Call it romance, call it nostalgia, but I look at the Buffalo
Bills and see five proud veterans rallying the troops behind
them for one final Super Bowl push: Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith,
Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Kent Hull. Collectively they have
been selected for 27 Pro Bowls. They're all 30 or older. They
all know the elation of playing on four straight Super Sundays
and the disappointment of four defeats. All of their names will
come up when the Hall of Fame committee gathers for future
selection meetings.

The Bills suffered through a 7-9 post-Super Bowl slump in 1994,
but after everybody had written them off, they returned to the
playoffs in '95. Now Buffalo has been rebuilt to the point at
which it is again a championship contender.

Granted, injuries are a significant factor when you're talking
about people with this much mileage on them. Reed, the AFC's top
receiver over the past decade, is coming off a serious left
hamstring pull from last season. Thomas rebounded from midseason
leg injuries to rush for 1,000 yards for the seventh consecutive
year. Hull, the 35-year-old center, and Smith, the great
pass-rushing end, are healthy, but Kelly had off-season right
shoulder surgery, and he's the biggest question of all.

Kelly says he's fine, but he always says that in the summer. If
the Bills can squeeze another season out of his right arm,
everyone will breathe easier. At 36, he's in the final year of
his contract and has a handshake agreement with owner Ralph
Wilson that in 1997 he'll get a three- or four-year deal that
will put him into the Marino-Elway class of $5 million to $6
million annually. In this cap-conscious climate you rarely see
rewards for past performance, but Wilson and coach Marv Levy are
old world, and they're telling their players that loyalty goes
both ways.

In 1995 the Bills picked off the free-agent plum of the year,
pass rusher Bryce Paup. He led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks last
year, and Buffalo's total jumped to a respectable 49 from an
anemic 25 the previous season. This year the Bills got two more
good players through free agency: Former Detroit Lion Chris
Spielman, a run stuffer, replaces Cornelius Bennett, a
cover-type inside linebacker who left for the Atlanta Falcons;
and former New Orleans Saints wideout Quinn Early gives Buffalo
a deep threat. The hurry-up offense hasn't been the same since
losing the speedy James Lofton after the 1992 season, but now it
has new zip, aided by Early and first-round pick Eric Moulds.

Everything seems to be in place. Eighteen of last year's
starters were Bills draft picks. Buffalo has been selective--and
effective--in the free-agent market. With all due respect to my
colleague Peter King and his choice of the Kansas City Chiefs
for the AFC title, the pick here is the Bills to win their
conference and to beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
Make it 24-20. Call it destiny.

Is Jimmy Johnson destined to be known as the man who replaces
coaching legends? Is that how the world will remember him? First
Tom Landry with the Dallas Cowboys, now Don Shula with the Miami
Dolphins. And when his four-year contract with the Dolphins is
up, who will be next? Levy?

The coaching change in Dallas was a bitter affair, but Johnson's
takeover in Miami was smoothly orchestrated. Shula still sits on
the Dolphins' board of directors and has made no recriminations,
at least not publicly. Scrutiny of Johnson's quotes, though,
reveals an annoyance at being left shorthanded. Miami tapped the
treasury for a one-year Super Bowl push in 1995 and fell flat,
leaving the Dolphins without enough money to re-sign defensive
stars Marco Coleman, Bryan Cox and Troy Vincent.

Now Johnson has to roll up his sleeves and start building, a
task he accomplished memorably in Dallas. Of course, there was
no unfettered free agency or salary cap then. He did it mostly
through trades and the draft, the two usually overlapping. The
question of whether he still has the knack after a two-year
hiatus in the Fox TV studio was answered in a series of
draft-day moves in which he traded a second-round pick and a
fourth-rounder for four picks in rounds 3 through 7. He took 12
players in the seven-round draft, and that's what he likes best,
lots of young people. "When you bring in a college player, he
doesn't have an opinion on how to do things," Johnson says. "I'm
not interested in having a lot of opinions."

He had to address three areas: defense, the running game (Miami
hasn't averaged four yards a crack since 1987) and support for
Dan Marino. The defense gets an infusion of youth, with two
rookies projected as starters: top draft pick Daryl Gardener, a
320-pound tackle, and middle linebacker Zach Thomas. Either
Irving Spikes or rookie Karim Abdul Jabbar will be the tailback,
and at fullback the Dolphins are looking closely at another
rookie, 232-pound blocking specialist Stanley Pritchett.

In the third area Johnson bit the bullet and re-signed left
guard Keith Sims to a five-year, $9 million deal and then paid
wideout Fred Barnett, a free agent from the Philadelphia Eagles,
$8.5 million for five years, only to see Barnett go down in
training camp with a torn knee ligament. He's probably out for
the season.

Miami is still thin at wideout and tight end. Left defensive end
Jeff Cross is out indefinitely with a bad back, and stopping
people consistently will be a problem. I see a fast start for
Miami, which opens with home games against the New England
Patriots and the New York Jets sandwiched around a road contest
against the Arizona Cardinals. I see a lot of September
headlines predicting Super Bowl. Maybe someday but not this year.

