Last Saturday's Buffalo Bills-New York Giants game at the Meadowlands was billed as a mini-Super Bowl, the AFC's finest against, well, almost the best in the NFC, two 11-2 teams possibly previewing the big show in Tampa. But by 3:30 p.m., as the fans were packing up after a miserable afternoon in the freezing rain, two coaches had seen their seasons take on ominous tones. Both starting quarterbacks had gone down.
The Bills won 17-13, but lost Jim Kelly with a severely sprained medial collateral ligament of his left knee. Now Buffalo coach Marv Levy must make a decision. Should he let backup quarterback Frank Reich run the new wide-open offense—the Bills' version of the run-and-shoot that has worked brilliantly in their last three games—in this week's big game with the Miami Dolphins and perhaps beyond? Or should he pull back and go conservative, hoping that somehow the Bills will muddle through this week and Kelly will be ready for the playoffs? On Monday, the prognosis was that Kelly would be sidelined for three to four weeks.
Giants coach Bill Parcells has deeper concerns. His signal caller, Phil Simms, has a badly sprained ligament in his right arch and apparently is lost for the year. The Giants' team physician, Dr. Russell Warren, said Monday that the foot would be examined in three to four weeks, but that it looks like a six-week injury at best. Of lesser concern was how the Bills had stuffed New York's short-yardage offense. The Giants had nine third- or fourth-down situations with two yards or less to go, and they converted only three of them, including one when backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler recovered a fumble that had rolled forward. Those surging rushes on third-and-inches that have been a New York trademark this season—with O.J. Anderson rolling for three and four yards behind a massive wall—are gone. Anderson netted zero yards on five carries on Saturday. "On third-and-one we were just miserable," said offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt after the game.
The Giants reached the Bills' three-and six-yard lines but both times had to settle for chippie field goals. They were in Buffalo territory three times in the fourth quarter, once reaching the 13, and got zero points out of those possessions. When Hostetler had to put the ball in the air in the second half, in a catch-up situation, he couldn't get the job done.
New York has already won the NFC East, but it is battling the 10-4 Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers, who were 12-1 heading into Monday night's game with the Los Angeles Rams, for the NFC's two first-round byes in the postseason and for the right to play at home the following week. For the Bills, a win over the Dolphins will guarantee them the AFC East title and home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
The freezing rain started early on Saturday morning, turning the highways into ice rinks and keeping 10,295 fans at home. Interstate 80 was dotted with accidents. "My parents' car spun out three times on 80," said Giants kicker Matt Bahr, "and then they just gave up and went home." New York linebacker Lawrence McGrew totaled his car driving to the game.
The sky was a dark, foreboding gray as the two teams lined up, and you just knew something bad was going to happen. But it didn't happen right away.
After 24 minutes, with both starting quarterbacks still in the game, the Bills were ahead 14-10. New York had scored on its opening possession, driving 71 yards in 11 plays, 10 of them runs—just what the fans liked. Giants football. Run in the rain. Pound it home. Forty-one yards came on a cutback over the right side by rookie Rodney Hampton, who has replaced Anderson as the heavy-duty back. That's what New York was doing, running right—away from All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith.
In a conference-call interview three days before the game, Smith had delighted the writers covering the Giants by giving them an easy angle. They asked him if he was the best defensive player in the league, and he said, "I think I am. For the last 13 games [during which he had 19 sacks] I've really surprised myself, and I'm sure I've surprised other people in football. I've been concentrating more on the run. I take tremendous pride in playing against the run. Over the last 10 years Lawrence Taylor has been the most dominant player in the league. I feel that now I've taken it a notch above that."
Then the Bills got the ball, and on came their no-huddle, hurry-up offense with three wideouts. Six plays and 1:28 later they had tied the game, Kelly throwing six yards to Andre Reed for the TD. Kelly had been in the same offense when he had thrown eight straight completions for 229 yards in the first quarter against Philadelphia on Dec. 2, a week after the Eagles had crushed the Giants. "My god, it was unbelievable," said Philly coach Buddy Ryan after the 30-23 Buffalo victory. "There were people running through the secondary, and we couldn't tackle them."
The next week the Bills used the hurry-up attack to take a 21-0 first-half lead against the Indianapolis Colts before going on to win 31-7. Now they were doing it to the Giants, the No. 1 defensive team in the league, a club that had feasted on fancy offenses, like the Detroit Lions' version of the run-and-shoot. Buffalo scored on its second possession too, again with the hurry-up. It went 78 yards in 11 plays, with Thurman Thomas, who would finish with 60 rushing yards and 65 receiving yards, running it in from the two.
Maybe New York's defense had been caught on its heels. Perhaps it was the wear and tear of three straight tough games coming in—losses at Philadelphia and at San Francisco, followed by a win over the Minnesota Vikings. Most likely, as Parcells had been telling the press all week, the Bills simply have excellent offensive personnel. Kelly was brilliant, throwing for 107 yards in the first quarter. The Giants, who put together another drive that produced a field goal, were methodical. The game looked like a classic boxer-puncher matchup. Then the bad things started happening.
