The calls from various players on other teams started pouring in early last week, each of them bearing a request that stemmed less from self-interest than from a sort of football humanitarianism. "Yo, man, do me a favor," a caller would exhort cornerback Ricky Reynolds or running back Leroy Thompson or whichever New England Patriot happened to be on the other end of the line. "Do us all a favor. Beat the Bills. Knock 'em out. Give the rest of us a chance." It's a truly exceptional circumstance when NFL players call their counterparts in the name of a common cause, but four straight Super Bowls' worth of shared frustration was at stake in the AFC. Rather than merely concentrating on their own coming of age, the Patriots were being asked to make January safe for America by ending the Buffalo Bills' reign of error once and for all.
It didn't sound like too much to ask, considering that New England and Buffalo appeared to be moving in opposite directions on express elevators—the Patriots headed for the executive suites and the Bills sinking fast. But there were the young Patriots on Sunday, startled by Buffalo's surprise blocking scheme and an early two-touchdown deficit, looking like yet another casualty in the cruel chill of Rich Stadium. The Bills are the NFL's version of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards, a team constantly straddling the precipice of self-destruction but always letting down the poor blokes who picked first in the office death pool.
"They're like Dracula," New England coach Bill Parcells said later, after his team had exorcised the American sports fan's most haunting spirit by scoring 38 unanswered points and beating Buffalo 41-17. "You've got to put a stake in their heart, and then you still wonder if it's in there. They were ready to go, and they shook us."
It's too early to tell if the Patriots' crushing comeback exterminated the Bills as we know them, but it definitely thrust New England into the crowded treehouse of emerging AFC powers. While Buffalo (7-8) will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1987—Marv Levy's first full season as coach—the Pats take a 9-6 record and a six-game winning streak to Chicago on Saturday, needing a win or a tie against the Bears, or a Kansas City Chief loss to the L.A. Raiders, to clinch their first postseason berth since 1986.
Everyone figured New England, which won a total of nine games between 1990 and '92, would improve in a hurry when Parcells took over before last season, but its ascension through the AFC ranks wasn't supposed to happen this fast. By last week the Patriot bandwagon had grown to include a huge contingent of AFC players and fans who were tired of watching the Bills lose on Super Sunday.
Thus, the phone calls came to any New England player who would listen, although most of the Patriots deferred to their coach's sincere respect for all that the Bills have accomplished. "I've got plenty of friends around the league who would like to see anybody but Buffalo in the Super Bowl," Thompson said a few days before the game. "But that's a show of respect, not to mention jealousy. The Bills catch a lot of flak for not winning a Super Bowl, but you look around the league, and a lot of guys are desperate just to get there one time."
Now it's the Patriots who seem capable of fulfilling that fantasy, perhaps even this year, if they can keep playing the way they did on Sunday. It is scary to think that less than two months ago they were a non-factor in the AFC, a 3-6 team getting blown out 20-3 in the first half by the Minnesota Vikings. But New England recovered from that deficit to win 26-20, just as it fought out of a 17-3 hole on Sunday. In both cases the comeback was orchestrated by Drew Bledsoe, New England's brilliant young quarterback.
The 22-year-old Bledsoe, in his second year, has made more of an impact in a shorter period of time than any other quarterback since Dan Marino a decade ago. Against the Bills, Bledsoe was superb from the start, throwing for 201 of his 276 yards in the first half. But he doesn't play defense, and early on, neither did the Patriots. After New England opened the scoring with a field goal, the Bills answered with three consecutive scoring drives. Buffalo quarterback Frank Reich, playing for the injured Jim Kelly, threw one touchdown pass to reserve fullback Nate Turner and would have had another had Andre Reed not dropped a sure end-zone grab. For Reed, an All-Pro in an inexplicable haze on Sunday, this was ominous, and his coach knew it.
As he strolled the sideline with the big lead in the first half, Levy didn't carry his usual ration of confidence. Later he admitted that he had come to terms with his team's shortcomings many weeks ago, in the way only a parent comes to understand his child's limitations. Five times this season Buffalo had survived games with daunting implications, and Levy knew he and the Bills might run out of luck soon. "We'll play next week [at Indianapolis]," he said of the regular-season finale, "and then we'll really assess how to get our team good again fast. Because we're not good."
