If the fast-shuffling, no-huddling Cincinnati Bengals are to conga on down to Miami and the Super Bowl, they will have to avoid being caught on the horns—or in the grasp—of the Buffalo Bills. That won't be a simple task for three reasons. Two of them are defensive end Bruce Smith and linebacker Cornelius Bennett, the high-priced spread of Buffalo's nimble, punishing defense. In Sunday's 17-10 victory over the Houston Oilers, Smith and Bennett were found breathing down the ear holes of quarterback Warren Moon's helmet when they weren't buffing the Rich Stadium rug with the rest of the Oilers.
Reason No. 3 is Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, and if the Bengals make the mistake of taking him less than seriously, Kelly might be seeing you at Disney World. Against Houston, Kelly, who was six years old in 1967, the last year an NFL postseason game was played in Buffalo, passed on eight of the Bills' first 10 plays and wound up throwing 33 times—five more than his average for the season. He completed 19 passes for 244 yards, and his receivers missed at least six others that were catchable. Oiler coach Jerry Glanville didn't think that the Bills would throw that often, or at least that accurately, as if Kelly were just some Elvis impersonator looking for a free ticket.
What Cincinnati won't want to do with Kelly is make him mad. Adversity seems to suit him. In the two weeks before the Oiler game, Kelly was served with a $1 million lawsuit stemming from an alleged fracas with a woman in a West Seneca, N.Y., bar in December 1987, and was informed that a Texas bank was suing him to recover a disputed $100,000 debt, a legacy of his contract with the Houston Gamblers of the defunct USFL.
January 9, 1989
"I've been hit with so much stuff the last two weeks that I'm numbed to it," said Kelly two days before the game. "———'em. Look, I'm a single guy. I'm not going to sit in my living room and be bored. Why not have fun?"
Kelly also had to deal with criticism from one of his teammates, running back Robb Riddick, who had publicly scolded Kelly for not passing to his backs, and had questioned his ability to throw long. But when Riddick dropped a perfect pass in the left flat during the second quarter of Sunday's game, Kelly uttered a naughty word and then gave Riddick five, slapping his hand hard, perhaps hoping to get some feeling back into it. Hey, why not have fun?
By that time, the Bills were ahead 7-0, thanks to a one-yard plunge by Riddick, and Kelly had completed eight of 15 throws, hanging out ropes to backs and receivers alike. After each play, successful or not, he swaggered into the huddle like a matador preparing to make another pass at a bull, and his bravado was contagious. Earlier, while the game was still scoreless and the Buffalo field goal team was preparing to attempt a short three-pointer. Bills coach Marv Levy allowed Kelly to run out on the field and call a timeout so that Buffalo could go for it on fourth-and-one from the Oiler 3. The Bills came up short—Kelly's pass to tight end Pete Metzelaars was batted away by safety Jeff Donaldson—but with the Buffalo defense waiting in the wings, it hardly mattered.
On some days the Bills' defensive unit resembles that of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the era of Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Sunday was one of those days. The Bills' two bone-rattling safeties, Leonard Smith and Mark Kelso, sat back while the corners stayed up close and personal near the line of scrimmage. Buffalo employed no all-out blitzes, which can be a cover for a defensive weakness. Fact was, the Bills' front seven invited Houston to find a weakness, and the Oilers are still looking.
Houston scored 424 points during the regular season, second only to Cincinnati's 448. The Oilers boast four skilled running backs and a quiver full of resourceful little wide receivers, but the Bills defense never even blinked. "I'd like to think we have a great offense, and they shut us down," said Houston tackle Dean Steinkuhler.
Buffalo doesn't need to blitz because Bruce Smith and Bennett are a blitz unto themselves. Note to Cincinnati: Try to minimize obvious passing situations against the Bills. Otherwise you'll see seven head-hunting pass defenders covering while Bennett and Smith apply the clamps, Bennett from the left. Smith from who knows where.
On a nice call by defensive coordinator Walt Corey in the second quarter. Smith lined up over center, blew past Oiler center Jay Pennison and tossed fullback Alonzo Highsmith aside like a rag doll before sacking Moon for a 13-yard loss on Buffalo's 47. The play moved Houston out of field goal range. "He never even saw me," said Smith, speaking of Pennison.
