EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A year ago, the Buffalo Bills were fighting with themselves, pointing fingers and self-destructing at the very moment when they should have been turning the playoffs into a global expedition.
But not this year.
The Bills defeated the New York Giants, 17-13, yesterday and shrugged off a potentially season-ending knee injury to quarterback Jim Kelly as if he were just some backup lineman carted off the field. What the Bills did was to back up a week's worth of tough talk and win a game against a National Football Conference power on a miserable afternoon that was wet, windy and cold.
"We knew this season that if we stayed together and played together, we'd be unstoppable," linebacker Cornelius Bennett said. "Our problems last year? We have a lot of young superstars. Everyone wants accolades for themselves, I guess. But we look at the San Francisco 49ers and their two Super Bowls. We want some of that."
This potential Super Bowl preview ended with Frank Reich playing quarterback for the Bills and Jeff Hostetler playing quarterback for the Giants. Kelly and Giants starter Phil Simms left with injuries.
The Bills have by far the bigger problem. Kelly, in the midst of his finest season, was toppled by his offensive tackle, Will Wolford, and sprained his left knee with 5 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the first half. Kelly walked off the field, but his knee locked on the sideline, and he was eventually carted to the locker room.
"I'm all right," Kelly said to a reporter as he left the locker room.
Kelly, who might be sidelined two to four weeks, will undergo a Magnetic Resonance Imaging procedure this week to reveal the extent of ligament damage, according to Bills team doctor Richard Weiss.
Simms left the game with 9:59 remaining in the third quarter, falling to the field in agony after spraining his foot. Simms left the stadium wearing a protective cast. Asked if he could play next week at Phoenix, Simms said: "I don't know. I really can't say anything."
Despite losing Kelly, the Bills established themselves against an NFC power before next week's American Football Conference East showdown game against the Miami Dolphins. That's a landmark for a team that wants to create a tough image before the playoffs.
"All we did was win a football game," Buffalo wide receiver James Lofton said. "We didn't crack any mystique."
For nearly a half, the Bills appeared to be starting a Super Bowl express. Their no-huddle offense staggered the Giants with two quick touchdowns -- Kelly's 6-yard pass to Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas' 2-yard run. The Giants -- whose game-opening drive ended with Ottis Anderson's 1-yard, fourth-down touchdown -- moved to within 14-10 on Matt Bahr's 23-yard field goal with 5:56 left in the first half.
After Kelly's injury, the Bills' defense dominated the game.
"We met on the sideline and we kept saying, 'If they don't score, they can't win,' " Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith said.
Smith, who was embroiled in a week-long controversy after he boasted about being the league's top defensive player, better even then New York's Lawrence Taylor. Smith backed up his words with strong play. He had 10 tackles, and when the Giants weren't double- and triple-teaming Smith, they were running away from him.
"I make a statement, and next day, it's: Lawrence Taylor -- not the greatest," Smith said. "I've said over and over that for the last 10 years, Lawrence Taylor has been the most dominant player in the league. With the season I've had, this year I've emerged as the most dominant player in the league. Lawrence Taylor is going to the Hall of Fame. I want to go to the Hall of Fame, too."
It's doubtful, though, that either Reich or Hostetler will end up in Canton. Reich, the University of Maryland graduate, completed eight of 15 passes and directed a 55-yard drive that led to Scott Norwood's 29-yard field goal that gave Buffalo its 17-13 lead with left.
"If we take the pressure together, we can win," said Reich, whwon three games last season after Kelly was sidelined. "This team will do fine."
The Giants received a temporary spark from Hostetler, who wanine of 16 for 97 yards and drove them to a 22-yard Bahr field goal in the third quarter. But he was unable to direct a winning drive, as the Giants' conservative offense continues to sputter.
"We should not have lost to the Buffalo Bills, especially afteknocking out their quarterback," Taylor said. "For us not to take ,, advantage and put up points, we have to re-evaluate."