Levy was able to keep the aging and brittle Bills afloat this season by doing what he always does: convincing his team of its valor and resiliency and suckering foes into believing that he is a benign old codger. Levy worked the con to perfection in the Bills' running game against the Patriots. Buffalo unveiled a new blocking scheme the New England coaches had not been expecting, pulling both guards instead of a guard and a tackle to clear out gaps the size of minivans. By the second quarter Bill running back Thurman Thomas had picked up 63 yards on seven carries, despite a sore left knee. But the Pats adjusted, switching their defensive scheme from a gap-oriented alignment to one that put down linemen directly in front of the Buffalo guards. After taking the 17-3 lead, the Bills ran for just 41 yards the rest of the way.
At the same time, Buffalo was offering little resistance on defense. The awesome, tireless end Bruce Smith made some big plays early, but he got little help, and as the game progressed, he began to stick out like Demi Moore in a crowd of nuns. Each time the Bills put pressure on Bledsoe, he would calmly deliver. He was neither sacked nor intercepted, and his poise was uncanny.
By game's end Bledsoe was within two pass attempts of Warren Moon's single-season NFL record (655, set in 1991). The first of Bledsoe's three touchdown passes, a four-yarder with 9:07 left in the first half, went to his primary target, All-Species tight end Ben Coates, who leads the AFC with 93 receptions. Dismayed reporters have found that Coates treats interviews the way Dennis Rodman treats practices. They will never call him Ben Quotes, but his well-rounded skills speak with eloquence and volume.
Shortly before halftime, Bledsoe and wideout Vincent Brisby connected for the first of two scores, and the teams left the field tied at 17. Parcells didn't say much in the locker room, which was fine with his players. His stirring halftime chat in the Minnesota game has been credited with turning the season around for New England, but Pat linebacker Vincent Brown believes the coach's most effective strategy is silence. "Actually, it was what he didn't say that made more of an impact," Brown says of the Viking speech. "He said, 'How long? How long are you going to take this? How long till you fight back?' He wasn't pissed. He was more disappointed. It's like you're a kid, and you know your mother is mad at you, but she doesn't say anything. She just gives you that look."
Parcells was wearing a more forgiving look by the fourth quarter on Sunday, after Bledsoe had given him the traditional Gatorade bath. By then the crowd of 56,784 had thinned considerably. The fans were driven away by the combination of snow turned to freezing rain and a Buffalo collapse that rivaled its infamous Super Bowl XXVII stinker against the Dallas Cowboys. Buffalo's first four possessions of the second half on Sunday ended in turnovers, leading to 24 Patriot points and settling matters early in the fourth quarter.
The Bills' time expired after Reed fumbled away receptions on two consecutive series. Both balls ended up in cornerback Reynolds's hands and, eventually, the Buffalo end zone. In the end, after the midweek phone calls and the spirited comeback, the Pats' overthrow of the Bills was more disquieting than uplifting.
As Levy sat in his office after the game, reviewing the wreckage with Buffalo general manager John Butler, there was much to ponder. Already reeling from the loss of several key veterans to free agency over the past two off-seasons, the Bills this winter find themselves with little room to maneuver under the salary cap and several standout veterans among their 16 free agents. The future would seem to be gloomy, but Levy expressed optimism that the Bills could be saved by a San Francisco 49er-style infusion of fresh, free-agent talent.
A day earlier, in the same dank office, Levy had quarreled with a visitor about the Bills' loser tag, noting the three-foot-high stack of supportive mail from across the country that he has received this season. "Human nature is such that people tend to wilt from disappointment and defeat, and it takes unique qualities to overcome that tendency," he said. "Many possess those qualities, but a lot of people subjugate them. One of the easiest things is to knock someone else's failure, because it deflects your own shortcomings."
On Sunday the knock against the Bills was unavoidable. They were simply unable to stand up to a team that is sprouting like a cornstalk.