We'll know soon enough whether it was a mirage. But through the freezing rain and driving snow at Rich Stadium last Saturday, the Buffalo Bills looked very much like a true Super Bowl team—not like the typical AFC representative of the 1980s, the one waving a white flag. We're talking about a genuine threat to prevent a possible three-peat in Tampa.
This is a fast-maturing Buffalo team that froze out the Miami Dolphins 44-34 in their AFC divisional playoff. This is a team playing with a new, Joe Montana-like efficiency on offense, running a sort of weatherproof run-and-shoot that an opponent is going to have to fiat outscore if it hopes to knock the Bills out of the tournament. This is an offense so potent that it nearly reduced Dolphin defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti to tears.
This is a team with an all-star defense, featuring three Pro Bowl players—end Bruce Smith, outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett and inside linebacker Shane Conlan—among its front seven, plus three near All-Pros in outside linebacker Darryl Talley, cornerback Nate Odomes and strong safety Leonard Smith.
And it is a team with a pretty nice little home-field advantage that it wall carry into the AFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Raiders this Sunday. During the past three seasons the Bills have gone 24-2 in Rich Stadium, including 9-0 this season, and they have led the NFL in attendance, with an average of more than 77,000 fans a game, in each of those years.
"We're pretty scary right now," Smith said after the game. "You look at most teams in the playoffs and they've established what they are. We're still putting it together here. It's January, and I think we're getting better every week." Just then, one of Smith's former teammates at Virginia Tech, Dolphin fullback Tony Paige, showed up. "Man," Paige said, "your offense just kicked our butt."
In the days leading up to the game it appeared that if any offense was going to kick any defense in the rear end, it was going to be Miami's kicking Buffalo's. Bills quarterback Jim Kelly would be playing for the first time since spraining ligaments and damaging cartilage in his left knee against the New York Giants four weeks ago. His Dolphin counterpart, Dan Marino, was coming off another one of his great days, having completed his last 10 passes in bringing Miami back from a 16-3 deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 17-16 in a wild-card playoff.
The Bills and the Dolphins had split their two regular-season meetings, with Miami winning 30-7 at home in Week 2 and Buffalo clinching the AFC East 24-14 in Buffalo on Dec. 23. After that rematch, when Marino walked through the tunnel to the Rich Stadium locker rooms, he promised Smith, "I'll be back." Smith recalled the scene last Thursday night while dining out with Talley, his roommate when the Bills move into a Buffalo hotel the night before every home game.
And now Marino was back.
"We're scared of the guy," Talley said at dinner. "It seems like the bell for the fourth quarter rings and Dan just takes the game into his own hands. I'll tell you what kind of effect he has on us. The night before we played them last time, I kept hearing Bruce flop around in his bed like a big fish. He couldn't sleep, he was so wired to face Marino. Finally, early in the morning, Bruce got up and said, 'I can't take it no more!' And he left to go home."
That Bills-Dolphins game wasn't a classic. This one was. Kelly, who didn't return to practice until four days before the playoffs, was quite healthy by the kickoff, thank you. Operating out of a no-huddle offense, he completed 19 of 29 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception and very few mistakes. Instead of moving around gingerly on the tender knee, Kelly returned to action like a man coming off a four-week vacation; he looked rested and sharp. He even ran with the ball five times for 37 yards, including one dash of 16.
On this day the Bills' offense was near unstoppable, as the results of 10 of their first 12 possessions attested: touchdown, field goal, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, halftime, interception, field goal, touchdown, touchdown. "The footing was so bad we just couldn't make any plays," said Miami cornerback Tim McKyer. "You can't fault us. I don't think their defense stopped us, either."
That was true, sort of. But at least Buffalo's defense put up a good fight, holding Marino without points on five of 11 possessions. Miami's defense was pathetic, allowing 493 total yards, an alarming 7.5 yards a play. Has Louis Oliver shown up for the game yet, by the way? On the fifth play of the afternoon, Bills wideout Andre Reed ran an intermediate post pattern, with Oliver, a 226-pound free safety, covering and giving him plenty of cushion. Reed caught Kelly's pass and streaked past Oliver for a 40-yard touchdown. Early in the second quarter Oliver struck again; rather, he struck out again. Reed bumped Oliver just past the line of scrimmage at the Miami 48 and got two steps ahead of him, whereupon Kelly hit Reed for a 43-yard gain. Thurman Thomas ran the ball in from the five on the next play to give Buffalo a 20-3 lead. "If we'd played against them on a dry field, with the cushion they gave me today," Reed said, "I'd have had a 300-yard receiving day."
