Kelly threw 25 touchdown passes in just 13 regular-season games (he missed the other three with an injured left shoulder) but had eight interceptions in the last four games. His record as a starter was 6-7. Backup Frank Reich's record was 3-0. Who was to blame for what? Who could tell?
Nosetackle Fred Smerlas had said of his team's blown games, of which he figured there were five, "When you keep cutting your own throat, eventually you run out of blood." Last Thursday he said, "We haven't run out completely. We've sewed up the hole, and we're eating red meat."
But sutures were again called for after Saturday's defeat. Both Harmon and Thomas accused Kelly of holding the ball too long before passing on the Bills' last two plays. Kelly would not comment on what he said to his two teammates. His last semipublic statement had been the Christmas card he sent out with a photo of himself as a tuxedo-clad Santa surrounded by 10 lovely female "elves" in number-12 jerseys. "And all through the house, not a creature was stirring.... Well, maybe one big mouse," read the greeting on the card. Kelly looked far happier in the picture than he did after last Saturday's game.
Cleveland's story was remarkably similar. The Browns were 10-6 in 1988 and 9-6-1 in "89, though most people thought Cleveland should have improved with the addition of speedy rookie running back Eric Metcalf and the development of defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry. But the Browns stumbled, winning only two of their last six games, and critics began to question everything from first-year offensive coordinator Marc Trestman's game plans to Kosar's sore elbow to Carson's suitability to be a head coach. Players grumbled too.
"I was getting a lot of heat for all the changes I had made," says executive vice-president Ernie Accorsi, who in the off-season had hired Carson and traded former 1,000-yard rusher Earnest Byner. "When we lost to Indianapolis [on Dec. 10] in overtime, I felt like a boxer. By Thursday of that week, it was like the 15th round, and I'm thinking. I'm still on my feet."
Carson persevered, too, and the Browns won their last two games, against the Minnesota Vikings and the Houston Oilers, to win the division crown by half a game. Good thing, because Carson had made it pretty clear he didn't want to hit the road again. He said that his 13-year-old daughter, Cathy, was going to finish high school in Cleveland. So unless she planned on taking up housekeeping by herself, that meant Dad would have to remain the Browns' coach until at least 1993.
A win against Buffalo would mean a lot to Cleveland fans, who well remembered the late-game interception Brian Sipe threw against the Oakland Raiders in the 1981 playoffs and Byner's goal-line fumble on what would have been the tying TD against Denver in the '88 AFC Championship Game.
The Bills struck first, on a 72-yard touchdown pass from Kelly to wide receiver Andre Reed 10 minutes into the game. Cleveland's Matt Bahr had already tried a 45-yard field goal but had missed to the right when he slipped in sand that had been spotted around the field to soak up water. He connected on another 45-yarder from almost the same spot at the end of the first quarter, however, and the Browns added a TD early in the second period on a 52-yard bomb from Kosar to Slaughter.
Buffalo answered with a 33-yard Kelly-to- James Lofton scoring pass, which put the Bills in front 14-10. Kosar then hit tight end Ron Middleton with a three-yard touchdown pass, and the Browns led 17-14 at the half.
The Browns took a 31-21 advantage into the fourth quarter following a 44-yard touchdown pass from Kosar to Slaughter, a six-yard Kelly-to-Thomas scoring toss and a 90-yard kickoff return by Metcalf for a TD.