Smith lined up everywhere but opposite right guard, in a variety of two-and three-point stances. "He was around," said Moon with more than a touch of understatement.
Ralph Wilson, the Buffalo owner, takes credit for the decision to draft Smith out of Virginia Tech with the first pick of the 1985 draft. "He reminded me of Joe Greene with his size and speed." says Wilson.
"You know, he's told me that story before," says Smith. "Joe Greene was my boyhood idol."
In that draft, the Bills selected Smith over Ray Childress of Texas A & M. Childress, now a fine defensive end for the Oilers, sacked Kelly once, but he also was hit with a roughing-the-passer penalty, which Kelly drew with a tumbling twist—give it a 9.9—after a Childress shove. Kelly laughed after he got up. Childress had said he would test Kelly's heart. He found it pumping vigorously. Childress played well enough, but not as well as Smith.
For his part, Bennett ranged from sideline to sideline to flush Moon from the pocket, forcing him to hurry his throws on seven plays. In the second quarter, Bennett tackled Moon after a short gain, tenderizing the ruptured bursa on Moon's throwing elbow, and blocked a 38-yard Tony Zendejas field goal try. He recovered the ball for good measure. In the final quarter Bennett stripped wideout Haywood Jeffires of the ball after an 11-yard completion at the Houston 23. Cornerback Derrick Burroughs recovered the fumble.
"I knew blocking [Bennett] would be an all-day job," said Steinkuhler. "We all knew how tough he was. Cornelius can only get better, and he's already a great player. They've got the right scheme and they play the right fronts."
Said Bennett, "I got a chance to pass rush today."
Moon eluded the rush often enough to complete 17 of 33 throws for 240 yards, and he had a pass dropped in the end zone by Drew Hill just before the half. Hill sprained his neck when he slid into the goalpost on the play and returned for only one more series. "I read Drew better than most of the receivers," said Moon. "That hurt."
On what would be the Oilers' last series of the game, Moon moved them 80 yards in nine plays, with running back Mike Rozier scoring from a yard out. After Kelly guided the Bills to the Houston 45, the Houston defense forced Buffalo to punt, but Steve Tasker hit return man Curtis Duncan, who fumbled. Ray Bentley recovered for the Bills on the Houston 18 with 1:45 left to play.
Bennett jumped up and down on the sideline like a man trying to stamp out a small fire, and it seemed fitting that Buffalo's special teams should clinch the victory. Throughout the afternoon they dominated Houston's more publicized special units. In addition to Bennett's blocked field goal, the Bills rushed Zendejas into shanking a 31-yard attempt, and a blocked punt by Leonard Smith led to Riddick's touchdown. The Bills even forced a penalty on Houston's lone extra-point attempt, making the simplest task an adventure for Jerry's kids. In all, Houston received four kickoffs and advanced none more than 17 yards. "It used to be, oh hurry up and get that kick thing over so we can get on with the game," said Levy. "It's not that way anymore."
Levy himself deserves much of the credit for the Buffalo victory. Throughout the day, he lined up running back Thurman Thomas as a wide receiver, and Kelly twice had him open for touchdowns. But Thomas dropped one of the passes and couldn't quite reach the second. He did gain 75 yards on seven carries, including the 11-yard third-quarter run that put the Bills in front 14-3 and all but closed the door.
Levy's touch was everywhere in this admirable playoff debut as a head coach. He has been around. He was head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs from 1977 through '82 and before that he was an assistant with three other NFL teams, so he can put the Bills' achievement in historical perspective. "Have I ever seen two pass rushers like Cornelius and Bruce?" said Levy. "Well. I was in Los Angeles when we had Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen and those guys, but, no. I can't say that I have."
After the game, Bruce (Buddha) Davis, the Oilers' 300-pound left tackle, offered this opinion: "If the Bengals' offensive line can push them around. Buffalo doesn't have the kind of offense to come back from behind."
Well, if Bennett. Smith and the Buffalo special teams come up with a repeat performance this Sunday, that won't be a concern.