He went unblocked, then became unhinged. On the key play of the key game of the season for the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins, Miami middle linebacker Bryan Cox swooped untouched into the hole over left tackle and wrapped up Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas. But instead of going down, Thomas bucked and struggled and got the two yards needed for a first down. Cox, as he is wont to do, went cuckoo.
Thomas's plunge with 1:41 remaining in Sunday's game was more than just another third-down conversion. It allowed the Bills to run out the clock and ensured a 23-20 victory for Buffalo, which clinched the AFC East title for the sixth time in eight seasons.
Immediately after the play, Cox felt the need to vent his frustration and picked a fight with Bill fullback Carwell Gardner who got the worst of the exchange and—adding insult to injury—was ejected along with Cox. Striding defiantly off the field at Rich Stadium, Cox communicated his contempt for Buffalo fans by spitting repeatedly, proving that although the Dolphin may have fallen short of expectations this season, at least one of them was not short of expectorations.
Cox's adolescent tantrum reminded us that Miami is not so much a team as it is a collection of affluent individuals who, at 8-7, are less than the sum of their parts. Even if the Dolphins beat the St. Louis Rams on Christmas Eve, the Fish will need help from other teams to make the playoffs. Buffalo, meanwhile, has assured itself of a first-round playoff game at home against a wild-card team.
"Everyone out there said we wouldn't do it, and everyone in this locker room knew we could," said Bill quarterback Jim Kelly afterward. "We proved everybody wrong."
Sunday's game provided vindication not only for Buffalo but also for eight-year veteran Thomas. On Dec. 3, Thomas's courage was questioned by critics in the media after he benched himself—he was suffering from leg cramps—in the third quarter of the Bills' 27-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Just as Buffalo, which failed to make the playoffs last season, was assumed by many observers to have begun a long, slow descent into mediocrity. Thomas's slightly declining rushing average through the first half of this season (67.5 yards per game as opposed to 80.3 for his career) led to speculation that, at 29, Thomas was entering the twilight of his career.
Guess again. Having recovered from the hamstring injury that kept him out of two midseason games, Thomas has rushed for 277 yards in his last two outings, including 148 yards on 35 carries on Sunday. If he gains 15 yards against the Houston Oilers this Sunday, he will become the third NFL back to have rushed for more than 1,000 yards in seven consecutive seasons.
Perhaps no Bill has been as resilient, though, as Buffalo's 67-year-old coach, Marv Levy, who underwent surgery to have a cancerous prostate removed on Oct. 17 and was back at work three weeks later. "A week after he got back, he was jogging after practice," marvels the Bills' Steve Tasker. "It was as if he'd never been sick."
Levy attributes his speedy return to the fact that he was in good shape before his operation. He also says that he jump-started his post-op exercise regimen after receiving a call from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a fellow prostate-cancer victim who urged him to start walking as soon as possible. Said Levy to Schwarzkopf, "If the general tells me to march, I'm going to march."
During his absence Levy didn't forget how to coach. He racked up his latest win over Miami's Don Shula—against whom he is 16-6 lifetime—by throwing a couple of new wrinkles at the Dolphins. The Bills loosened up Miami's defense by giving the ball on reverses to Tasker, who started at wide receiver. After he had run the same play three times, Tasker told his coaches, "Guys, listen, one of these times, they're going to get smart." In fact, they didn't. Tasker ran six reverses for 50 yards.