When their careers are over—Cornelius Bennett's, Carlton Bailey's, Karl Mecklenburg's, Michael Brooks's and those of the 36 other defensive players in Buffalo Bills and Denver Bronco uniforms at Rich Stadium on Sunday—they will remember this AFC championship as they will remember few other games. What could have been the Great Kelly-Elway Shootout became the Great Kelly-Elway Shutout. The stars of the game were the defenders—every last one of them.
Jim Kelly of the Bills and John Elway of the Broncos, two of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL, passed for no points. And Buffalo's other high-powered weapons? Pffft. Running back Thurman Thomas averaged 2.8 yards per rush. Wideouts Andre Reed, James Lofton and Don Beebe caught four passes among them for a total of 36 yards. But while Denver may have played a better overall defensive game, the two biggest plays of the day came from the Bills defense: Bailey's 11-yard interception return for a third-quarter touchdown and cornerback Kirby Jackson's recovery of a fumble he forced with 1:28 to play.
Those two plays made the difference in Buffalo's 10-7 victory. "This is probably as classic a game as we've ever played in," said Bronco nosetackle Greg Kragen. The Bills weren't arguing. "Our defense is becoming a monster," said Buffalo defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson. "I was having a hard time getting the slobber off my chin, I was so excited watching them."
Here are the kinds of plays that left Dickerson drooling: Defensive end Bruce Smith, still slowed by his recovery from preseason knee surgery, dives between two blockers and knocks away an Elway pass. Bennett, a linebacker, bursts past Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe to level running back Gaston Green for a four-yard loss. And later Bennett stops Steve Sewell on a handoff for a two-yard loss and Vance Johnson on a reverse for a one-yard loss on successive plays.
And so it was that the Buffalo defense, crippled by injuries and ranked 27th in the NFL during the season, came together in the AFC Championship Game and fulfilled the Bills' yearlong plans for a return trip to the Super Bowl. While there will be no rematch with the New York Giants, who edged Buffalo in a 20-19 thriller in Super Bowl XXV, the Bills again will face an NFC East team, the Washington Redskins, on Jan. 26 in Minneapolis.
It's a shame Denver won't be there, because this Bronco team might have atoned for its three recent Super disasters—including one against Washington. But Denver won't be going because its kicker, David Treadwell, shanked a 47-yard field goal attempt and clanged 42-and 37-yard tries off the right upright, and because Elway was in a parka on the sideline when the Broncos needed him for Drive III.
When the moment that Elway lives for finally came against Buffalo—Denver had made it 10-7 on a three-yard quarterback draw by Elway's replacement, Gary Kubiak, and then recovered an onside kick with 1:38 to play—he was nursing a deep thigh bruise suffered early in the second half. And so, unlike the two most fabled drives in Bronco history, 98-yard marches in the closing minutes that won an AFC championship in 1987 and a divisional playoff this year, Drive III lasted all of I play. Sewell took a dump pass from Kubiak at the Buffalo 45, where he was stripped of the ball by Jackson.
"The game still comes down to defense," said Bills strong safety Leonard Smith. "Always has. The NFL wants the game so wide open. Everybody wants to see points. But you saw this game. It was exciting from beginning to end."
In the beginning, there was Denver. Surprising Denver. The day before the game, Bronco defensive coordinator Wade Phillips saw the future. "You see Kelly beating a lot of people deep," he said, relaxing at his hotel, "but we're not going to get beat deep, not with the zone we play. We might get beat underneath, but not deep." How so? The Denver corners aren't fast, and the safeties often cheat toward the line, trying to stop the run. But Phillips had two reasons for his optimism: 1) The Broncos were getting more pressure from their pass rush than at any other time since their Orange Crush days in the late 1970s, meaning Kelly wouldn't be able to sit back and pick his targets; and 2) it's hard for quarterbacks to get a quick read on Phillips's zone defense. It's a chameleon, a matchup zone that often looks like it's man-to-man when really one of the safeties is nearby to help in zone coverage.
The Buffalo offense had the ball 12 times, and the drives ended punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, halftime, punt, interception, punt, field goal, punt. But it wasn't all Kelly's fault. A couple of pedestrian corners, Tyrone Braxton and Wymon Henderson, were beating on the Buffalo receivers all day. Outside linebackers Simon Fletcher and Mike Croel were getting free and chasing down Kelly at least once on each series. Inside linebackers Brooks and Mecklenburg spearheaded a strong interior defensive effort that thwarted Thomas (72 yards on 26 carries, with his longest carry just nine yards). Phillips called for a blitz at least half the time on first down, clogging the lanes against Thomas.
Buffalo center Kent Hull wondered afterward if Denver hadn't had 13 defenders on the field for every play. "I don't know why nobody gave us any credit," said Phillips. "We had the best defense in the AFC, and we gave up the fewest touchdowns in the league."
Fletcher raced in unblocked and sacked Kelly to ruin Buffalo's first series. Dennis Smith's safety blitz forced Kelly to rush a third-down pass and throw incomplete on the second. Kragen intercepted a tipped pass to end the third and tipped another pass to snuff the fourth. Henderson's and Braxton's muggings of Lofton and Reed, respectively, wiped out the fifth. Meanwhile, the Denver offense was moving deeper into Bills territory, but Treadwell kept misfiring in the Rich Stadium crosswinds. "I'm a finesse kicker," he said, "and this wind moves the ball around a lot."
