It was mid-September, the Buffalo Bills were 1-1 after getting blown out 30-7 by the Miami Dolphins, and a whole lot of nasty stuff was going on. Buffalo players were hollering about coach Marv Levy's decision to pull quarterback Jim Kelly with eight minutes left, and guys were getting fined for having resisted being replaced during the game and having mouthed off to Levy—that kind of thing. Everyone was dusting off the Bickering Bills stories from a year ago, and there was high anxiety in the air. At this point in the season, Buffalo could have gone right down the chute.
Then something happened. The Bills looked around their locker room, and what they saw was real talent—the kind that gets you into the Super Bowl, too much talent to waste on nonsense. "Guys paid their fines," linebacker Darryl Talley said last week. "The end. Let's go on."
So Buffalo went on to win eight straight games, and the Bills are 9-1 after Sunday's workmanlike 14-0 victory over the New England Patriots. If you're looking for an AFC representative to take the field in Super Bowl XXV and try to restore some of the conference's faded glory against the monsters of New York or San Francisco or Chicago, Buffalo is not a bad choice. The Bills are two-time defending AFC East champs, having prevailed last year with a shaky 9-7 record and two seasons ago with a neat 12-4 finish. But this outfit may be better than either of those, maybe the best Buffalo team ever.
"In '88 we snuck up on people," says center Kent Hull, who's having an All-Pro season. "We'd been nowhere before that. Now they're all ready for us. And we're still getting our wins."
"People talked about our defense in '88," Kelly says. "They talked about our great special teams. Well, this year we've got it all. And I'll tell you what: I've never had this kind of talent to work with."
Talent, the operative word. Thurman Thomas, the tough little halfback, carried 22 times for 165 yards on Sunday to become the NFL's leading rusher, with 900 yards. Kelly is the AFC's highest-rated passer. In the old days he had only Andre Reed to throw downfield to, plus Thomas for the dump-offs. This year they're joined full time by James Lofton, the old All-Pro Packer wideout, and Keith McKeller, a tight end with speed.
On the offensive line, Hull is a blue-chipper, and left guard Jim Ritcher is having the finest season of his 11-year career. The defense? Where do you start? Right end Bruce Smith and left linebacker Cornelius Bennett are free of the injuries that plagued them last season, so they're back to their hellacious play of the past. Talley teams with Bennett to give Buffalo as good a pair of outside linebackers as there is. Left end Leon Seals is the surprise. He's a tooth-gritter, an overachiever. "He could be blocked, driven off the ball, out of it," says Ritcher, "and then he'll somehow reach over and make the tackle."
The Bills have done the job in all sorts of ways. They've come out and simply crushed people on the ground—292 yards rushing against the New York Jets, 211 against the Phoenix Cardinals and 209 on Sunday against the Patriots, including touchdown runs of five and 80 yards by Thomas. They've done it with fourth-quarter heroics—24 points in the last period against the Los Angeles Raiders, 20 against the Denver Broncos.
And they've done it with turnovers. Going into this year, Buffalo had been on the minus side of the turnover chart for nine straight years. Now, after forcing two New England turnovers on Sunday while not committing any themselves, the Bills are plus 13, second best in the conference. "We've been very conscious of that," Levy says, "and a lot of it has to do with the quarterback."
There's the constant, the unifying factor, because Kelly, who heard boos at Rich Stadium last year and was publicly blasted by Thomas in December, is having a magnificent season. "One thing you have to remember about Jim Kelly is that whatever problems he might have had, he has a burning desire to win," says Levy. "Yardage and personal stats don't mean anything to him. Most of the time when he's called audibles this year he's gone from a pass to a run."
Kelly has yet to have a 300-yard passing day this season—he threw for 79 yards Sunday—but Rich Stadium, with its biting cold and ferocious winds, is not the place for flashy quarterbacks. The biggest names in the game have felt the bite of the hawk in Buffalo: Joe Namath, 2 for 18; Terry Bradshaw, 2 for 13; Warren Moon, 3 for 14; John Elway, 13 for 30; Dan Marino, 13 for 28.
As Kelly has submitted himself to the conservatism of the Bills' offense and kept the interceptions down and the yardsticks moving, Buffalo has responded to his leadership. "If he can keep healthy, he can lead us to the Super Bowl," says Thomas. "He's different than he used to be. He's getting along with everyone. He's loose, he's having fun. After the games he always throws a party at his house. Last year some guys showed up, some didn't. Now everyone goes. Last year I said what I said because he had criticized some of my teammates and it was a matter of coming to their defense. But that's over. We've matured so much since then."
Old perceptions die hard, though, and there are still doubters out there who are watching; it's as if they're waiting for the guy who swears he's on the wagon to take that one little drink. "There are negative people everywhere," says Kelly. "But in Buffalo most people are for us. Hey, we're on top of the world. I'm happy."
There's still the nagging question: What happened in Miami on that September day when the Dolphins stuffed the Bills? Who's to say it won't happen again on Dec. 23, when Buffalo and Miami meet in a game that could decide the division title? "We're a completely different team now," says Hull. "We weren't really together in September. Plus, in the back of our minds I'm sure we were thinking, Same old Miami, same old finesse team. Now we know different."
Yep, it will be a different scene in Buffalo, where Marino could feel the bite of the hawk. And the bite of the Bills.