Oh, my heavens, is this what the Super Bowl is going to be like? The 34-31 Buffalo Bill win over the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park on Sunday was the kind of thing the Bills have promised twice and never delivered, the kind of thing that leaves football purists weeping, that has pencils flying all over the place as statisticians try to keep up with all the mad rushes up and down the field. Please, let me catch my breath, and I'll tell you about it.
First Buffalo and Jim Kelly: Down 24-13 at the half, with his team's defense falling all over itself trying to run down the 49er receivers, Kelly takes the Bills on two touchdown drives on their first two possessions of the third quarter. Down 31-27 in the fourth quarter, he takes them on another march to put the final points on the board. Can't win on grass, can't beat an NFC heavy on the road—Buffalo answered those charges with style.
Stay cool, it's only the second game of the year, the coaches in both locker rooms were saying during the week, but the players knew different. "Everyone's going to be watching this game to sec how we measure up," Steve Tasker, the Bills' Pro Bowl special-teamer and sometime wide-out, said last Thursday. "People want to know what we're made of. Will we take a dive against a great NFC team, or can we beat one? It's a reality check for us. It's not just the second game of the year."
Now the numbers: 1,086 total yards for both teams, with the Niners holding a 598-488 edge and setting a club record; 403 passing yards for Kelly and 449 for San Francisco's Steve Young, NFL highs for both; six catches and 159 yards, career bests, for wideout Mike Sherrard, who came in for the 49ers when Jerry Rice was knocked cold in the first series. Even Pete Metzelaars, Buffalo's tight end, a blocker by trade, got into the act with 113 receiving yards, one less than he got in the last two seasons combined.
There were no punts in the game. Zero. That had never happened before in the NFL. "Fans of the punting game got screwed," Buffalo center Ken Hull said.
And how about this one: There were 42 plays in the game that gained 10 yards or more. Adding-machine football. Put a stamp on the ball and mail it.
"Yeah, I guess the fans love it," said Buffalo general manager Bill Polian, "but for purists like me it causes heart attacks."
"Good for the fans, good for the TV ratings," Bill coach Marv Levy said. "Personally I thought our 10-7 win over Denver last season was a better game."
For Kelly and Young this was old stuff. "Seems that in the USFL we were always playing these 34-31 things," Young said. Kelly quarterbacked the run-and-shoot Houston Gamblers, Young the L.A. Express. It was Kelly who reminded Young after Sunday's game about those old days: "I said, 'Just like that time in L.A., huh?' " In 1985 Kelly and Young put on an 829-yard passing show, with the Gamblers winning 34-33 in front of 18,828 fans basking in the sun at the Coliseum. "The stands were so empty, we had to whisper in the huddle so the other guys wouldn't hear our plays," Young said.
Sunshine football—fling it up and have fun. But, hey, it isn't supposed to be that way now. This is serious: two Super Bowl-caliber teams with complicated defensive schemes and coaches situation-substituting like mad. In addition to forcing turnovers, which evened out at 3-3, you've got to stop the other guys and make them punt at least once, don't you? Don't you!