He went unblocked, then became unhinged. On the key play of the
key game of the season for the Buffalo Bills and the Miami
Dolphins, Miami middle linebacker Bryan Cox swooped untouched
into the hole over left tackle and wrapped up Buffalo running
back Thurman Thomas. But instead of going down, Thomas bucked
and struggled and got the two yards needed for a first down.
Cox, as he is wont to do, went cuckoo.
Thomas's plunge with 1:41 remaining in Sunday's game was more
than just another third-down conversion. It allowed the Bills to
run out the clock and ensured a 23-20 victory for Buffalo, which
clinched the AFC East title for the sixth time in eight seasons.
Immediately after the play, Cox felt the need to vent his
frustration and picked a fight with Bill fullback Carwell
Gardner, who got the worst of the exchange and--adding insult to
injury--was ejected along with Cox. Striding defiantly off the
field at Rich Stadium, Cox communicated his contempt for Buffalo
fans by spitting repeatedly, proving that although the Dolphins
may have fallen short of expectations this season, at least one
of them was not short of expectorations.
Cox's adolescent tantrum reminded us that Miami is not so much a
team as it is a collection of affluent individuals who, at 8-7,
are less than the sum of their parts. Even if the Dolphins beat
the St. Louis Rams on Christmas Eve, the Fish will need help
from other teams to make the playoffs. Buffalo, meanwhile, has
assured itself of a first-round playoff game at home against a
December 25, 1995
"Everyone out there said we wouldn't do it, and everyone in this
locker room knew we could," said Bill quarterback Jim Kelly
afterward. "We proved everybody wrong."
Sunday's game provided vindication not only for Buffalo but also
for eight-year veteran Thomas. On Dec. 3, Thomas's courage was
questioned by critics in the media after he benched himself--he
was suffering from leg cramps--in the third quarter of the Bills'
27-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Just as Buffalo, which
failed to make the playoffs last season, was assumed by many
observers to have begun a long, slow descent into mediocrity,
Thomas's slightly declining rushing average through the first
half of this season (67.5 yards per game as opposed to 80.3 for
his career) led to speculation that, at 29, Thomas was entering
the twilight of his career.
Guess again. Having recovered from the hamstring injury that
kept him out of two midseason games, Thomas has rushed for 277
yards in his last two outings, including 148 yards on 35 carries
on Sunday. If he gains 15 yards against the Houston Oilers this
Sunday, he will become the third NFL back to have rushed for
more than 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons.
Perhaps no Bill has been as resilient, though, as Buffalo's
67-year-old coach, Marv Levy, who underwent surgery to have a
cancerous prostate removed on Oct. 17 and was back at work three
weeks later. "A week after he got back, he was jogging after
practice," marvels the Bills' Steve Tasker. "It was as if he'd
never been sick."
Levy attributes his speedy return to the fact that he was in
good shape before his operation. He also says that he
jump-started his post-op exercise regimen after receiving a call
from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a fellow prostate-cancer victim
who urged him to start walking as soon as possible. Said Levy to
Schwarzkopf, "If the general tells me to march, I'm going to
During his absence Levy didn't forget how to coach. He racked up
his latest win over Miami's Don Shula--against whom he is 16-6
lifetime--by throwing a couple of new wrinkles at the Dolphins.
The Bills loosened up Miami's defense by giving the ball on
reverses to Tasker, who started at wide receiver. After he had
run the same play three times, Tasker told his coaches, "Guys,
listen, one of these times, they're going to get smart." In
fact, they didn't. Tasker ran six reverses for 50 yards.
Buffalo kept Miami's offensive line off-balance by frequently
showing a four-man front--a switch from the 3-4 alignment the
Bills have used all season. The new look helped Buffalo limit
Miami to 42 net rushing yards and took some heat off the trio of
novices, who, because of injuries, were logging major minutes on
the Bills' defense.
At left corner was rookie Ken Irvin, making his third NFL start
in place of the injured Marlon Kerner--also a rookie. Taking
Irvin's place as the nickelback on passing downs was Filmel
Johnson, who had never played in an NFL game and was activated
from the Bills' practice squad last Saturday. They were joined
by outside linebacker David White, who has been cut three times
in three years. Not only did each hold his own against the
Dolphins, but each also made at least one big play. White, in
fact, turned in a gigantic one.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the score 20-20, Miami
quarterback Dan Marino dropped back, looked left and zipped a
pass toward Irving Fryar on the left sideline. White, who had
taken two steps forward--thus giving Marino the impression he was
coming up to cover running back Bernie Parmalee--intercepted the
ball and ran it nine yards to the Miami 11-yard line. Four plays
later Buffalo kicker Steve Christie converted White's pick into
the game-winning field goal.
Six minutes later Thomas came between Cox and Gardner,
attempting to play peacemaker even though his mother, Terlisha
Cockrell, had warned him by telephone before the game to steer
clear of Cox. "That Bryan Cox--you stay away from him," she
scolded. "Don't mess with him."
"I think she's right," said Thomas.
Gardner may have to be given the same advice. After being
ejected, he came off the field and attempted to storm the
visitors' dressing room in search of Cox. Fortunately he was
repelled by half a dozen security guards. The thought of those
two continuing to trade blows was a scary one.
Here's a scarier one for other AFC teams: The Bills are getting
healthy and hitting their stride, just in time for the playoffs.