If you watched Sunday's AFC and NFC championship games, there's no logical way you could like the Buffalo Bills over the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXVI. But I do. Maybe it's just stubborn loyalty to my preseason Super Bowl pick: Bills 20, Redskins 17. It could be just a hunch or the memory of last year's NFL title game, in which the New York Giants came in by the back door and the Bills rode in on a chariot after having blown through the playoffs.
One of the proven theories of Super Bowl handicapping is, Go with the hot team. But last season, after Buffalo had crushed the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 and the Giants had stolen a 15-13 win from the San Francisco 49ers in the conference championship games, the form chart got dinged and New York took it all in the Big One. Now the situation is reversed. The Skins are pushing all the right buttons, and the Bills are in on a pass.
Washington's 41-10 victory over the Detroit Lions in the NFC final was a cerebral as well as a physical triumph, the kind of game after which the winning coaches get together and say to one another, "See, I told you it would work." The Redskins defense—mixing things up just enough by throwing an odd assortment of blitzes at young Lion quarterback Erik Kramer and getting away from tendencies—suffered a slight lapse in the second quarter when All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green was sidelined with bruised ribs. But then it pitched a shutout after the intermission.
The Washington offense was typical Joe Gibbs: Set 'em up with one thing, hit 'em with another. He'll use the thunder of the heavy running game behind two or three tight ends, then the deep strike from quarterback Mark Rypien—45 yards to Gary Clark, 31 to Art Monk, a 21-yard TD to Monk, 45 yards to Terry Orr. That last one left the fans smiling.
Orr, the third tight end on the roster, is a blocker. Last season he was cut by the Skins, picked up by the San Diego Chargers, cut again and then re-signed by Washington. Scouts say that he couldn't play for any other team in the NFL. Is that true, Terry? "Well, maybe one—the Chargers," he said. "And they cut me."
But there was Gibbs and his offensive staff, working hard to set this guy up for a big gainer out of a three-tight-end formation, faking the run that had been called on the previous play. Suddenly Orr was breaking free on a deep corner route, because the Lions figured he was in there to block somebody. His catch set up the field goal that gave Washington a 20-10 lead on the first series of the second half.
Detroit feared what the Redskins call the Bunch, a Gibbs brainstorm that groups three wideouts in a tight alignment and releases them in a breakout. The Lion defenders prepared for it all week, but they saw it only once. The play picked up 16 yards, Rypien to Clark, and it set up the Skins' second TD.
So everything is in sync for the Redskins, who go into the Super Bowl clear-eyed and focused. In Buffalo, though, a lot of head-scratching is going on in the wake of the Bills' 10-7 victory over the Denver Broncos for the AFC championship. Denver's defense, though the best in the AFC this season, is hardly in a class with the real murderers—the 1990 Giants' defense or the '91 Eagles'—but it took apart Buffalo's pretty no-huddle offense. The Bills' Jim Kelly couldn't find his trio of wide receivers in the forests of the Broncos' combination man-to-man and zone defenses. The Buffalo wideouts—All-Pro Andre Reed; James Lofton, who's headed for Canton; and the breathtakingly fast Don Beebe—were nonfactors. Kelly threw to them 15 times, and the result was four receptions for 36 yards.
An occasional flip to a tight end and the gutty running of Thurman Thomas kept the Bills in the game, but even the ground attack, the platform from which Buffalo's hurry-up offense is launched, was held to three yards per carry. Were it not for a touchdown scored by the Bills defense and the struggles of Denver kicker David Treadwell—two of his field goal tries hit the right upright, and a third went wide left—we would be handicapping the Broncos in Super Bowl XXVI against the mighty Redskins.
And the Kelly-bashing has begun. Denver cornerback Tyrone Braxton says the key to stopping Kelly is to take away the big play—like the deep strike to Reed that burned the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional playoff, and the one to Beebe that shocked the Pittsburgh Steelers in September, and the ones to Lofton that buried the Raiders last season.