It's like this, Jim Kelly was telling the media amassed outside the Buffalo Bills' locker room at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Sunday, it's what NFL football is all about. Down by seven to the Raiders, third-and-20 near midfield, the game in its dying moments, 85,000-plus fans trying to drown out your signals. It's something special, see. "I was tired of off-tackle here, off-tackle there," he said. "It was time to go with Jim Kelly, time to let it all hangout."
A little checkoff pass to running back Thurman Thomas picked up 19 yards. A shot to wideout Andre Reed on a crossing route gained 20 more. Two throws later and the Bills were in the end zone, the payoff coming on a nine-yarder to wide receiver James Lofton, and now the game would go to overtime, tied at 27.
One pass was all Kelly needed in the extra period, and it was his best of the day. He hung in the pocket and took a full shot from 245-pound linebacker Winston Moss, who had come in clean on a blitz, but just before going down, Kelly laid the ball in to Reed 31 yards downfield. Three runs for nine yards positioned the Bills for a 42-yard field goal try by Scott Norwood, who had missed all three of his earlier attempts and an extra-point try—plus he had almost botched two other PATs. But this time Norwood's kick was true, and Buffalo had a 30-27 victory.
Now Kelly was talking about how Los Angeles safety Ronnie Lott had tried before the teams were set to psych out Norwood—to break his concentration—by walking in front of holder Frank Reich. "I made my point to Ronnie after the game," said Kelly. "I mean, he's a great player and I have a lot of respect for him, but I told him what he did was a bunch of crap. He said that's what he always does."
December 16, 1991
Kelly shrugged. He smiled. He stepped off the makeshift platform and walked to the team bus. He's 31 and at the top of his game, and yes, this is what NFL football is all about. The Bills had clinched their fourth-straight AFC East title a week earlier, and after defeating the Raiders, they were 12-2 and closing in on the home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. "I can't remember a year that's been as much fun as this one," said Kelly, the conference's highest-rated passer. "It really has. I'm enjoying every minute of it. It's what everyone dreams of."
Across the hall, in the Raider locker room, another story was being told, but this one had no happy ending, no joy. Jay Schroeder had blown the game. His last two passes were intercepted, one in the final 30 seconds of regulation time, after Lofton had scored, and one in overtime that had set up Buffalo's winning field goal. Two long heaves, neither of which had a chance, both into double coverage.
"The one in regulation time, the one Nate Odomes intercepted," said Bills free safety Mark Kelso, "I don't know why Schroeder threw it. I was leaning hard into the receiver, Willie Gault, and Nate had him underneath. The thing you certainly don't want to do at that point is to underthrow it." Odomes returned the interception to the Los Angeles 12, setting up...Norwood's third missed field goal, from 36 yards with 11 seconds remaining in regulation.
Kelso picked off the interception in overtime, at the Buffalo 36. "That one was like a gift," he said. The ball came right to Kelso, instead of to Raider wideout Tim Brown.
"It's got to be a tough locker room over there," said Bills general manager Bill Polian. "I mean the stares across the room. It's got to be tough for Schroeder."
Whatever misery Schroeder was feeling wasn't showing. He's 30, and he's struggling. Why, Schroeder was asked, did you put up those two balls like that? "The second one was like a punt; it didn't hurt us that bad," he said matter-of-factly. "The first one? It never should have been thrown. I don't know—you try to make a big play."
The Los Angeles locker room was quiet, with little finger-pointing. The Raiders are an old team, "well seasoned," they like to call it. Twenty-eight players have five or more years pro experience, 20 of them are 30 or older. The quotes you got were of the "We're in this together; we win or lose as a team" variety. Leaders abound: Lott, Marcus Allen, Bob Golic, Howie Long. You could almost sense that in the locker room before the press was allowed in, they had decided, Hey, no finger-pointing, O.K.? We're still 9-5, and we're going to the playoffs.
