In each of the last three years, it was a favorite pastime around the league to look for reasons why the Buffalo Bills wouldn't make it to the Super Bowl—again. Here are this year's reasons, in order: The pitching shoulder of Jim Kelly may not hold up; the wear and tear on Thurman Thomas, the NFL's most-abused runner, is beginning to show; and an aging defense is cracking. Here's one reason, though, why the Bills will finish atop the AFC East: Everyone else in the division has at least one major deficiency that will keep them trailing Buffalo, if just barely.

At 34 Kelly does his best to play down the tendinitis that nearly forced him to undergo off-season shoulder surgery. "It's nothing that any other guy who's been playing quarterback as long as I have wouldn't have," he says. But add the tender shoulder to the fact that, statistically, 1992 and '93 were the worst seasons of Kelly's eight-year NFL career, and you can see why time may be running out for this team to win the Big One.

As for Thomas—who is 28 going on 50 after catching 48 passes and lugging the ball 355 times last year—his yards per carry in '93 dropped by a full yard from the year before, to 3.7 yards per rush. And over the past two years he has lost the blocking of Pro Bowl linemen Will Wolford and Howard Ballard, who left the team as free agents. Their replacements, John Fina and Jerry Crafts, must still prove their NFL mettle.

Even though the defense isn't what it used to be, the front seven, led by end Bruce Smith and linebackers Darryl Talley and Cornelius Bennett, can still rattle the Marinos and Esiasons of the game. And that line will have to keep pressure on the passer, because the Bills' secondary is changing on the fly. Only safety Henry Jones is a familiar name in that unit.

This Buffalo team would seem to be staring at its last truly good chance at an NFL championship—although that has been said before. "You can say what you want to about us," Talley says. "Yeah, we haven't won the Big One. But we're entering this season the same hard-nosed way we've entered the past few seasons: determined to win it all. We're the pit bulls of the NFL. You'll have to kill us before we stop fighting."

The team best able to overtake the Bills appears to be the Miami Dolphins, who received two good pieces of news on Aug. 20, following a preseason loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. First, cornerback Troy Vincent, who missed the final three games of last season with a knee injury that required major surgery, played just over a quarter against the Bucs and then uttered the three words the Dolphins had been praying to hear since camp opened: "I feel ready." Vincent is essential to the Dolphin defense, which surrendered an average of 42 points—and, consequently, a playoff berth—in the three games he missed.

Second, quarterback Dan Marino trotted out his surgically repaired right Achilles tendon for its first big test. He played the first half plus the first series of the third quarter against Tampa Bay, and the tendon seemed to hold up about as well as the rest of the veteran quarterback's body parts, which is to say with Hall of Fame efficiency.

Even without Marino, the Dolphins had little trouble scoring points last season—but not enough points to overcome the collapse of the defense down the stretch, a collective failure that could not be blamed solely on Vincent's knee injury, defensive end Marco Coleman's broken hand or middle linebacker John Offerdahl's myriad ailments. In fact, the defense's pratfall has become an annual event. At the end of the 1992 season, Miami could not handle Buffalo's three-wideout scheme, and the Dolphins were blown out at home in the AFC Championship Game. They allowed the fifth-most points in the league in '91. And they were steamrollered for 44 playoff points by the Bills' juggernaut in '90.

Two major off-season acquisitions give Miami hope that the trend will end this year: defensive tackle Tim Bowens, a 330-pound first-round draft choice from Ole Miss; and free safety Gene Atkins, a free-agent signee who might have been the New Orleans Saints' most valuable defensive player last year.

Oh, yes, there was one other piece of good news for the Dolphins on Aug. 20. Deion Sanders, the safety-kick returner-wideout, who was touring camps as a free agent looking for a place to work, held a press conference that day to say that Miami was one team he would like to play for. Now, if the Dolphins could come to terms with the league's most exciting player and still fit him in under i he salary cap, that would be the kind of news that could help this team finish off Buffalo.

Bill Parcells obviously thinks he has a good team in his second season as coach of the New England Patriots. How can you tell? Parcells is ripping his players after they win, that's how. It's something he used to do when he was with the New York Giants—and don't forget, he took them to two Super Bowls. Whenever the Giants got high and mighty, Parcells would deflate them. Whenever the players were low, he would pump them up. And so after New England won its second game of the preseason, 28-10 over the Los Angeles Rams, Parcells lashed out at his club. "I'm not satisfied with anything," he said. "We were lucky to be in the game at halftime. If this were a regular-season game, we're in a lot of trouble."

