Eric Mahlum made no attempt to conceal his disgust. "Now you
show up," he huffed as a reporter approached. "Now you want to
Mahlum, who plays right guard for the Indianapolis Colts, had a
right to be upset; he knows a rubbernecker when he sees one. On
Sunday, after the Colts suffered their first defeat of the
season, 16-13 in overtime to the Buffalo Bills, one found
oneself drawn to the dark, malodorous corner of the visitors'
locker room where Mahlum and the other Colts offensive linemen
sat moping and scowling. It was interesting to talk to them for
the same reason it might be interesting to talk to people who
have survived being run over by a bus.
The Colts arrived in Western New York last week as the NFL's
feel-good story of '96. They departed having lost for the 14th
time in their last 16 games at Rich Stadium and having been
reminded that--for them, anyway--the road to the AFC
championship goes through Buffalo.
For the Bills and their septuagenarian coach, Marv Levy,
meanwhile, there is not much sand remaining in the top of the
hourglass. If they don't get to the Super Bowl this season, they
probably won't get there again in this millennium. If they do
get there, it will be on the strength of their sensational
October 13, 1996
Sure, the Bills had a few offensive highlights on Sunday. In
rushing for 69 yards, Thurman Thomas became the 11th player in
NFL history to run for more than 10,000 yards. Backup
quarterback Todd Collins continued to blossom, muzzling his
critics by winning his second consecutive game in relief of Jim
Kelly, who injured his right hamstring on Sept. 19. And Steve
Christie, Buffalo's Ontario-born kicker, celebrated Canada Day
at Rich Stadium--and delighted the detachment of Royal Canadian
Mounted Police who had presented the color guard--by kicking
field goals of 42, 37 and 39 yards. The second kick, with 15
seconds remaining in regulation, sent the game into overtime.
The last, 9:22 into the extra session, sealed the win over what
had been the NFL's only undefeated team.
But make no mistake: Buffalo won--and prevented Indianapolis
from taking a two-game lead in the AFC East (both teams are now
4-1)--because its defensive front seven "kicked the s--- out of
us," as Colts left tackle Troy Auzenne conceded. The Colts'
marketing slogan this season is "Go Hoarse!" That is what
Auzenne, Mahlum and their colleagues almost did, so frequently
were they forced to shout "Look out!" to their quarterback, Jim
Harbaugh played well under trying circumstances. He was sacked
six times, knocked down at least 12 other times and hurried
virtually every time he dropped back to pass. He completed only
17 of 42 attempts. Of his 25 incompletions, probably a dozen
were throwaways to avoid being sacked. Harbaugh did not fumble
or throw an interception, a feat he described as "phenomenal"
considering the mauling he endured.
If Harbaugh seemed not at all unhappy--even a trifle giddy--in
defeat, perhaps it was because he had led his team back from a
10-0 deficit. The Colts scored 10 fourth-quarter points and led
13-10 before Collins drove the Bills 58 yards in 1:36 to set up
Christie's game-tying kick. Also, Harbaugh knew he was lucky to
be leaving the stadium under his own power.
That Indianapolis was in for a long afternoon was foretold by
Bills outside linebacker Bryce Paup, whose two sacks on Sunday
would give him four on the season and eight in his last three
games against the Colts. After practice on Friday, Paup pointed
at Bruce Smith, Buffalo's peerless defensive end, and said, "I
don't see how they're going to block him with two people."
They seldom did. Colts left guard Doug Widell repeatedly slid
over to help Auzenne try to contain Smith, but Smith was barely
bothered. Noting that Smith was flagged three times for jumping
offside, Widell said, "He's guessing a lot of the time,
anticipating the snap. If he guesses right, you're dead."
Smith clobbered Harbaugh numerous times and sacked him once, for
Smith's sixth sack of the season. (He also has blocked two field
goal attempts.) He is the only one of Buffalo's aging stars who
is performing as well as he did in the team's heyday, from 1990
to '94. Smith is playing with fury, which is fitting, since he
is furious with Bills owner Ralph Wilson.
Just before last season Smith, a 12-year veteran, agreed to have
his contract renegotiated in what he thought was a move to clear
room under the salary cap for management to pursue free agents.
"I took a pay cut to help the team," he says. "Little did I know
they were going to turn around and sign one of our own players
to a big multimillion-dollar contract." That would be left
tackle John Fina, who got himself a five-year deal for $15
million, every penny of which Smith apparently begrudges him. "I
just felt like I'd been stabbed in the back," says Smith, who is
signed through the 1997 season.
Smith hinted that he might hold out, but on the eve of the '96
season opener he announced that he would "put aside the fact
that I'd been treated unfairly and put my trust and confidence
in the integrity of Mr. Wilson that this issue will be resolved
immediately following the season." The angrier Smith is, goes
the conventional wisdom in Buffalo, the better he plays. For
this reason the Bills are unlikely to renegotiate his contract
during the season. Meanwhile, Smith's kvetching about his
contract has begun to wear on his teammates, who consider him
something of a "me" guy. "He's something special," said
linebacker Chris Spielman after Sunday's victory. "Just ask him."
Smith is not the only Buffalo star to have had his feelings
injured recently by the front office. Wideout Andre Reed, also
in his 12th year, tested the free-agency waters after the '95
season and found them stagnant. Partly because there were so
many good receivers available in last spring's draft, and partly
because Reed had missed 10 games last season with a hamstring
injury, he got no offers. The Bills agreed to take him back, but
only after making him run to show that the leg was healed.
"That really hurt," says Reed, the most prolific receiver in
Buffalo history, with 719 catches. "As much as I've done for
this organization--they know what I can do, what kind of work
ethic I have. They should have known I wasn't going to lay down
in the off-season and come back lame."
Reed made a 60-yard touchdown catch in the Bills' season-opening
23-20 overtime win over the New York Giants. Did he feel
vindicated? As he left the field at Giants Stadium he was
overheard shouting to no one in particular, "Hamstring? Kiss my
Reed's vindication continued against the Colts as he made two of
the game's critical catches. The first came in the second
quarter, on first-and-10 from the Colts' 30. Collins faked to
running back Darick Holmes, then hummed a touchdown strike to
Reed, who had beaten Indianapolis cornerback Ray Buchanan.
With a little less than 10 minutes to go in overtime, on
third-and-six from the Colts' 44, Collins consulted Reed in the
huddle. "Andre, how's that quick slant look to the strong side?"
the quarterback asked.
"It looks good, but get it to me quick and low," said Reed, who
made a lunging snag for an 11-yard gain. Six plays later
Christie ended the game.
As the opposing players came together on the field at the end of
the game, Harbaugh sought out Smith, who got a big laugh out of
what the rival quarterback had to say: "I agree with you, Bruce.
I think you're definitely underpaid."