Privately, though, the players have to wonder. Schroeder has one of the strongest arms in the game, but it still gets him into trouble. The Raiders hired Mike White in April 1990 to be Schroeder's private tutor, and 1990 was one of Schroeder's steadiest seasons in his eight years as a pro. But in recent weeks he had regressed, the streaks of wildness and the strange decisions reappearing. The fans have been booing Schroeder, but so far none of them have hollered for 36-year-old Vince Evans or 22-year-old rookie Todd Marinovich.
The only effective backup L.A. had, Steve Beuerlein, was traded to the Dallas Cowboys a week before the season started. Now he's ably subbing for the injured Troy Aikman and beating teams such as the Washington Redskins and the New Orleans Saints. The Schroeder-Beuerlein rivalry had been trouble from the beginning. The Raiders traded tackle Jim Lachey to the Redskins for Schroeder one week into the 1988 season and then watched with embarrassment as Beuerlein beat him out for the starting job midway through the '89 season. Then L.A. stripped away the competition. Beuerlein became embroiled in a contract dispute that extended into last season, and the Raiders kept him off the active roster after he rejoined the team. The trade to the Cowboys followed, and it didn't sit well with Los Angeles's veterans.
But, O.K., they figured, we'll win it with what we've got. We'll beat people with our defense and with our running game. The Raiders already had one of the league's best offensive lines. And you can't have too many quality backs, so this year Los Angeles picked up Roger Craig, a Plan B free agent from the San Francisco 49ers, and drafted 255-pound Nick Bell out of Iowa in the second round, to go with Marcus Allen. Just don't screw it up, Jay.
Schroeder has had his moments. When he directed a comeback that gave L.A. a 23-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Oct. 13 at the Kingdome, he looked as if he was on his way. Lately, though, he has been slipping. The passing game was an afterthought—four completions for 19 yards—in a 38-14 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 24. What the hell, the Bengals gave the game away anyway. Who needs passing? On Dec. 1, Schroeder threw three interceptions against the San Diego Chargers, who committed three turnovers of their own, and L.A. barely won 9-7.
All along, the Raiders' defense had been first-rate. So was their running game, and that's what they would bring in against the Bills, who were suspiciously soft against teams with a heavy hammer. "That's not really a fair assessment," said Buffalo coach Marv Levy last Thursday. "Our whole line was banged up: [starting ends) Leon Seals, Bruce Smith; Phil Hansen, our rookie end; Jeff Wright, our noseguard. For a while the only healthy guy we had was [nosetackle] Mike Lodish. Now that Wright is back, and Smith, we've been playing better."
Smith, last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is the strangest story. In July he had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone particles from his left knee. The Bills announced that he would be sidelined for six to eight weeks. Two months later he tried to go against the Chicago Bears but had to quit in the second half when the knee swelled up. He missed seven more games before playing against the New York Jets on Dec. 1. While he was sidelined, some fans let him have it. "Not the ones who come to the games," said Smith before Sunday's action. "It's the screwballs and rednecks, the guys who watch football in the bar. They sent letters to my home. They got my wife upset. There was some racial stuff. What they didn't know was that there was a hole in the bursa sac behind the knee, and fluid was building up. I couldn't run on it. They had to wait until the opening closed.
"Sure, all those letters bothered me. Wouldn't they bother you?"
Smith showed signs of his old self against the Jets, getting six tackles and one sack, but most of the time he was coming on an inside rush. "The knee wouldn't let me get around the corner," he said. "Plus they kept a back in to get me from the outside. No, I'm not 100 percent yet."
The Raiders would soon find that out. For a week they had been reading and hearing revenge-oriented hype—an LA. payback for last season's 51-3 humiliation by Buffalo in the AFC championship, in which the Bills scored 41 points in the first half. But that's not how the Raiders saw that game. "An anomaly, an aberration" was the way Golic described the AFC championship fiasco. "It was over so quickly. It was like one of those neighborhood softball games where one team gets so far ahead that after five innings you say, 'Ah, hell, let's call it off and go drink beer.' " Raider defense coach Dave Adolph didn't even bother to show his players film of that lopsided game last week. "There was nothing to be gained from looking at that mess," he said.