How dreadful were his Patriots? Second-year quarterback Drew Bledsoe led his team on three touchdown drives in just over two quarters, throwing a pair of touchdown passes. Just awful. "Part of the reason we started off so poorly," Parcells fumed, "was the play of Bledsoe." Up is down. Wins are losses.

If we are reading Parcells correctly, New England might be the NFL's sleeper of the year, especially if the Pats' first-round draft pick, linebacker Willie McGinest, can bolster the pass rush and if some no-name receivers come through. New England chose to draft McGinest instead of signing free agent Tony Bennett after Parcells analyzed films of Bennett (36 sacks in 56 games with the Green Bay Packers) and decided Bennett was not his kind of pass rusher. While McGinest was regarded as inconsistent at USC, Parcells believed McGinest's play suffered as a result of his being shifted from position to position in the Trojan defense.

Elsewhere in the lineup, Parcells has most of what he wants in place: Bledsoe, a big-armed quarterback; Marion Butts, a tank of a running back; an offensive line that averages 287 pounds; good cover corners in Maurice Hurst and Ricky Reynolds; and a solid but unspectacular defensive front seven. If it all comes together, the Patriots will reach double figures in the win column.

Strange team, the New York Jets. Ten years ago Art Monk was 27 and was setting a then NFL record of 106 catches for the Washington Redskins; Ronnie Lott was 25 and the best secondary player in football; and Nick Lowery, then 28, was in his fifth season as a premier kicker. Now each of these guys—along with 34-year-old defensive tackle Bill Pickel—is the oldest NFL player at his position, but they are keys to a team that is fighting to make the playoffs.

The Jets are loaded with ifs: if the old geezers can still contribute, if Marvin Jones can rebound from a hip fracture to become an impact linebacker, if Boomer Esiason can remain a top-drawer quarterback, if Johnny Johnson can be the bruising running back that he was a year ago, if tight end Johnny Mitchell can mature into an offensive force, if wideout Rob Moore's broken wrist heals quickly, if someone like linebacker Jeff Lageman emerges as a quality pass rusher—if all this happens, then the Jets will be a playoff team.

Count on this, though: Rookie coach Pete Carroll will be a good NFL coach. He'll get his players to leave everything they've got out on the field.

How can you feel anything but a little sorry for the Indianapolis Colts? Maybe they did make the wrong decision when they bypassed Trent Differ on draft day, settling on free agent Jim Harbaugh as their starting quarterback. But then, the Colts' list of top draftees in the '90s is littered with mistakes and tragedies. The No. 1 pick in 1990, quarterback Jeff George, flat gave up on them. Their '91 pick, defensive lineman Shane Curry from Miami, was murdered in the parking lot of a Cincinnati bar. Their '92 top pick, Washington defensive tackle Steve Emtman, blew out his left knee in Game 9 of his rookie season and hurt his right knee so badly in the fifth game of last season that he won't be back any earlier than November. And one of Indy's two first-round picks last April, linebacker Trev Alberts from Nebraska, is already out for the year with a partially dislocated elbow.

The lone survivor amid these ruins, wideout Scan Dawkins, a '93 first-round selection, sounds like he's walking on eggshells. "I know there have been first-round busts: that's always a possibility," he says. "And I have to admit there is a little bit of nervousness on my part heading into the season."

Running back Marshall Faulk, the second player chosen overall this year, from San Diego State, should resuscitate a running game that was dead last in the NFL the past three years. Still, it's amazing that the Colts have had five top-10 picks in the last five drafts and only one—Faulk—is likely to be an impact player in '94.

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PHOTORICHARD MACKSONThomas set a Buffalo record for carries in 1993, but how much has he got left? PHOTOAL TIELEMANSJohnson fueled the Jets last year, leading them in rushing and receiving.

prediction

BUFFALO

10-6

MIAMI

9-7

NEW ENGLAND

8-8

N.Y. JETS

8-8

INDIANAPOLIS

5-11

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)