The New York Giants were the first to solve the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle offense. They played a game of keep-away in Super Bowl XXV a year ago, controlled the ball for more than 40 minutes and stole a 20-19 victory.
Kansas City was next. The Chiefs took a page from the Giants' ball-control playbook last October, mixed in five turnovers and .. breezed to a 33-6 triumph.
Then, last Sunday in Buffalo, the Denver Broncos wrote a whole new script for defensing the hurry-up offense. They shut off Thurman Thomas' inside running lanes, denied Jim Kelly's deep passing lanes, and reduced Kelly's time in the pocket.
Denver's systematic dismantling of the Bills' high-powered attack was successful on all counts except one. Buffalo's defense-inspired 10-7 victory earned the Bills a date in Super Bowl XXVI next week against the Washington Redskins.
Nevertheless, the Broncos showed how the no-huddle could be stopped. And the question that arose from last week's AFC championship game is whether the Redskins will adopt a similar game plan next Sunday in the Minneapolis Metrodome.
Buffalo coach Marv Levy spent last week trying to come up with the antidote in case they do.
"You look and see what [Denver] did against us closely," Levy said, "and say, 'Well, if we see it again, this would be a good way to counter it.' You have to have a prepared [response] and call on it."
Football is a chess game with real-life pawns, knights and kings, moved around on a green board by offensive and defensive coordinators. The architect of Denver's masterful defensive scheme, coordinator Wade Phillips, doesn't think the Bills can be totally stopped two games in a row.
"I think they will move the ball [against the Redskins]," Phillips said. "When you don't do well in one game, you usually come back and do better the next. So I think they'll move the ball a lot better."
But that doesn't necessarily mean he thinks the Bills will ravage the Redskins. Phillips spent two years on the same Houston Oilers coaching staff with Richie Petitbon, the Redskins assistant head coach in charge of defense. And he has high regard for Petitbon.
"I always root for Richie," he said. "Our philosophy is the same, but not our defenses. He came from the George Allen 4-3; I came up in the 3-4. But I'm sure he'll try to do something early -- dog or blitz -- to get to Kelly."
Because of the difference in formations, it's unlikely that Petitbon will copy Denver's defensive strategy. But he could very well take the concept that Phillips used to throttle the NFL's No. 1 offense and apply it to the Redskins.
That concept was designed to let the Broncos' best players -- inside linebackers Karl Mecklenburg and Michael Brooks, and safeties Dennis Smith and Steve Atwater -- make the big plays.
The Broncos brought their linebackers up close to the line of scrimmage to cut off Thomas' running lanes and to confuse the (( Bills' blocking schemes. Then they played flawless three-deep zone coverage that took the quick strike out of Kelly's offense.
"Once you know Thomas can't run the ball against you consistently, you can really concentrate on the pass more," Phillips said. "Thomas is a great back, but he is basically an inside runner, between the tackles. We were trying to keep him from running in the middle. If he bounces outside, the safeties have to stop him.
Thomas ran for 72 yards, averaging 2.8 a carry, and had a streak of four consecutive 100-yard postseason rushing games stopped. But bad field position and a spotty passing game kept the Bills buried in their end of the field nearly all of the first half.
When Kelly did pass, he had Denver's defenders in his face. From a blitz package they called "Smoke," the Broncos blitzed often, including on first down. Every time Kelly lined up in a no-back offense, with five receivers going out, the Broncos went after him.
"He ran it four times," Phillips said of the no-back formation, "and we hit him four times."
The Broncos only sacked Kelly once, but the pass rush took its toll. Kelly was 13-for-25 for 117 yards. He had only one pass play longer than 15 yards. And the Bills had season lows in passing first downs (five) and net passing yards (109). They also punted a season-high eight times.
The Bills, held without an offensive touchdown for the second time all season, were never able to hit the big play.
"It was probably as good as we can play," Phillips said. "We were dictating what they could do."
?3 In the end, the Broncos did everything but win.