It was 0-0 at the half, which is like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley being scoreless at halftime of a Chicago Bulls-Philadelphia 76ers game. On the second play after intermission, Elway scrambled for two yards and didn't appear to get smashed or even unusually jostled by a Buffalo player. Still, he came up limping. Elway stayed in the game, but a Denver trainer told coach Dan Reeves that Elway was very sore and might not be able to continue. With 5:39 left in the third quarter, the Broncos took over at their 19. It was the 18th possession of the day for the two teams. It was still 0-0. "By about then I thought 3-0 would win it," Phillips said.
On second-and-10, Elway backpedaled, but the Bills had seen this play before. "Middle screen to Sewell," nose-tackle Jeff Wright said later. "We'd practiced it all week, and I actually intercepted one of these on Thursday in practice and ran it in for a touchdown." This time Wright and Bailey threw aside their blockers, but instead of continuing their charge, they recognized the screen and held up. Elway tried to pass to Sewell, but the ball tipped off Wright's outstretched hands and into Bailey's at the Denver 11. Bailey rumbled into the end zone for the first points of the game.
With 12:40 to play, Kubiak replaced Elway, whose leg had become too stiff for him to continue playing. Kubiak moved the Broncos against the Bills' prevent defense, driving them to the Buffalo 23 before turning the ball over on downs and then taking them 85 yards for Denver's only score. But he was robbed of a chance to pull out the game when Jackson stripped the ball from Sewell.
While the Bills' offense struggled to explain itself afterward—"A championship game is supposed to be a defensive battle," Kelly said cryptically—the defense basked. Bennett especially. After the game, coach Marv Levy found Bennett in the locker room and put his arm around him. "You remember last week when I told you that was your greatest game?" Levy said. "I was wrong. This one was."
That's saying something, because Bennett had stung Kansas City Chiefs running back Barry Word so often in the divisional playoff win a week earlier that Levy awarded his linebacker a cellular phone for his efforts. Levy doles out rewards each week for jobs well done, and he gave Bennett the Wake-up Call award for a vicious tackle of Word on the Chiefs' second play from scrimmage. "That hit on Word was the exclamation point on our season," said Buffalo assistant general manager Bob Ferguson last week.
Bennett's stats against Denver—nine tackles (tied for most in the game), half a sack and a deflected pass—don't tell nearly enough about his presence in the game. On a day loaded with impact players, Bennett was the most impactful. He threw aside his blocker to rush the quarterback from his regular outside linebacker position, he covered the tight end on pass routes, and he spied on Elway from an inside linebacker spot. Twice he caught the fleet Green from behind, which shouldn't really surprise: Bennett runs a 4.48 40.
Bennett wants a share of the credit that regularly goes to the Kelly-Smith-Thomas-Reed publicity juggernaut, but he rarely seeks attention. And it's no wonder, given past experiences. As soon as Bennett arrived at Alabama, then Tide coach Ray Perkins called him "the next Lawrence Taylor." Before he ever played a down as a pro, he was part of one of the biggest trades in NFL history—the three-team monster deal that sent Eric Dicker-son from the Los Angeles Rams to the Indianapolis Colts, unsigned first-round pick Bennett from the Colts to the Bills and six high draft picks from Buffalo and Indy to L.A. He has been a terrific player for the Bills, but they did not totally realize his true value until this season.
In the first half of Buffalo's season opener against Miami, the Dolphins took a quick 14-0 lead as Mark Higgs ran the Bills silly. "Everyone's hysterical on the sidelines," Bennett recalled last week, "and the coaches just decided to put the whole defensive game plan out the window. We just drew up something new right there on the sidelines and put it in." Out went the 3-4 alignment. In came the 2-5, the Sic 'em Defense, so named (later) because defensive coordinator Walt Corey put Bennett in the middle of the five linebackers and said, Chase the ball, big fella. "We gave him all the freedom in the world," Corey says, "and all year he played football like a dog chasing a cat. Turned out we became geniuses."
Corey even devised a defense modeled after the old Dallas Cowboy flex, with Bennett moving up on the line in the role played by Randy White for the Cowboys. Buffalo used it against the Tampa Bay Bucs in the fourth game of the season, and Bennett ran over 285-pound Buc center Tony Mayberry and sacked quarterback Chris Chandler. He has played a total of five positions this year: left outside linebacker, both defensive ends, inside linebacker and noseguard.
"I'm happy about it," Bennett says, "because it's given me a chance to showcase my total game. I don't want to be known as a pass-rushing linebacker. I want to be known as a complete linebacker. I'd like it if they were talking about complete linebackers someday, and they said this guy or that guy's the next Cornelius Bennett. But I want to be known as a team player, too. I told the coaches when Bruce went out, 'Hey, if you want me to put on a few pounds and go to defensive end, I'll do it.' "
He hasn't been asked that yet, but heck, there's another game to go.