Eric Mahlum made no attempt to conceal his disgust. "Now you show up," he huffed as a reporter approached. "Now you want to talk."
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 defensive line.
Sure, the Bills had a few offensive high lights 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.
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."