EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For two weeks, the Buffalo Bills made it look as easy as pinball, running up points, winning free games. All that changed yesterday, when their no-huddle machine nearly went "Tilt" in a 23-20 squeaker over the New York Jets.
This is indeed a dynamic team, but let's not proclaim it the greatest offensive force in NFL history just yet. Yesterday's game was a flashback to the Super Bowl, starting with Whitney Houston's recorded version of the national anthem. But these were the Jets, not the Giants, and this time the Bills won.
They won even though their defense yielded 388 yards playing an unusual 2-5 alignment without injured linemen Jeff Wright and Bruce Smith. They won even though the Jets cued up the haunting anthem at Giants Stadium and treated the game as if it was indeed for higher stakes.
Standard NFL obstacles, but the Bills seemed immune to such disturbances while scoring 87 points against Miami and Pittsburgh their first two games. Now that they've been exposed NTC as mere mortals, the league can forget about expelling them for having too much fun.
Afterward, linebacker Cornelius Bennett said, "We got away with one today." Receiver James Lofton talked about being "scared" and "worried." It really was that close. The Bills were fortunate to go 3-0 on a day their Super Bowl nemesis, the Giants, fell to 1-2.
The winning touchdown came on a 15-yard pass from Jim Kelly to Thurman Thomas with 4:14 remaining. The Jets (1-2) drove one last time, but after a failed draw on third-and-10, place-kicker Pat Leahy was short on a 51-yard field goal that would have tied the score with 16 seconds left.
"We're not going to gain over 500 yards every game," explained Buffalo coach Marv Levy, referring to his team's unprecedented back-to-back explosions in Weeks 1 and 2. "We threw some balls that went through the eyes of needles last week. It's just not going to happen all the time."
No, it's not, but as long as the Bills play in the AFC, it probably won't matter. The league's three other unbeaten teams -- Washington, Chicago and New Orleans -- all play in the NFC, although Houston also can improve to 3-0 with a victory over Kansas City tonight.
The scary thing is, the Bills are not yet at full strength. Smith, their All-Pro defensive end, is expected to return next week after undergoing preseason arthroscopic knee surgery. Wright, their agile nose tackle, has a dislocated kneecap that will keep him sidelined until Week 6.
Buffalo entered yesterday ranked last in the NFL against the run, then gave up 168 yards rushing to a team that managed only one touchdown in each of its first two games. The Jets controlled the ball for 40:35 -- almost identical to the Giants' time of possession in the Super Bowl.
At times Bennett lined up as a defensive end in the second half, giving Buffalo three down linemen. That helped, but the Bills admit they can't wait for the return of Smith, their ferocious leader. "I look forward to that day," linebacker Darryl Talley said. "Then I can go back to hiding."
Of course, none of this mattered the first two weeks. The Bills were the football version of UNLV, willing to trade baskets, knowing they would prevail. Yesterday, however, their defense left virtually no margin for error. Kelly completed 27 of 37 for 275 yards, but also threw an interception and got sacked four times.
That, combined with a fumble recovery, was almost enough for the Jets to achieve a landmark victory for second-year coach Bruce Coslet. The day began with fans turning their backs to the field to watch the end of the Giants' game on luxury box TVs. But by half time the score was 10-10, and the crowd of 65,309 (11,582 no-shows) was in a frenzy.
The anthem was just the start -- "I turned to Shane Conlan and said, 'What are they trying to do, tick us off?' " Bills linebacker Ray Bentley said. The fans also chanted Super Bowl goat Scott Norwood's name in derision, prompting the kicker to pump his fist in anger twice after two of his three field goals.
His teammates were just as emotional.
Kelly hollered at wide receiver Andre Reed at one point and Levy repeatedly screamed at the referees. But Kelly recovered on the final drive to complete a fourth-and-six pass to Lofton at the Jets' 20. "No way we were coming off that field," he said.
The relentless Thomas rushed 11 times for 62 yards and caught 13 passes for 112, but he actually missed part of the last drive because of a nagging groin pull. Naturally, he returned just in time to split two safeties at the goal line and catch the winning touchdown pass.
Kelly said the ball slipped out of his hand, and Thomas smiled and agreed. "It did slip," the running back said. "I'm looking at the ball. It's coming in like a duck. I knew I was going to get hit. So I just concentrated on the ball."
He made his catch, and Leahy missed his last-minute field goal, and that was that. Granted, it wasn't as easy as pinball, but at least the Bills didn't go "Tilt." On this day, they were a little slow on the flippers, that's all.