Francisco 49ers. Buffalo wasflying. We know how it ended, right?
This year theBills find themselves in a role reversal. The Cowboys have been blowing peopleaway. They're full of fire and flash, and they're logical seven-pointfavorites. But the Bills have achieved a quality that has been missing in thepast two years—toughness. That's now their image, built through adversity,injury and a long look into the abyss. They play tough defense when they haveto and put numbers on the board when they are backed up to the point where theyneed to score on every drive.
Dallas, with itsrelentless attack mentality on offense and its young, juiced-up defense(statistically the best in the league), is the Buffalo of two Super Bowls ago.The Bills are the Giants of that Super Bowl. "That's a very nice angle, andI'm sure you'll have a lot of fun with it," says Buffalo coach Marv' Levy,"but to me it's a matter of earning respect. That's what I've beenstressing to our players. I told them, 'You're a team that's been a bit of apunching bag in the past. Now you've earned people's respect. How you handleyourselves in the days before the game and what you do on Sunday will be whatyou'll have to live with.'
"If somethinggood can come out of something bad, then that's our story. The fact that we hadto struggle to get here, after getting in the so-called easy way the last twotimes, the fact that we've been put to the anvil, well, the result is awell-earned sense of self-esteem."
And whatstruggles. The Bills staggered out of their last regular-season game—a loss tothe Oilers in Houston that cost them the home field in two of their threeplayoff games—in a state of shock. Jim Kelly would be lost for two games with asprained knee, Cornelius Bennett sidelined for one with a hamstring injury.Bruce Smith would have to play with three cracked ribs. Thurman Thomas (page18) had limped off the field twice with an assortment of injuries. The listwent on and on. In the wild-card round the following week the opponent wasHouston again, and you had to wonder what weapons the Bills had left.
Andre Reed, theirpremier wideout, was in a slump. Teams had figured out how to defense him. TheGiants had written the book on that in Supe XXV—cut off Reed's crossing routeswith linebackers and big defensive backs, bang him around. James Lofton hadlost his long-ball ability and was now a mid-range receiver. Thomas, who couldnormally carry the offense, would have to leave that Oiler playoff game with ahip pointer early in the third quarter.
That remarkable41-38 win over Houston at Rich Stadium has been well documented. Frank Reich,subbing for Kelly, had a career day. The Oilers gave Reed a soft zone to runthrough, and he ate 'em alive, which cost two Houston defensive coaches theirjobs. The Buffalo defense sucked it up in OT and got the ball back.
Then, as the Billstook to the road and muscled their way through the playoffs, the defense roseup and took charge. It overwhelmed Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback NeilO'Donnell. It did the unthinkable against the Miami Dolphins, cracking theforward wall and nailing Dan Marino, even on his short, three-step drops, whilegiving up only 33 yards rushing.
Buffalo's defensehas been soft in the past, with a habit of avoiding blocks rather than playingthrough them. The Giants exposed it in the '91 Super Bowl with those long,punishing drives. So did the Washington Redskins in Supe XXVI, Buffalo'sdefense went into that game ranked 27th, and the Redskins ran up 37 points and417 yards. Soft then, but not now.
The improvementstarts in the middle. Jeff Wright, the noseguard, has turned into a monster,collapsing the pocket, driving blockers into the quarterback's lap, holdingfirm against the run. Phil Hansen, a "promising newcomer" for most ofhis career, has become a solid, base 3-4 defensive end. People don't run on theBills anymore. The statistic most coaches use to measure run-stopping abilityis yards per carry, and Buffalo's 3.3 permitted was tops in the league thisseason.
The pass rush hasbeen formidable, with Bennett and Smith winging in from the outside or Smithcracking down hard inside and linebacker Darryl Talley coming around him. Thatpressure is what unhinged the Oilers. Smith and Bennett need the two-week breakto allow their injuries to mend.
It seems that thissurge by Buffalo's defense has filtered over to its offense, which has a moremuscular look than in previous years. To their normal three-wideout set, theBills have added a "heavy" alignment, with two tight ends, two backsand one wide receiver. The key to that formation is the tight end pair of PeteMetzelaars and Keith McKeller.
Flashy but hollow,that was the image of the old Bills, but now they have that solid look, with avery solid 4-0 record against NFC teams this year. But none of those wins cameagainst the NFC East, which is where the big boys live, where Dallas is king.Yes, the Cowboys are surging, just as Buffalo was two years ago. Every one oftheir stars answered the drum-roll against the 49ers: Troy Aikman, TonyCasillas, Charles Haley, Alvin Harper, Michael Irvin, Emmitt Smith. The list islong.
This Dallas teamis the culmination of the clear vision coach Jimmy Johnson has had since hetook over four years ago, when he ran in swarms of players, endlessly tinkeringand finally fitting them into just the right slots. The operation has been anarrow going straight up, and it has people whispering dynasty before the firstskin is on the wall. Dallas is a team of high draft picks, gifted players and acoaching staff that isn't afraid to plunk in unproven talent like middlelinebacker Robert Jones and left cornerback Kevin Smith, both rookies and bothmanning crucial positions.
Then there are theplayers you don't hear about, the guys who don't get any ink but just keepwinning games for the Cowboys, like fullback Daryl Johnston, the best blockingback in the NFL. "He always seems to make the big block when Smith breaks along one," says Buffalo's pro personnel director, Bob Ferguson. "Healways seems to get open on his pass routes. It's incredible what that guy doesout there."
Superstars, a hotquarterback, an unheralded 238-pound fullback: They've given the Cowboys 64points in two playoff victories against the league's elite, San Francisco andPhiladelphia. And that No. 1 defense is so highly regarded that itscoordinator, Dave Wannstedt, was this season's hot name for a head coachingjob, spurning the Giants—imagine that—for the Chicago Bears.
Dallas's theory ondefense is an old a 49er one—load your team with linemen and run them in andout of the game to keep everyone fresh. There's no drop-off when the Cowboysbring in their second phalanx, 31-year-old Jim Jeffcoat, who's having one ofhis best years, and a pair of inside pass-rush terrors, Leon Lett and JimmieJones. That unit keeps blockers off the linebackers, uses speed rather thanmuscle and lets the secondary work its zone combinations without worrying aboutpass patterns having too much time to develop.
How well Kelly,who's still slightly hobbled, operates against this bunch could be the key toSuper Sunday. What a strange on-again, off-again romance he has had with fansduring his seven years in Buffalo. He and Thomas have been the franchiseplayers, yet Kelly has never been fully accepted by Bill fans—witness thetremendous surge of support for Reich before the Miami game.
Quick now: Namethe Buffalo quarterback who preceded Kelly. Does anyone remember? Actuallythere were two in that 1985 season, Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison. Olddays, 2-14 days. But there's a great day a-coming.
Bills 27, Cowboys24.
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RONALD C. MODRA (LEFT)
Wright and Smith (opposite, sacking Marino) hope to give Aikman (above, throwing similar treatment.
[See caption above.]
Wright (91) and Hansen anchor the league's top-rated run-stopping defense, while Smith (far left) and Talley are pass-rushing terrors.
[See caption above.]
Johnston, best known for his punishing blocks, showed the 49ers he can run, too.
¬¨¬®‚Äö√Ñ‚Ä†Haleyhas helped Dallas rise to the occasion on third-down plays.