The Indianapolis Colts got within sniffing distance of the big
game in 1995. A field goal try that falls short, a pass that is
slightly off target or a missed tackle is often all that
separates an 8-8 team from contending for an NFL title. Let's go
back to Dec. 23, Indianapolis versus New England. The 8-7 Colts
were fighting for a playoff spot but trailed 7-0 after a
miserable first half. Then Indy quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who
had been sacked three times before intermission, completed 12
straight passes, and the Colts defense, which had given up 192
first-half yards, shut out the Patriots. In the fourth quarter
Indianapolis held on for dear life as New England, with a first
down at the Indianapolis 15, missed a field goal and then on
subsequent possessions threw two interceptions. Indianapolis won
10-7 and sneaked into the AFC playoffs as the fifth seed. Whew.

You know the rest. There were the upsets of the San Diego
Chargers and the Chiefs in the Cinderella ride through the
playoffs, and any number of chances to spring the biggest
stunner of all, against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC
Championship Game. But what a year it was for a team that had
been predicted to do nothing.

And what was coach Ted Marchibroda's reward for his masterful
job? He got a one-year contract offer, at the same $600,000
salary he made in 1995. It was take it or leave it. Marchibroda
left for the Baltimore Ravens.

Up steps Lindy Infante, the Colts' offensive coordinator in
1995. But he may not have an easy time of it, because there's a
lot of headshaking in the Indianapolis locker room among players
who think this isn't the way things are supposed to be done.

Give Bill Tobin, the Colts' director of football operations,
credit for giving Harbaugh a chance after everyone said he was
finished in Chicago after the 1993 season. Tobin knows his
football, even if he did trade for Craig Erickson in an
ill-fated attempt to unseat Harbaugh last year. But the handling
of the Marchibroda situation was ugly, and it's hard to believe
that a little bit of this team's spirit won't be missing.

Am I making too much of this? Are the Colts so talent-laden, so
flushed with confidence that they can ride into the playoffs? I
don't think so, but they do have some solid, if unrecognized,
players. Harbaugh, the ultimate low-risk quarterback, threw an
NFL-low five interceptions last year. But it's doubtful that
running back Marshall Faulk, coming off knee surgery, has the
zip he showed as a rookie. As for the defense, it seems to
perform at its best when the stakes are highest. End Tony
Bennett, linebacker Quentin Coryatt and tackle Tony Siragusa all
could be reaching Pro Bowl status, and former Bears end Richard
Dent seems to have found new legs.

But that Marchibroda thing still rankles. Sorry.

New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells gets furious when
people call him a lame duck, but late last season he did chop a
year off his contract, meaning that he is in the final season of
his deal. That says that new assistant head coach Bill
Belichick, hired to coach the Patriots' defensive backs this
year, will be the coach in 1997. Belichick is a good addition.
New England was 28th in the NFL in total defense in '95, and
Parcells wanted to address the defensive shortcomings with the
seventh pick in the draft. Instead he got 5'10", 184-pound
wideout Terry Glenn. No quick fixes for a coach in the last year
of his contract, the brass was saying. We're building for the
future, and this kid is special. "How's he doing?" someone asked
Parcells after Glenn had missed another practice with a pulled
hamstring. "She's making progress," Parcells replied.

Drew Bledsoe has a new quarterback coach in Chris Palmer and, he
says, a new commitment. He threw for 3,507 yards last season,
but when the Patriots got into the red zone, they sputtered.
Defensive backs said Bledsoe was easy to read. He would look for
tight end Ben Coates, and if Coates was covered, panic set in.
That will be corrected, Parcells says. That might mean even more
work for Curtis Martin, who as a rookie last season gave the
Patriots more than they ever expected--1,487 rushing yards, to
be exact.

Because of the Parcells situation, people are predicting
everything from a division title to a last-place finish. That's
why I'm playing it safe.

The New York Jets are doing everything but playing it safe. Last
spring I saw a guy outside a K Mart with a basket and a bell. He
was chanting, "Please give to the Jets War Relief Fund," so I
dropped a dollar in the basket, and now I feel good about
helping the worst team in football buy enough players to compete.

Pete Carroll went 6-10 in 1994, his first year as coach, and he
got fired. Rich Kotite went 3-13 last season, so what did Jets
owner Leon Hess do? He opened the vault and said, "Buy your way
out of it." The Jets spent more than $50 million in the
off-season on free agents, including the $25 million that former
Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell got. So let's just say that
New York helped itself in every area it addressed, mainly
because the people it replaced were so hopeless.

Last season the Jets had four tackles, none of whom could
pass-block. They had so few wideouts that they couldn't even put
a three-receiver package on the field. They scored two rushing
touchdowns. Their quarterback couldn't throw a sideline pass.
But their defense was solid, especially their strong safety,
Victor Green, who's as good as there is in the league.

Green had 186 tackles last year, and he was nifty in coverage.
Teammates seemed to rally around him. Defensive tackle Matt
Brock, pass-rushing end Hugh Douglas, left cornerback Aaron
Glenn and linebackers Marvin Jones and Mo Lewis are excellent,
too. It took the Jets four games to find out what wideout
Keyshawn Johnson, the top pick in the draft, could do, but that
post-corner move he put on Oakland Raiders corner Larry Brown
for a score during the Jets' preseason finale shows there are
big things to come.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Thomas may be 30, but after seven consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, he can still cut it. [Thurman Thomas] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER As usual, Marino will pile up passing yards; as usual, he'll lack a supporting ground game. [Dan Marino] COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Can Coryatt (55) and the Colts finish as high in the standings as they unexpectedly did in '95? [Quentin Coryatt]

Prediction

Bills
11-5

Dolphins
9-7

Colts
8-8

Patriots
8-8

Jets
6-10

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)