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A lot of people figured last Saturday's playoff between teams from look-alike Lake Erie industrial towns would be low scoring, defense dominated. Your mill workers against ours in a no-wrenches-barred brawl in the muck. After all, during the regular season the AFC Central-champion Cleveland Browns had allowed only 254 points, the second fewest in the conference; had intercepted an AFC-high 27 passes; and had set a team record of 45 sacks. The AFC East-champion Buffalo Bills had struggled some on defense in 1989, but they had shut out the New York Jets 37-0 in their regular-season finale and would be starting brute defensive end Bruce Smith and bloodthirsty linebackers Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett together for only the fourth time in this injury-plagued season. What's more, the game would be played in Cleveland. That meant ice and mud and a swirling wind cold enough to freeze the whiskers on the Dawg Pound mutts.
So what happened? The weather was comparatively balmy (33�), the wind was calm, and the gridiron was as dry as a Milk-Bone. To be sure, Cleveland Stadium's natural-turf field, with the Indians, Browns and frigid winter weather having taken their toll, was ugly—a sort of algae-green conglomeration of paint, dirt, sand and grass clippings—but it offered reasonably firm footing, except to kickers, whom we'll get to later.
In celebration of the favorable playing conditions, the offenses went wild. The final score was 34-30 in Cleveland's favor, even though Buffalo piled up 453 yards to the Browns' 325. Cleveland won because quarterback Bernie Kosar converted 20 of 29 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns and threw no interceptions; because 230-pound running back Kevin Mack, who spent 33 days in jail for cocaine possession only two months ago, had a game-high 62 yards; and because wide receiver Webster Slaughter got help from his Light Time shoes, the spray-painted Day-Glo wheels that he and a number of other Browns wear and that have all the beauty of highway pylons.
Most of all, though, the Browns won because the Bills' passing attack faltered at the end of the game. On second down from the Cleveland 11 with 14 seconds left. Buffalo running back Ronnie Harmon dropped a pass from his quarterback, Jim Kelly, in the end zone. On the next play Kelly saw running back Thurman Thomas break open on the goal line, but his throw was intercepted by linebacker Clay Matthews, and the whole stadium sighed with relief.
"It was one of those games in which it looked like the last team to have the ball would win," said the Browns' first-year coach. Bud Carson. Carson is the defensive whiz who was supposed to have banished from Cleveland's psyche all concern over a recurrence of such things as The Drive, the Denver Broncos' renowned 98-yard, fourth-quarter, John Elway-led march, which knocked the Browns out of the 1987 Super Bowl. But Buffalo's final, 63-yard drive came close to being Drive II.
"I don't think I've ever been around a team that's played as poorly defensively as we played today," said Carson. And that's saying a bit, because the 58-year-old Carson has coached for a high school, four colleges and six pro teams in 10 states during his 34-year career.
Matthews was so ecstatic over his interception that he fell flat on his back while trying to spike the ball. Recovering nicely, he held the ball aloft for the bellowing and barking fans as he started for the tunnel. Then he stopped and heaved the ball into the stands. It hit the facade on the second deck, right next to the BIL-JAC DOG FOOD sign, and dropped into the rabid masses. Arf, arf, this pigskin's for you, Cleveland!
The game was so entertaining, with three lead changes and four fourth-down attempts—three of which were successful—that you could almost forget how vital the outcome was for both teams. Of course, the winner would move to the AFC Championship Game, but more important than that, the game would determine which team was in an ascent and which was in a slide.
Both had better records last season. Buffalo was 12-4 in 1988 and was picked by many NFL observers to make the Super Bowl this year. But after winning only one of their last four games, the Bills finished at 9-7. This fade brought out the best in their personalities. Kelly blamed some of the Bills for screwing up. Thomas then took it upon himself to defend his teammates and blamed Kelly for screwing up. After a joint Kelly-Thomas press conference on Dec. 14, ostensibly to bury the hatchet, Kelly said he would no longer talk to the media. Earlier, two Buffalo assistant coaches, Nick Nicolau and Tom Bresnahan, got into a scuffle after a win over the Jets. Said coach Marv Levy of the search for where to pin the blame, "This team is drowning in analysis."