There would be no mess this time. On offense the Raiders would pound and pound, alternating their three runners, occasionally loading up their line with an extra tackle, 295-pound Reggie McElroy, or a second tight end, 240-pound Andrew Glover. Defensively, they would go primarily with man-to-man matchups, with their best cover guy, Terry McDaniel, sticking to Reed, the slot receiver; the taller, rangier Lionel Washington picking up the 6'3" Lofton; and an extra defensive back, Garry Lewis, covering the least dangerous receiver, Al Edwards. The linebackers, Moss and Riki Ellison, would zero in on Thomas and tight end Keith McKeller. Plus, there would be just enough zone mixed in with the man-to-man to screw up Kelly's reads.
And for a half it all worked. The Raiders' hammering attack and a 78-yard Schroeder to Brown TD pass on a crossing pattern put 20 points on the board. The only sour note for Los Angeles was its special teams play. A 91-yard kickoff return for a TD by Edwards and a 59-yard punt return by Clifford Hicks that set up another touchdown kept the Bills in the game at 20-14.
Still, the halftime stats showed that L.A. had run 41 plays to Buffalo's 22 and had outgained the Bills 295 yards to 106. When the Raiders put another seven points on the board on their first possession of the third quarter—a 59-yard Schroeder to Mervyn Fernandez pass on another crossing route set up a one-yard scoring run by Allen—the score was 27-14, and a blowout looked to be in the making. But then the Bills got serious. Kelly took them on a 12-play drive that ended with Norwood missing a 49-yard field goal attempt. Kelly took them on an 11-play march that ended with a 32-yarder by Norwood hitting the right upright—no good. Buffalo was getting no points, but it was wearing down L.A. The Bills would run 50 plays in the second half, most of them from the no-huddle offense, to 24 for the Raiders. "The longer you're on the field, the tireder you are," said L.A. defensive tackle Scott Davis. "That's as simple as it gets."
And there was no relief from Schroeder and the offense, nothing to help cut back on those relentless Buffalo marches. Left guard Steve Wisniewski, the Raiders" best lineman, went down with a sprained knee on the first series of the third quarter. Craig was gone soon after with a bruised hip, and Allen had to miss part of the fourth quarter when his sore right knee stiffened.
Schroeder, who threw only four passes after intermission, threw his last completion of the day at the end of the third quarter. While Kelly was working the game like a magician, hooking up with receivers all over the field, the Raiders' offense had gone into a shell. Los Angeles ran the ball 10 straight plays in the fourth quarter, and the Bills' defense stuffed them. Linebacker Cornelius Bennett was all over the field.
Finally, it all came down to Norwood. He had made nine consecutive field goals coming into the game, but on this afternoon everything had gone blooey. "Worst day of my life," said Norwood, whose previous worst day had come on Jan. 27, when he missed a 47-yard field goal that would have won the Super Bowl. "I told myself on the last one, Keep your head down, be more aggressive."
Levy had toyed with the idea of sending in kickoff specialist Brad Daluiso instead of Norwood, but he changed his mind. After Norwood had misfired on the 36-yarder at the end of regulation time, Kelly told him, "Don't worry, you're going to get another chance." Thomas took a tougher stand, saying, "If he'd have missed that last one, I'd have dropped him out of the plane over Minnesota or North Dakota."
Well, the kick was true, and now the Bills have only to beat the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday or the Detroit Lions a week later to clinch the home field advantage in the AFC. Kelly, who completed 33 of 52 passes for 347 yards, was magnificent—a guy who really enjoys the game and showed it. The Buffalo defense got hammered for a while but pulled itself together. The Bills look very much like the team that came so close to winning Super Bowl XXV. This time? Who knows?