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This time the Buffalo Bills will win it. Their kick won't go wide. They won't come unglued during the week and then come up soft once the hitting starts. They'll get the two-time monkey off their backs and play the game of their lives against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday and walk out of the Rose Bowl as Super Bowl champs.
They'll win because they're a different team now.
Remember the Bills' first Super Bowl, in 1991? They rode in on the crest of a 95-point wave that had carried them through their two previous playoff games. Their no-huddle, three-wideout offense was a dazzling innovation, and the only thing standing between them and immortality was a gang of hulking roughnecks named the New York Giants, led by an ancient running back, O.J. Anderson. The Giants were coming off a street fight against the San Francisco 49ers. Buffalo was flying. We know how it ended, right?
This year the Bills find themselves in a role reversal. The Cowboys have been blowing people away. They're full of fire and flash, and they're logical seven-point favorites. But the Bills have achieved a quality that has been missing in the past two years—toughness. That's now their image, built through adversity, injury and a long look into the abyss. They play tough defense when they have to and put numbers on the board when they are backed up to the point where they need to score on every drive.
Dallas, with its relentless attack mentality on offense and its young, juiced-up defense (statistically the best in the league), is the Buffalo of two Super Bowls ago. The Bills are the Giants of that Super Bowl. "That's a very nice angle, and I'm sure you'll have a lot of fun with it," says Buffalo coach Marv' Levy, "but to me it's a matter of earning respect. That's what I've been stressing to our players. I told them, 'You're a team that's been a bit of a punching bag in the past. Now you've earned people's respect. How you handle yourselves in the days before the game and what you do on Sunday will be what you'll have to live with.'
"If something good can come out of something bad, then that's our story. The fact that we had to struggle to get here, after getting in the so-called easy way the last two times, the fact that we've been put to the anvil, well, the result is a well-earned sense of self-esteem."
And what struggles. The Bills staggered out of their last regular-season game—a loss to the Oilers in Houston that cost them the home field in two of their three playoff games—in a state of shock. Jim Kelly would be lost for two games with a sprained knee, Cornelius Bennett sidelined for one with a hamstring injury. Bruce Smith would have to play with three cracked ribs. Thurman Thomas (page 18) had limped off the field twice with an assortment of injuries. The list went on and on. In the wild-card round the following week the opponent was Houston again, and you had to wonder what weapons the Bills had left.
Andre Reed, their premier wideout, was in a slump. Teams had figured out how to defense him. The Giants had written the book on that in Supe XXV—cut off Reed's crossing routes with linebackers and big defensive backs, bang him around. James Lofton had lost his long-ball ability and was now a mid-range receiver. Thomas, who could normally carry the offense, would have to leave that Oiler playoff game with a hip pointer early in the third quarter.
That remarkable 41-38 win over Houston at Rich Stadium has been well documented. Frank Reich, subbing for Kelly, had a career day. The Oilers gave Reed a soft zone to run through, and he ate 'em alive, which cost two Houston defensive coaches their jobs. The Buffalo defense sucked it up in OT and got the ball back.
Then, as the Bills took to the road and muscled their way through the playoffs, the defense rose up and took charge. It overwhelmed Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell. It did the unthinkable against the Miami Dolphins, cracking the forward wall and nailing Dan Marino, even on his short, three-step drops, while giving up only 33 yards rushing.