If you watched Sunday's AFC and NFC championship games, there's no logical way you could like the Buffalo Bills over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI. But I do. Maybe it's just stubborn loyalty to my preseason Super Bowl pick: Bills 20, Redskins 17. It could be just a hunch or the memory of last year's NFL title game, in which the New York Giants came in by the back door and the Bills rode in on a chariot after having blown through the playoffs.
One of the proven theories of Super Bowl handicapping is, Go with the hot team. But last season, after Buffalo had crushed the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 and the Giants had stolen a 15-13 win from the San Francisco 49ers in the conference championship games, the form chart got dinged and New York took it all in the Big One. Now the situation is reversed. The Skins are pushing all the right buttons, and the Bills are in on a pass.
Washington's 41-10 victory over the Detroit Lions in the NFC final was a cerebral as well as a physical triumph, the kind of game after which the winning coaches get together and say to one another, "See, I told you it would work." The Redskins defense—mixing things up just enough by throwing an odd assortment of blitzes at young Lion quarterback Erik Kramer and getting away from tendencies—suffered a slight lapse in the second quarter when All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green was sidelined with bruised ribs. But then it pitched a shutout after the intermission.
The Washington offense was typical Joe Gibbs: Set 'em up with one thing, hit 'em with another. He'll use the thunder of the heavy running game behind two or three tight ends, then the deep strike from quarterback Mark Rypien—45 yards to Gary Clark, 31 to Art Monk, a 21-yard TD to Monk, 45 yards to Terry Orr. That last one left the fans smiling.
Orr, the third tight end on the roster, is a blocker. Last season he was cut by the Skins, picked up by the San Diego Chargers, cut again and then re-signed by Washington. Scouts say that he couldn't play for any other team in the NFL. Is that true, Terry? "Well, maybe one—the Chargers," he said. "And they cut me."
But there was Gibbs and his offensive staff, working hard to set this guy up for a big gainer out of a three-tight-end formation, faking the run that had been called on the previous play. Suddenly Orr was breaking free on a deep corner route, because the Lions figured he was in there to block somebody. His catch set up the field goal that gave Washington a 20-10 lead on the first series of the second half.
Detroit feared what the Redskins call the Bunch, a Gibbs brainstorm that groups three wideouts in a tight alignment and releases them in a breakout. The Lion defenders prepared for it all week, but they saw it only once. The play picked up 16 yards, Rypien to Clark, and it set up the Skins' second TD.
So everything is in sync for the Redskins, who go into the Super Bowl clear-eyed and focused. In Buffalo, though, a lot of head-scratching is going on in the wake of the Bills' 10-7 victory over the Denver Broncos for the AFC championship. Denver's defense, though the best in the AFC this season, is hardly in a class with the real murderers—the 1990 Giants' defense or the '91 Eagles'—but it took apart Buffalo's pretty no-huddle offense. The Bills' Jim Kelly couldn't find his trio of wide receivers in the forests of the Broncos' combination man-to-man and zone defenses. The Buffalo wideouts—All-Pro Andre Reed; James Lofton, who's headed for Canton; and the breathtakingly fast Don Beebe—were nonfactors. Kelly threw to them 15 times, and the result was four receptions for 36 yards.
An occasional flip to a tight end and the gutty running of Thurman Thomas kept the Bills in the game, but even the ground attack, the platform from which Buffalo's hurry-up offense is launched, was held to three yards per carry. Were it not for a touchdown scored by the Bills defense and the struggles of Denver kicker David Treadwell—two of his field goal tries hit the right upright, and a third went wide left—we would be handicapping the Broncos in Super Bowl XXVI against the mighty Redskins.
And the Kelly-bashing has begun. Denver cornerback Tyrone Braxton says the key to stopping Kelly is to take away the big play—like the deep strike to Reed that burned the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional playoff, and the one to Beebe that shocked the Pittsburgh Steelers in September, and the ones to Lofton that buried the Raiders last season.
"He thrives on the big play," Braxton said on Sunday. "If he gets it, it makes him even more confident. He struts and says, 'Yeah, we knew we could do it all along.' But if he doesn't make the big play, he panics. We concentrated on getting into Kelly's head, on not giving up the big play."
O.K., Buffalo couldn't go deep against Denver, and as I said, Buffalo is in disarray. Still, I like the Bills.
The first reason is emotional. They were riding high coming in against the Broncos, and they got their comeuppance. After the game Kelly said they had two weeks to settle down and work out the kinks. Nothing brings you into focus like a good scare. I like Buffalo's offense in the controlled environment of the Metrodome, on artificial turf with no wind or any other weather factors. And let's not forget what Kelly and Thomas have achieved in the last two years, including the heroic last-minute drive they staged in the 1991 Super Bowl, a game the Bills should have won.
