EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Even on a day when their
no-huddle offense was a no-show, the Buffalo Bills had enough tricks in their bag to rally and beat the inspired New York Jets, 23-20, before a crowd of 65,309 yesterday at Giants Stadium.
The Bills, who scored 87 points in their first two games, were obviously flat, slowed down and even outgained by the Jets. The Bills barely held the lead until quarterback Jim Kelly culminated a 49-yard drive with a decisive 15-yard touchdown pass to Thurman Thomas with 4 minutes, 14 seconds remaining.
The Jets reached the Bills' 33-yard-line on their last drive, but Pat Leahy's 51-yard field-goal attempt with 23 seconds left was short. The Bills, defending AFC champions, improved to 3-0 on a warm, cloudy day. The Jets dropped to 1-2.
"We got away with one today," Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett said.
The Bills survived because Scott Norwood kicked three field goals, including a career-best 52-yarder, and because Kelly, Thomas and James Lofton were the ones who made the biggest plays late in the game.
On the winning touchdown drive, Kelly converted a second-and-15 with a 20-yarder to Lofton, then converted a fourth-and-six with a delicate floater in the right flat to Lofton, good for 10 yards. One play later, Thomas ran a simple post pattern and the Jets blew the coverage. Kelly's pass slipped coming out of his hand but was still right on the mark.
"The ball looked like a duck floating through the air toward me, so I concentrated extra on catching it," said Thomas, who had 174 yards rushing and receiving. "I was open. I think [Jets linebacker Kyle] Clifton was supposed to come my way, but he wasn't there."
The touchdown left the Jets as the losers on a day when they outplayed the Bills. The Jets moved the ball consistently and had almost 400 yards of offense against a Bills defense playing without injured All-Pro Bruce Smith, and, more importantly, they limited the Bills' offense to two touchdowns. But key mistakes did the Jets in.
Quarterback Ken O'Brien gave up an almost-sure three points by throwing an interception in the Bills' end zone near the end of the first half. Then, trying to expand a 17-16 lead early in the fourth quarter, going for it on a fourth-and-one at the Bills' 17, the Jets had to settle for a field goal when tackle Jeff Criswell moved before the snap.
"I told the players that this probably would have been an OK performance for us last year, but we're a better team this year and we need to start winning games like this," said second-year Jets coach Bruce Coslet, whose team had possession of the ball for more than 40 minutes.
The Jets still looked as though they might force an overtime on their last drive, reaching a first down at the Bills' 33 with a minute left. But after two incompletions, Coslet called a strange play, a draw. The Bills wrapped it up and Leahy had to try a long field goal.
"I guess I thought they'd throw in that situation," Bennett said.
Even though they lost, the Jets probably gave the rest of the NFL something to think about in defensing the Bills. The Jets concentrated on taking receivers Andre Reed, Don Beebe and Lofton out of the game, in essence seeing if Kelly and Thomas alone could beat them.
Reed and Beebe were little factor, and Lofton's name wasn't called much until the final drive. The Bills did appear flustered, with Kelly and Reed arguing on the sidelines at one point. But they got it together when they had to and escaped with their unbeaten record intact.