We wanted The Sound of Music, and we got Son of Frankenstein. Let the hand-wringing begin.
The Super Bowl dream matchup that had everyone's heart beating faster—the Kansas City Chiefs against the San Francisco 49ers, Joe Montana against Steve Young, Psychology Bowl I, rejection and redemption—went into the Dumpster. What are we left with? O.K., fans, let's hear it for the Dallas Cowboys versus the Buffalo Bills, the same pair that gave us last year's 52-17 Turnover Bowl, which extended the Bills' Super Bowl losing streak to three.
The Bills and the Cowboys marched through Sunday's conference championship games like two teams that knew they were destined to meet again. Sure, in each game there were some moments of suspense, but it was all catch-up suspense. Can we pull to within seven? Oh, we can't? Well, maybe later.
Buffalo's 30-13 victory over Kansas City was built on a first-half mismatch that the Chiefs didn't adjust to until too late. It was big guys versus little guys, Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas pounding away behind those huge hogs up front, biting off chunks of yardage on the old Washington Redskin countertrey, with the offside guard and tackle pulling to lead, massing more power at the point of attack. The Bills were running at six defensive backs and only one linebacker, a 4-1-6 dime that was designed to cut off the passing. The Chiefs, for some reason, didn't switch out of that rather soft alignment until the second half, but by then the Bills had run off 44 plays and K.C.'s front four were wobbly-legged.
The Bills won't be running against any dimes when they meet the Cowboys this Sunday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Dallas will use the same base 4-3 defense—four quick down linemen backed up by a trio of lightning-fast linebackers—that held the San Francisco ground game to 84 yards and limited the Green Bay Packer rushing attack to 31 yards the week before.
And while the 49er offense was operating in fits and starts in the first half of the 38-21 Cowboy victory, the Dallas offense was a machine: five possessions before intermission, four touchdowns, one tick away from perfection. The Cowboys built a 28-7 lead in the first half and a 273-110 advantage on the yardage charts. Quarterback Troy Aikman was elevating his game to an even higher level and would finish the day with 14 completions on 18 attempts for 177 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Emmitt Smith accounted for 144 all-purpose yards, and wideout Alvin Harper kept a drive going in that nearly flawless first half with an astonishing fingertip catch inches off the ground.
That's what the Bills will face. Yes, their defense was good enough to unhinge Montana, whose fluttery passes were a sad ending to a magnificent season, and to keep an offense led by Dave Krieg, who came in when Montana was knocked groggy in the third quarter, out of the end zone on four of the Chiefs' last five possessions. But as Buffalo linebacker Cornelius Bennett said, "We're not playing the Chiefs next week."
The big question everyone is asking is, What under the wide blue sky will the Bills do differently this time? How will a team that has performed progressively worse in three straight Super Bowl defeats—to the New York Giants, the Redskins and the Cowboys—reverse that depressing trifecta, especially after last year's horror show?
"That loss was disgusting to us," Buffalo special teams Pro Bowler Steve Tasker said on Sunday. "To invest six months and stink it up...just disgusting."
The Bills went into their first Super Bowl after a season in which they had terrorized folks with their no-huddle, three-wideout offense. The Giants buried them with possession time, but at the end it was the Bills who were on the move and the Giants who were absorbing the punches. If Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood's field goal try with four seconds remaining had gone a few feet to the left, well, nobody would be writing about this three-loss merry-go-round.
In the years that followed, with the gradual decline and eventual departure of James Lofton, quarterback Jim Kelly's long-ball man, the Buffalo offense began to lose its sting. Thomas was—and still is—the motor that generated the power, but Lofton was the high gear in the attack. He stretched the defense and created those nice open spaces in the middle for fellow wideout Andre Reed, who would run through them on his crossing routes, breaking a tackle and turning a little gain into a long one. When the defense was loosened up, back came Thomas to pound it.