Sure, the Skins have done a fine job of mixing their pass coverages and getting linebackers involved in the short zones, but a weakness was exposed in their divisional playoff against the Atlanta Falcons and again against Detroit. When Washington's rush lets up, a passer can find a soft spot in the inside lanes, and Kelly is deadly on those patterns. The Redskins' safeties, Brad Edwards and Danny Copeland (as well as Sidney Johnson, who replaces Copeland in passing situations), are well protected, staying back in the two-deep zone, but they're not really man-to-man cover guys. The only truly skilled one-on-one defenders are Green and Monte Coleman, the nickel linebacker, but defense coach Richie Petitbon's scheme is so sound that a cover guy seldom gets hung up alone. Also, don't forget that the Skins haven't faced an offensive machine like Buffalo's—especially indoors and on artificial turf.
For the Bills the positive aspect of Sunday's game was the way their defense hung in when it could have folded. The defense has been vulnerable this season, soft at times, easy to muscle. It's a defense in which the linemen and linebackers look for the big play and hover around the fringes of the blocks, a get-to-the-ball type of defense in which the blockers aren't jammed, stood up and stuffed back into the ballcarrier, as the defensive people are taught to do in Philly and Chicago. For a while this season Buffalo struggled on defense, but that's in the past.
The return to action six weeks ago of former All-Pro right end Bruce Smith, who is still not completely recovered from preseason surgery on his left knee, has changed things. He used to rely on quickness, running around blocks and shooting through gaps with lightning moves. He can't do that now. He has turned into a bull rusher, a limited, but effective, prototypical 3-4 defensive end. And he is keeping people off the Bills' inside linebackers, Shane Conlan and Carlton Bailey, who would otherwise have the tough task of taking on offensive linemen.
In addition, a number of Buffalo defenders have elevated their play to star level. Left cornerback Kirby Jackson has performed as well as any defensive back in the playoffs. Jeff Wright—a "move," or stunting, type of noseguard, rather than a sturdy run-stopper, such as the Lions' Jerry Ball—came up with half a dozen big plays against Denver. Left end Leon Seals, one of the league's most underrated defensive linemen, had been slowed by a knee injury, but he came back big against the Broncos. Then there is Cornelius Bennett.
When he arrived from the Indianapolis Colts in an October 1987 trade, Bennett played like a maniac. He did it all—rushed the passer, fought off tight ends who tried to hook him, covered down-field. Then he leveled off, always playing well but never performing the way he had in '87. Now he's all over the place again. He has been a one-man pass rush, except on the occasions when the Bills send right linebacker Darryl Talley as a surprise move. At times this season Bennett seemed to be holding the Buffalo defense together by sheer force of will.
If the Bills are going to beat Washington, they'll need every bit of defensive firepower they can muster, because the Skins' attack is designed to embarrass opponents, to hammer away and then spring receivers free out of a tangled muddle, leaving a trail of finger-pointing defensive backs and clipboards slammed to the ground on the sidelines. I can hear Gibbs now at his first Super Bowl press conference: "No, we're not planning anything new. You dance with who brung ya."
That is the biggest lie of Super Bowl week, because coaches, especially Gibbs, are always putting in new things, especially for a game of this magnitude. Remember the "explode package" Gibbs dreamed up for his first Super Bowl, against the Miami Dolphins in 1983, with all the receivers coming to rest and then exploding to new positions before the snap? Well, now he has the Bunch, which he used only once against Detroit, as if he were hoarding it for use in the Super Bowl. And by then, who knows what else he will have cooked up?
In the Bunch, Clark pushes his defender deep, Ricky Sanders clears out an area with a crossing pattern, and Monk does what he does better than any other receiver in the game—he finds the hole underneath and settles there, knowing exactly where the first-down marker is.
Then, of course, Washington has its trademark counter gap, the basic running play that can come at you with the power of Earnest Byner or the dash of rookie Ricky Ervins. It is keyed on the rarest commodity in pro football, superior offensive tackles, in this case Joe Jacoby and Jim Lachey. And there's always the threat of the bomb from Rypien, often when only one or two receivers are out on a pattern. The book says that shouldn't work, but it does for Washington. "It works because there's always maximum protection; we're always leaving one or two tight ends in to block, and I get time," Rypien says. "Our whole system is geared to maximum protection, to never leaving me exposed, and I consider myself blessed to play in a system like that."
The Skins have the rock-solid system. Buffalo has a dazzling collection of stars and exceptional speed. And that's what I think will turn this game, the Bills' quickness and speed on both sides of the ball. People like Bennett, who runs a 4.48 40, Lofton, Reed and Beebe—all accelerated on the artificial turf, fouling up blocking angles and coverages—will be too much for the logic of the Washington system.
The Skins spent a season nullifying opponents' speed on the heavy grass of RFK Stadium, but next week they will be on the kind of fast track that Buffalo loves. Finally, there's just something about the Bills that gets me: They look as if they're on a mission. Score one for the missionaries. Buffalo 20, Washington 17.