We'll know soon enough whether it was a mirage. But through the freezing rain and driving snow at Rich Stadium last Saturday, the Buffalo Bills looked very much like a true Super Bowl team—not like the typical AFC representative of the 1980s, the one waving a white flag. We're talking about a genuine threat to prevent a possible three-peat in Tampa.
This is a fast-maturing Buffalo team that froze out the Miami Dolphins 44-34 in their AFC divisional playoff. This is a team playing with a new, Joe Montana-like efficiency on offense, running a sort of weatherproof run-and-shoot that an opponent is going to have to fiat outscore if it hopes to knock the Bills out of the tournament. This is an offense so potent that it nearly reduced Dolphin defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti to tears.
This is a team with an all-star defense, featuring three Pro Bowl players—end Bruce Smith, outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett and inside linebacker Shane Conlan—among its front seven, plus three near All-Pros in outside linebacker Darryl Talley, cornerback Nate Odomes and strong safety Leonard Smith.
And it is a team with a pretty nice little home-field advantage that it wall carry into the AFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Raiders this Sunday. During the past three seasons the Bills have gone 24-2 in Rich Stadium, including 9-0 this season, and they have led the NFL in attendance, with an average of more than 77,000 fans a game, in each of those years.
"We're pretty scary right now," Smith said after the game. "You look at most teams in the playoffs and they've established what they are. We're still putting it together here. It's January, and I think we're getting better every week." Just then, one of Smith's former teammates at Virginia Tech, Dolphin fullback Tony Paige, showed up. "Man," Paige said, "your offense just kicked our butt."
In the days leading up to the game it appeared that if any offense was going to kick any defense in the rear end, it was going to be Miami's kicking Buffalo's. Bills quarterback Jim Kelly would be playing for the first time since spraining ligaments and damaging cartilage in his left knee against the New York Giants four weeks ago. His Dolphin counterpart, Dan Marino, was coming off another one of his great days, having completed his last 10 passes in bringing Miami back from a 16-3 deficit to beat the Kansas City Chiefs 17-16 in a wild-card playoff.
The Bills and the Dolphins had split their two regular-season meetings, with Miami winning 30-7 at home in Week 2 and Buffalo clinching the AFC East 24-14 in Buffalo on Dec. 23. After that rematch, when Marino walked through the tunnel to the Rich Stadium locker rooms, he promised Smith, "I'll be back." Smith recalled the scene last Thursday night while dining out with Talley, his roommate when the Bills move into a Buffalo hotel the night before every home game.
And now Marino was back.
"We're scared of the guy," Talley said at dinner. "It seems like the bell for the fourth quarter rings and Dan just takes the game into his own hands. I'll tell you what kind of effect he has on us. The night before we played them last time, I kept hearing Bruce flop around in his bed like a big fish. He couldn't sleep, he was so wired to face Marino. Finally, early in the morning, Bruce got up and said, 'I can't take it no more!' And he left to go home."
That Bills-Dolphins game wasn't a classic. This one was. Kelly, who didn't return to practice until four days before the playoffs, was quite healthy by the kickoff, thank you. Operating out of a no-huddle offense, he completed 19 of 29 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception and very few mistakes. Instead of moving around gingerly on the tender knee, Kelly returned to action like a man coming off a four-week vacation; he looked rested and sharp. He even ran with the ball five times for 37 yards, including one dash of 16.