Now the only deep threat is Don Beebe and his perennially sore hamstrings. The Dallas secondary, especially corner-backs Kevin Smith and Larry Brown, who did such impressive work against the Niners' aerial circus on Sunday, will certainly be aware of Beebe, but Dallas won't make any major adjustments for him. Reed, who has been getting tighter coverage inside, and Billy Brooks are now medium-range guys. Tight end Pete Metzelaars is trying to play with a badly dislocated finger. Thomas is still magnificent, and Kelly is doing it with true grit. But by the numbers, this season's Bill offense is the weakest Buffalo has sent to a Super Bowl, in terms of both points and yards.
At the same time, the current Bill defense has surrendered more total yardage than any of the three previous Buffalo units. But an odd statistic pops up: Each of those three Super Bowl teams gave up more points. Something happens to this defense when it's threatened: It turns nasty. People you've never heard of—linebackers Marvcus Patton and Mark Maddox, end Phil Hansen, noseguard Jeff Wright—start turning their games up. Bennett, end Bruce Smith or linbebacker Darryl Talley will come up with a big play, the offense tunes in and puts together a drive or two at the end, and all of a sudden a game that should have been an L becomes a W. That's what this season has been like for the Bills. Call it toughness or experience or whatever, but that's the x factor in a match-up that otherwise looks like a Dallas blowout.
Add to that an attitude. "We're baaack," Kelly mouthed to the TV cameras at the end of the Kansas City game. "People just have to deal with us again," said Kent Hull, the center. Nobody's darlings, orphans in a storm, we'll show 'em.
O.K., they said that last year too. They insisted that they were tougher, more dedicated, more focused. And what happened? They played one quarter's worth of decent football, and then kaboom, they were buried under an avalanche of nine turnovers.
High in the Dallas press box on Sunday, A.J. Smith, the Bills' pro personnel director, sat with his pencils and his charts and scouted the Cowboys. Impressed? Oh, my, yes. "I just sat there watching and thinking, What an awesome display of football talent," he said. "So much confidence. They know they're good."
How can the Bills cope with this awesome display of talent? "Create a crack for Thurman to run through," Smith said. "Create a seam. Make a trench war out of it. Most of all, show people what our team is really like. You didn't see us last year. You saw nine turnovers."
"We're hungry, and we're not satisfied at all," said Hull following the K.C. game. "You didn't see any champagne corks popping after we beat Kansas City."
What do we have on the other side, the Cowboy side, with its parade of superstars and an offense that was honored with eight selections for the Pro Bowl? Arrogance, for one thing. Jimmy Johnson, the coach, set the tone when he called a radio show before the San Francisco game and said, "We will win the game. You can put it in three-inch headlines."
On Sunday night, after his team had humbled the Niners, after he had pronounced Aikman—who was sidelined with a concussion in the third period—fit and ready to go against Buffalo, Johnson wrapped his hand around a cold one and tried to explain why he had said such an outlandish thing. "If you can put a little fertilizer on the seeds of doubt," he said, "well, then, so be it."
How about the Super Bowl? Does he detect any seeds of doubt on the other side? More fertilizer needed, perhaps? "What Buffalo's going to be is determined," said Johnson. "Very determined. As for me, I won't be saying a word. My players won't either. We're cocky. The swagger is back. I think we'll win this game if we're afraid we'll lose it. If there's fear, then we'll win."
If the Bills can reduce the game to a slugging match, if they can set the tempo with Thomas and keep the pressure on, they will have a shot. If the game goes up on top, though, the needle will swing to Dallas. Emmitt Smith is a given; he will get his yards, and he will make his share of eye-popping plays. But Thomas, who should have been the MVP of the Bills' first Super Bowl, can match him. Aikman, on the other hand, is in another sphere right now. "I've seen him have games like he had today," said Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner on Sunday, "but never when the stakes were so high."
The highest stakes of them all are this Sunday. Call it Dallas 24-17.