If the fast-shuffling, no-huddling Cincinnati Bengals are to conga on down to Miami and the Super Bowl, they will have to avoid being caught on the horns—or in the grasp—of the Buffalo Bills. That won't be a simple task for three reasons. Two of them are defensive end Bruce Smith and linebacker Cornelius Bennett, the high-priced spread of Buffalo's nimble, punishing defense. In Sunday's 17-10 victory over the Houston Oilers, Smith and Bennett were found breathing down the ear holes of quarterback Warren Moon's helmet when they weren't buffing the Rich Stadium rug with the rest of the Oilers.
Reason No. 3 is Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, and if the Bengals make the mistake of taking him less than seriously, Kelly might be seeing you at Disney World. Against Houston, Kelly, who was six years old in 1967, the last year an NFL postseason game was played in Buffalo, passed on eight of the Bills' first 10 plays and wound up throwing 33 times—five more than his average for the season. He completed 19 passes for 244 yards, and his receivers missed at least six others that were catchable. Oiler coach Jerry Glanville didn't think that the Bills would throw that often, or at least that accurately, as if Kelly were just some Elvis impersonator looking for a free ticket.
What Cincinnati won't want to do with Kelly is make him mad. Adversity seems to suit him. In the two weeks before the Oiler game, Kelly was served with a $1 million lawsuit stemming from an alleged fracas with a woman in a West Seneca, N.Y., bar in December 1987, and was informed that a Texas bank was suing him to recover a disputed $100,000 debt, a legacy of his contract with the Houston Gamblers of the defunct USFL.
"I've been hit with so much stuff the last two weeks that I'm numbed to it," said Kelly two days before the game. "———'em. Look, I'm a single guy. I'm not going to sit in my living room and be bored. Why not have fun?"
Kelly also had to deal with criticism from one of his teammates, running back Robb Riddick, who had publicly scolded Kelly for not passing to his backs, and had questioned his ability to throw long. But when Riddick dropped a perfect pass in the left flat during the second quarter of Sunday's game, Kelly uttered a naughty word and then gave Riddick five, slapping his hand hard, perhaps hoping to get some feeling back into it. Hey, why not have fun?
By that time, the Bills were ahead 7-0, thanks to a one-yard plunge by Riddick, and Kelly had completed eight of 15 throws, hanging out ropes to backs and receivers alike. After each play, successful or not, he swaggered into the huddle like a matador preparing to make another pass at a bull, and his bravado was contagious. Earlier, while the game was still scoreless and the Buffalo field goal team was preparing to attempt a short three-pointer. Bills coach Marv Levy allowed Kelly to run out on the field and call a timeout so that Buffalo could go for it on fourth-and-one from the Oiler 3. The Bills came up short—Kelly's pass to tight end Pete Metzelaars was batted away by safety Jeff Donaldson—but with the Buffalo defense waiting in the wings, it hardly mattered.
On some days the Bills' defensive unit resembles that of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the era of Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. Sunday was one of those days. The Bills' two bone-rattling safeties, Leonard Smith and Mark Kelso, sat back while the corners stayed up close and personal near the line of scrimmage. Buffalo employed no all-out blitzes, which can be a cover for a defensive weakness. Fact was, the Bills' front seven invited Houston to find a weakness, and the Oilers are still looking.
Houston scored 424 points during the regular season, second only to Cincinnati's 448. The Oilers boast four skilled running backs and a quiver full of resourceful little wide receivers, but the Bills defense never even blinked. "I'd like to think we have a great offense, and they shut us down," said Houston tackle Dean Steinkuhler.
Buffalo doesn't need to blitz because Bruce Smith and Bennett are a blitz unto themselves. Note to Cincinnati: Try to minimize obvious passing situations against the Bills. Otherwise you'll see seven head-hunting pass defenders covering while Bennett and Smith apply the clamps, Bennett from the left. Smith from who knows where.