Starring Roles

In a 24-3 win over Pittsburgh, some unheralded Bills kept Buffalo's Super Bowl hopes alive
January 18, 1993

Last Saturday the Buffalo Bills' quarterback, weary but smiling, slung his gym bag over his passing shoulder and headed for the exit of the visitors' locker room at Three Rivers Stadium. Three security guards in brown coats snapped to attention near the door, ready to lead him to the team bus. Just then a woman rushed through the door, past the guards, and unfurled a poster that her kids had made for their hero. "I just had to give it to you!" she said.

The quarterback thanked her sincerely and then made his way out the door—two brown coats brushing fans aside ahead of him, the other brown coat keeping the crowd away behind him. Still, 50 or so fans pressed in. "Sign this!" they said, thrusting programs at him. "Could we get a picture?" cute teenyboppers implored.

Jim Kelly, right? No, the Buffalo quarterback being mobbed on this day was his backup, Frank Reich.

In the last two weeks we've seen another side of the star-laden, two-time defending AFC champion Bills, who once again appear to be the class of their conference as they head into Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Miami Dolphins. In Buffalo this postseason belongs to unheralded players like Reich, running back Kenneth Davis, nosetackle Jeff Wright and defensive end Phil Hansen.

Six days after taking the Bills from 32 points down against the Houston Oilers to the greatest comeback victory in NFL history, the unflappable Reich led his team to a 24-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in a divisional playoff. Take your time rehabbing that bum knee, Jim. Davis entered the Steeler game when Thurman Thomas's nagging hip pointer flared up, and he ran for 104 yards on 10 carries. Davis leads all postseason rushers, with 172 yards in two games. Get some rest, Thurman. And, between them, Wright and Hansen had five sacks in the two playoff wins, shouldering some of the pass-rushing load usually reserved for Pro Bowl defensive mates Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett, both of whom are playing hurt. "I feel like a role player," Smith said.

The players on great teams don't care who gets it done, just as long as it gets done. Maybe it's good for the Bills that they've had to travel a tougher postseason road this year, after two years in which they coasted through the playoffs with the home field advantage, only to suffer Super Bowl disappointments. A lackluster 1992 regular season cost the Bills the AFC East title, dropped them into the wildcard round and put them on the road for the divisional and championship rounds.

"Things came so easy in the past couple of years," Bennett said. "We had a lot of guys making the Pro Bowl early in their careers. We made the Super Bowl twice. This year we've had to work for every win. I think we're more appreciative of things. We're more eager."

Entering Saturday's game, the Steelers were confident they could shake up the Bills by throwing more on first and second downs than Buffalo had reason to expect and by alternating between dime and regular schemes on defense. What's more, the city of Pittsburgh had gone nuts over its team, just as it had when the Steelers won four Super Bowls in the '70s. A song entitled Cowher Power in honor of coach Bill Cowher was all over the radio. Steeler broadcaster Myron Cope revived the Terrible Towel, urging fans to rummage through their closets and dig out the gold, black and white hand towels they had waved in the glory years. About 40,000 people found their towels, and the stadium was a sea of the good-luck charms.

The problem was that the Buffalo defense slammed the door on the Steelers, who produced just 240 yards. Pittsburgh crossed midfield seven times but came away with only three points. After missing the last three regular-season games with a fractured leg, quarterback Neil O'Donnell looked shaky, fumbling twice and throwing two interceptions. "You put the knife to your throat too many times, and eventually you'll cut it," said Steeler corner D.J. Johnson. "You can't blow that many opportunities to score."

Still, the game came down to back-to-back plays in the middle of the third quarter, with Buffalo leading 7-3 and driving. Rod Woodson, Pittsburgh's Pro Bowl left cornerback, was on the sideline shaking off the effects of a blow to his head. Nickelback Sammy Walker had replaced Woodson, and Reich was chewing him up and spitting him out. On the drive Reich had thrown over Walker to James Lofton for 12 yards, had gotten a pass-interference call on Walker on another pass to Lofton and had thrown over Walker to Don Beebe for nine yards. So when Buffalo had second-and-13 at the Pittsburgh 17, Cowher pulled Walker—"so I could get my head together," Walker said—and sent in reserve Richard Shelton to play left corner. That's when the game turned.

Shelton had hurt his right hand making a tackle earlier, so he was wearing an extra pair of gloves because he thought they would give the hand more stability. On the radio Cope hollered, "Let's get that big defensive play! C'mon, wave those towels!" The fans, many of whom were tuned in to their radio conscience, waved their towels madly and screamed.

When Reich went back to pass, Shelton stayed close to Beebe. And when the ball left Reich's hand, it looked as if he had made his only bad decision of the day. The pass went right to Shelton at the 15. "I didn't even run at him," Reich said, "because I knew [if Shelton intercepted] there was no way I'd catch him."

Instead of picking off the pass and running 85 yards for a touchdown that would have put Pittsburgh in the lead, Shelton failed to grasp the ball as it hit his outstretched hands. "I saw the goal line before the ball hit me," Shelton said. "It would have been six. Sometimes the plays you don't make come back to haunt you."

On the next play Lofton, split wide right, was supposed to run a post pattern, taking Walker, who was back in the game, deep to the middle of the field. However, as they left the huddle, Reich told Lofton to run a fade pattern, a 9 Route, because he thought Lofton could end up in single coverage if the Steelers clogged the middle. "The key on a fade is James's release off the line," Reich said. "If he can get ahead of the corner right away, I can throw it out there for him, and he can either slow down or speed up to catch it."

Reich laid it out there perfectly for Lofton, who made the catch in the end zone with Walker on his back. Suddenly, instead of Pittsburgh leading 10-7, Buffalo was on top 14-3. Even though 19 minutes were still left to play, the game was over.

From there Reich was mistake-free. In the playoffs he has completed 37 of 57 passes for 449 yards, with six touchdowns and one interception. Davis helped run out the clock, rushing for 64 yards in the fourth quarter. He slashed and sprinted the way he had been expected to when he came out of TCU, a second-round draft pick by the Green Bay Packers in 1986. Buffalo picked him up on Plan B in '89.

Meanwhile Wright and Hansen continued to collapse the pocket. Wright, an eighth-round selection in '88, got his fourth sack of the postseason when he nailed O'Donnell on third-and-10 with seven minutes to go. Hansen, a farm kid from North Dakota State who was plucked in the second round in 1991, had 13 tackles, a sack, a deflected pass and a fumble recovery in the two playoff games.

The Bills are an entire team of contributors as they head into the title game in Miami. Kelly will take the starting job back when he's healthy, but it may not be this week. Last weekend he still couldn't move laterally because of a strained knee ligament, and he said, "I won't risk my career for one playoff game." Thomas will start, but who knows how long he'll last. Smith, who already had three cracked ribs on his right side, left the Steeler game with bruised ribs on his left side.

Should Buffalo prevail against the Dolphins, don't be surprised if yet another new hero has stepped forward. That's the kind of season it's turning out to be for the Bills. "What we've come to learn," said Reich, "is that when you win, there's enough glory for everybody."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERAfter Shelton's botched pickoff, Lofton scored over Walker (23). PHOTOJOHN BIEVERThe Buffalo blockers were all ears when Reich became all lungs at noisy Three Rivers.

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