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Last Saturday's Buffalo Bills-New York Giants game at the Meadowlands was billed as a mini-Super Bowl, the AFC's finest against, well, almost the best in the NFC, two 11-2 teams possibly previewing the big show in Tampa. But by 3:30 p.m., as the fans were packing up after a miserable afternoon in the freezing rain, two coaches had seen their seasons take on ominous tones. Both starting quarterbacks had gone down.
The Bills won 17-13, but lost Jim Kelly with a severely sprained medial collateral ligament of his left knee. Now Buffalo coach Marv Levy must make a decision. Should he let backup quarterback Frank Reich run the new wide-open offense—the Bills' version of the run-and-shoot that has worked brilliantly in their last three games—in this week's big game with the Miami Dolphins and perhaps beyond? Or should he pull back and go conservative, hoping that somehow the Bills will muddle through this week and Kelly will be ready for the playoffs? On Monday, the prognosis was that Kelly would be sidelined for three to four weeks.
Giants coach Bill Parcells has deeper concerns. His signal caller, Phil Simms, has a badly sprained ligament in his right arch and apparently is lost for the year. The Giants' team physician, Dr. Russell Warren, said Monday that the foot would be examined in three to four weeks, but that it looks like a six-week injury at best. Of lesser concern was how the Bills had stuffed New York's short-yardage offense. The Giants had nine third- or fourth-down situations with two yards or less to go, and they converted only three of them, including one when backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler recovered a fumble that had rolled forward. Those surging rushes on third-and-inches that have been a New York trademark this season—with O.J. Anderson rolling for three and four yards behind a massive wall—are gone. Anderson netted zero yards on five carries on Saturday. "On third-and-one we were just miserable," said offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt after the game.
The Giants reached the Bills' three-and six-yard lines but both times had to settle for chippie field goals. They were in Buffalo territory three times in the fourth quarter, once reaching the 13, and got zero points out of those possessions. When Hostetler had to put the ball in the air in the second half, in a catch-up situation, he couldn't get the job done.
New York has already won the NFC East, but it is battling the 10-4 Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers, who were 12-1 heading into Monday night's game with the Los Angeles Rams, for the NFC's two first-round byes in the postseason and for the right to play at home the following week. For the Bills, a win over the Dolphins will guarantee them the AFC East title and home field advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
The freezing rain started early on Saturday morning, turning the highways into ice rinks and keeping 10,295 fans at home. Interstate 80 was dotted with accidents. "My parents' car spun out three times on 80," said Giants kicker Matt Bahr, "and then they just gave up and went home." New York linebacker Lawrence McGrew totaled his car driving to the game.
The sky was a dark, foreboding gray as the two teams lined up, and you just knew something bad was going to happen. But it didn't happen right away.
After 24 minutes, with both starting quarterbacks still in the game, the Bills were ahead 14-10. New York had scored on its opening possession, driving 71 yards in 11 plays, 10 of them runs—just what the fans liked. Giants football. Run in the rain. Pound it home. Forty-one yards came on a cutback over the right side by rookie Rodney Hampton, who has replaced Anderson as the heavy-duty back. That's what New York was doing, running right—away from All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith.
In a conference-call interview three days before the game, Smith had delighted the writers covering the Giants by giving them an easy angle. They asked him if he was the best defensive player in the league, and he said, "I think I am. For the last 13 games [during which he had 19 sacks] I've really surprised myself, and I'm sure I've surprised other people in football. I've been concentrating more on the run. I take tremendous pride in playing against the run. Over the last 10 years Lawrence Taylor has been the most dominant player in the league. I feel that now I've taken it a notch above that."
Then the Bills got the ball, and on came their no-huddle, hurry-up offense with three wideouts. Six plays and 1:28 later they had tied the game, Kelly throwing six yards to Andre Reed for the TD. Kelly had been in the same offense when he had thrown eight straight completions for 229 yards in the first quarter against Philadelphia on Dec. 2, a week after the Eagles had crushed the Giants. "My god, it was unbelievable," said Philly coach Buddy Ryan after the 30-23 Buffalo victory. "There were people running through the secondary, and we couldn't tackle them."