Olivadotti, who elevated the Dolphin defense from 24th in last year's NFL team rankings to seventh this year, decided going into the game to use much more man-to-man pass coverage rather than rely on zone coverage, as Miami had most of the season. The benefit of the man-to-man, Olivadotti thought, would be to free his front seven to blitz more. The result: Kelly and his receivers embarrassed the Dolphin secondary.
"I learned a hell of a lesson today," said a downcast Olivadotti. "We stay with what we did all year, and then, all of a sudden, today we started to try to get to Kelly, and freaking 20 points later...." He paused to compose himself and wipe his eyes. "I learned a hell of a lesson today."
But really, what's a coordinator with a weak pass rush supposed to do against the 1990 Bills offense? A year ago, it was easier to defend against Buffalo. The Bills would start most games with two tight ends and one wideout, Reed, plus Thomas and jumbo Larry Kinnebrew in the backfield. They were a northeastern team that would move the pile, use Reed for long strikes and send Thomas into the flat. But privately—and sometimes publicly—the offense chafed under the conservative plan of offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda.
"I didn't feel we were ready to open things up," Marchibroda says of the Bills' offense in 1989. "I didn't feel we had all the ingredients." But Buffalo picked up former All-Pro wideout James Lofton on waivers during the '89 season, and tight end Keith McKeller continued to develop as a pass catcher. Last season Marchibroda also liked what he saw in hurry-up, no-huddle successes against the Dolphins, Houston Oilers and the L.A. Rams, so he and coach Marv Levy decided in the off-season to open up their attack. Maybe even make it wide open.
Marchibroda experimented with different versions of the wide-open offense during the 1990 season, but he's settled on a winner now. Lofton and Reed, who combined for 11 catches, 271 yards and three touchdowns last Saturday, line up wide left, with McKeller at tight end and rookie Al Edwards wide right.
The X factor is Thomas, football's most versatile back. No offensive player in the game has more rushing-receiving yards over the past two years than Thomas. He touched the ball on the first play of nine of the Bills' 12 drives last Saturday. His average gain: seven yards. "I love this offense," Kelly said after the Bills had won for the 14th time in 17 games this season. "We can do so many things, so many different ways."
So the Dolphins, unless they wanted to play a shaky third cornerback on the Bills' third wideout, had to use Oliver in man-to-man coverage regularly, and he failed. Olivadotti benched Oliver at halftime, but sub Paul Lankford didn't do anything to stop Kelly's heroes, either.
Marino had resuscitated Miami with a brilliant two-yard TD run on a bootleg just before halftime, so the Dolphins trailed by only 27-17 at the half. After the teams exchanged field goals in the third quarter, Marino dumped a two-yard touchdown pass to tackle-eligible Roy Foster on third-and-goal at the start of the fourth quarter to put the game on a tightrope. Buffalo's lead was 30-27, with 13:54 left to play.
Kelly didn't blink. He hit Lofton for 42 yards, McKeller on fourth-and-two for five and Edwards for 12 to move the Bills to the Miami 17, as the no-huddle continued to unsettle the Dolphins, who had never played against it for a full game. Four plays later, Thomas (32 carries for 117 yards) burst past center Kent Hull for a five-yard score. The lead was 10 again, 37-27, and Marino buckled his helmet, knowing he needed two touchdowns in the last 10 minutes.
Only Marino didn't get the chance. On the kick return Buffalo's Hal Garner cut through a seam in the Miami blocking and knocked the ball out of return man Marc Logan's grasp at the Dolphin 26-yard line. "I thought I was gone," Logan said. "I really didn't see him. He put his head right on the ball." Buffalo recovered, and 25 seconds later, Kelly put a soft touch on a pass to Reed for the 26-yard TD that clinched the victory.
"Kelly's like a Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan in this offense," Marchibroda said. "The ball's in his hands. The game's in his hands. Jimmy calls the game all by himself, and we've got the personnel now to run the offense right."
Soon, perhaps on a dry, sunny field in Tampa, far south of the NFL's version of the North Pole, the rest of the world may get to see this offense. It's a new decade, and a new team is giving new hope to the AFC.