Late in the second quarter, Kelly was staring downfield after completing an eight-yard pass to Reed. Linebacker Carl Banks had blitzed. Jim Ritcher, Buffalo's left guard, had blocked Banks into offensive tackle Will Wolford. The impact had buckled Wolford's right knee and sent him crashing into Kelly's knee. Suddenly, two key Bills were down on the field.
"I just turned around," said center Kent Hull later, "and people were lying everywhere. I didn't see Jim. I saw Will, and that was scary enough. Then I saw Jim, and I thought, Oh, my god. The last thing Jim told me as he was going off the field was, 'They're gonna tape it, and I'll be back.' If the guy could have walked on the leg, he'd have been in there."
Wolford also went to the sideline with a knee sprain. He returned briefly in the second half but couldn't finish the game. Kelly never made it back onto the field. "For a while he was walking all right, straight ahead, on the sideline," said Richard Weiss, Buffalo's team physician, afterward. "Then he caught his foot on the turf, and the knee twisted on him."
A couple of minutes later it was Simms's turn. He dropped back to pass on third-and-two, and Smith, who had a fine day with six tackles and four assists, forced him to scramble forward. Simms was met by the other defensive end, Leon Seals. As they went down together, Seals's knee crunched Simms's right foot into the artificial turf. Simms had the foot taped at halftime, but six plays into the third quarter it gave way as he tried to avoid the rolling bodies of Smith and Giants left tackle Jumbo Elliott.
The scenes on the sidelines presented interesting contrasts. Kelly had tried to walk off his injury. He received medical attention, with trainers all over him, as if he were a prized show horse. Simms sat by himself on the end of the bench, unattended, cold, his face registering anger and bitterness. Some fans had cheered when Hostetler came in. Maybe Simms realized that whatever he might accomplish, he would never be totally accepted in New York. At the end of last season, after Simms had struggled with the effects of an ankle injury suffered in Week 8 and Hostetler had gone 2-0 in his place, Parcells said he would try to give Hostetler more action in 1990. But Simms put himself through a rigorous off-season conditioning program and quickly reasserted himself as the No. 1 quarterback in camp. Only now does Hostetler have his chance.
The second-half battle of the backups ended 3-3. The Giants moved the ball up and down the field between the 20s but died in close. The Bills played outstanding defense when it counted, but their offense, under Reich's direction, went nowhere. Buffalo picked up only three first downs after intermission. The Giants, meanwhile, dropped three would-be interceptions, including one by Taylor, who had botched one in the second quarter that could have been an easy score.
The Bills all but junked their hurry-up offense under Reich, a six-year pro. Levy admitted that Reich had worked little on it in practice. "But Frank knows it forward and backward," he said. "He's a very bright guy. I don't think we'll have to cut back on our offense. Frank can handle it."
A year ago the Buffalo fans were cheering Reich and booing Kelly. One game did it, when Kelly was out with a separated shoulder and Reich brought the Bills back against the Rams with two fourth-quarter TDs, the winning one coming with 16 seconds left. He went 3-0 in his three starts.
In 1984, Reich put together one of the greatest comebacks in collegiate history, rallying Maryland from a 31-0 halftime deficit against Miami to a 42-40 victory. He threw touchdown passes on six straight possessions. Now the Bills' destiny is in his hands, until Kelly returns.
At least Buffalo's offense is in working order, which isn't the story with the Giants. Bills linebacker Darryl Talley thought that the Buffalo defense had a good read on New York, particularly in short-yardage situations. "The Giants must have sensed that, too," said Talley, "because they were breaking tendencies."
"Oh, yeah, we tried to get away from some tendencies," Erhardt said. "We ran some I formation. We gave the ball to our fullback, Maurice Carthon, instead of our tailback, in short-yardage. But it didn't matter. I just don't get it. One time we could have just walked into the end zone, but a guy missed a block. We've been pathetic. We haven't done anything in the last four, five weeks on short-yardage.
"Third down has been a killer. Every time it seems like a different thing, a guy missing a block or a penalty or whatever. We could change our offense and start doing other things, but you like to be able to run from your strength."
The downside of a grinding ground attack like the Giants' is that a team that uses it can have trouble opening up. The Bills made just such a transformation when they went to the hurry-up, but the Giants, as they piled up their victories and time of possession week after week, didn't have to—until recently. They died on four straight incompletions from the 49er nine-yard line in their 7-3 defeat on Dec. 3, and their last possession on Saturday ended with four consecutive incompletions from the Buffalo 26.
New York has had only one 200-yard passing day in the last nine games. Its two remaining games are against the Phoenix Cardinals and the New England Patriots. Those games might be a good time to experiment with a more wide-open attack, maybe even some hurry-up, to build a file for the playoffs. Trouble is, the Giants wideouts are a faceless band grown rusty from disuse. Every week a different one seems to emerge—only to go back on the shelf. It might be time to get the wide receivers into the heart of the action.
Hostetler, a seven-year vet, is the quarterback now. He's more mobile than Simms but far less competent in running the offense. Hampton, who gained 105 yards on 21 carries against Buffalo, is the new threat out of the backfield. Anderson still gets the call in short-yardage situations. The defense is good enough to hold off anyone, and New York still has the second-best record in the NFC. But the big tournament is right around the corner, and major cracks are showing.