ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- One more time, Carlton Bailey was asked to explain the seeming demise in 1991 of the Buffalo Bills' defense. One more time, the veteran linebacker recited a litany that included too many injuries and too few turnovers.
Only this time, Bailey's explanation had a happy ending. It was last week's resounding 37-14 defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the NFL playoffs.
"Our mentality was like a bunch of crazed dogs," Bailey, a Woodlawn High alumnus, said this week. "If you don't feed a wild pack of animals, they attack everything in sight. That was our main objective. We wanted to go out and play tough, hard-nosed, physical football because the general stigma about our defense is that we aren't physical enough, we aren't tough enough, to handle the run."
The Bills throttled Kansas City with their best defensive performance of the season, allowing just two offensive penetrations across midfield. If they play at that level here against the Denver Broncos in Sunday's AFC championship game, they would be going back to the Super Bowl for the second straight year.
But the Bills defense had been hearing the charge of "soft against the run" even before it gave up point totals of 31, 34 and 20 in the first three games this season. The Bills ranked 27th in the league in total defense and 24th against the rush.
Bailey has a special appreciation for the problem because he plays right inside linebacker, a run-stopping position. And he bTC cites the losses for extended periods of nose tackle Jeff Wright and defensive end Bruce Smith to injury. Wright and Smith both played Sunday.
"When Jeff and Bruce went out, our two main horses up front, that really hurt our team," Bailey said. "With those guys out, teams were able to take advantage of our younger players, Mike Lodish and Phil Hansen, who at some point in time are going to be really good players. Teams went to exploit our defense, went to the heart of our defense."
Bailey, 27, is the least-known player in a linebacking unit that features Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley and Shane Conlan. Yet he has one of the most important jobs -- calling defensive signals. He struggled in that job a year ago, when he alternated with Ray Bentley and started just six games.
This season Bailey has started all 17 games for the Bills, ranking fifth on the team in tackles during the regular season and second in the playoff game with eight.
"Last year I would get a little rattled if the coaches didn't send in the play right away," he said. "Being young, I wanted it to be before the offense broke the huddle. With us, it comes in late a lot of times. So, I would panic. And by panicking, I would not call the whole defense."
As a result, Bentley started in Super Bowl XXV last January. That was where the Bills got the reputation for being soft on defense, after the New York Giants' running game controlled the clock and the game in a 20-19 upset. Almost every team the Bills faced this year try to duplicate the Giants' strategy, not only with ball control, but also with the bootleg option plays that New York quarterback Jeff Hostetler ran so effectively.
Since then, another problem arose for the Buffalo defense. The Bills' quick-strike offense has been scoring at a prolific rate -- an AFC-high 458 points -- without taking much time off the clock. The Bills had 44 touchdown drives of less than three minutes this season. That meant the defense spent the better part of the game on the field. Buffalo's offense averaged 66 plays this season; the defense averaged 68. It was on the field for a staggering 81 plays in a 17-10 triumph over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers early in the season.
Denver doesn't have a ball-control offense, though. In quarterback John Elway, the Broncos have quick-strike and comeback ability. Elway brought the Broncos back from seeming defeat last week for a 26-24 victory over the Houston Oilers with a field-goal drive in the final two minutes. Bailey watched the dramatic ending on TV with renewed respect for Elway.
"What I was saying was, 'How can you stop this guy?' " Bailey said. "He has excellent receivers, good offensive linemen, a good set of running backs. He's an old pro in the sense he's aware when you're trying to run man-to-man coverage, when you're trying to run zone, when you're trying to blitz. He recognizes all that, plus he has a strong arm and excellent athletic ability."
Bailey will be motivated by the memory of last year's Super Bowl loss.
"Maybe we got into all the hype and hoopla last year," he said. "Maybe that overwhelmed us a little bit, it being our first time there. It was a major disappointment. I'm happy that we went, and we got AFC championship rings. But to tell you the truth, I don't even wear mine much because it's a second-place ring. We feel we can go on and do better. We would like one day to put ourselves in that category with the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers as teams that had the chance to play in a couple of Super Bowls."