When their careers are over—Cornelius Bennett's, Carlton Bailey's, Karl Mecklenburg's, Michael Brooks's and those of the 36 other defensive players in Buffalo Bills and Denver Bronco uniforms at Rich Stadium on Sunday—they will remember this AFC championship as they will remember few other games. What could have been the Great Kelly-Elway Shootout became the Great Kelly-Elway Shutout. The stars of the game were the defenders—every last one of them.
Jim Kelly of the Bills and John Elway of the Broncos, two of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL, passed for no points. And Buffalo's other high-powered weapons? Pffft. Running back Thurman Thomas averaged 2.8 yards per rush. Wideouts Andre Reed, James Lofton and Don Beebe caught four passes among them for a total of 36 yards. But while Denver may have played a better overall defensive game, the two biggest plays of the day came from the Bills defense: Bailey's 11-yard interception return for a third-quarter touchdown and cornerback Kirby Jackson's recovery of a fumble he forced with 1:28 to play.
Those two plays made the difference in Buffalo's 10-7 victory. "This is probably as classic a game as we've ever played in," said Bronco nosetackle Greg Kragen. The Bills weren't arguing. "Our defense is becoming a monster," said Buffalo defensive line coach Chuck Dickerson. "I was having a hard time getting the slobber off my chin, I was so excited watching them."
Here are the kinds of plays that left Dickerson drooling: Defensive end Bruce Smith, still slowed by his recovery from preseason knee surgery, dives between two blockers and knocks away an Elway pass. Bennett, a linebacker, bursts past Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe to level running back Gaston Green for a four-yard loss. And later Bennett stops Steve Sewell on a handoff for a two-yard loss and Vance Johnson on a reverse for a one-yard loss on successive plays.
And so it was that the Buffalo defense, crippled by injuries and ranked 27th in the NFL during the season, came together in the AFC Championship Game and fulfilled the Bills' yearlong plans for a return trip to the Super Bowl. While there will be no rematch with the New York Giants, who edged Buffalo in a 20-19 thriller in Super Bowl XXV, the Bills again will face an NFC East team, the Washington Redskins, on Jan. 26 in Minneapolis.
It's a shame Denver won't be there, because this Bronco team might have atoned for its three recent Super disasters—including one against Washington. But Denver won't be going because its kicker, David Treadwell, shanked a 47-yard field goal attempt and clanged 42-and 37-yard tries off the right upright, and because Elway was in a parka on the sideline when the Broncos needed him for Drive III.
When the moment that Elway lives for finally came against Buffalo—Denver had made it 10-7 on a three-yard quarterback draw by Elway's replacement, Gary Kubiak, and then recovered an onside kick with 1:38 to play—he was nursing a deep thigh bruise suffered early in the second half. And so, unlike the two most fabled drives in Bronco history, 98-yard marches in the closing minutes that won an AFC championship in 1987 and a divisional playoff this year, Drive III lasted all of I play. Sewell took a dump pass from Kubiak at the Buffalo 45, where he was stripped of the ball by Jackson.
"The game still comes down to defense," said Bills strong safety Leonard Smith. "Always has. The NFL wants the game so wide open. Everybody wants to see points. But you saw this game. It was exciting from beginning to end."
In the beginning, there was Denver. Surprising Denver. The day before the game, Bronco defensive coordinator Wade Phillips saw the future. "You see Kelly beating a lot of people deep," he said, relaxing at his hotel, "but we're not going to get beat deep, not with the zone we play. We might get beat underneath, but not deep." How so? The Denver corners aren't fast, and the safeties often cheat toward the line, trying to stop the run. But Phillips had two reasons for his optimism: 1) The Broncos were getting more pressure from their pass rush than at any other time since their Orange Crush days in the late 1970s, meaning Kelly wouldn't be able to sit back and pick his targets; and 2) it's hard for quarterbacks to get a quick read on Phillips's zone defense. It's a chameleon, a matchup zone that often looks like it's man-to-man when really one of the safeties is nearby to help in zone coverage.
The Buffalo offense had the ball 12 times, and the drives ended punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, halftime, punt, interception, punt, field goal, punt. But it wasn't all Kelly's fault. A couple of pedestrian corners, Tyrone Braxton and Wymon Henderson, were beating on the Buffalo receivers all day. Outside linebackers Simon Fletcher and Mike Croel were getting free and chasing down Kelly at least once on each series. Inside linebackers Brooks and Mecklenburg spearheaded a strong interior defensive effort that thwarted Thomas (72 yards on 26 carries, with his longest carry just nine yards). Phillips called for a blitz at least half the time on first down, clogging the lanes against Thomas.