Bills hope to just survive Oilers Kelly's injury hurts wild-card bid

January 03, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- For the Buffalo Bills, it was a season that began with high expectations: Two straight trips to the Super Bowl had given confidence to a team that entered the season with All-Pro performers on both sides of the ball.

But when they play host to the Houston Oilers in today's AFC wild-card game, the banged-up Bills merely will be hoping to survive another week.

Survival won't be easy for Buffalo, particularly with the loss of quarterback Jim Kelly, who suffered a sprained right knee when he was tackled by Houston's Ray Childress in last week's 27-3 loss to the Oilers at the Astrodome. Kelly will not play today, and fellow All-Pro performers Cornelius Bennett (hamstring injury, which kept the linebacker out last week) and Steve Tasker (sore knee, which kept the special teams star out last week) head the Bills' long injured list.

"We always talk about the assorted bumps and bruises," said Buffalo coach Marv Levy. "They're a little more bumped and bruised than usual. But we'll find a way to get out there and play."

With the injuries, and former Maryland quarterback Frank Reich starting, Buffalo is far from the imposing team that prior to this season had won four straight AFC Eastern Division titles and made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances -- losses to the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, respectively. But Reich, in his eighth season, is 4-2 as a starter, and the two losses came in regular-season finales after Buffalo already had clinched home-field advantage in the playoffs.

It helps that Reich has started a big game -- the 1990 win over Miami that gave Buffalo the AFC East title.

"I think our players have a lot of confidence in Frank Reich," Levy said. "They have reason to have it based on past performances. They know he has a great grasp of the offense."

The key to the Bills' success will be the performance of running back Thurman Thomas, the NFL's rushing leader for four straight years until this season. With Kelly out, the offensive burden will fall largely on Thomas, who has never rushed for more than 100 yards in four career games against Houston. He gained 97 yards against the Oilers last week, ending a string of five straight 100-yard games.

"They ran the ball successfully on us [last week] and they have the top rushing team in the league," said Houston coach Jack Pardee. "They've got two good tight ends and I think they'll run the football as much as they can."

Pardee refused to name his starting quarterback, although Warren Moon, who returned for spot duty last week after a five-game layoff with a broken shoulder, is expected to get the call over Cody Carlson. Carlson ran the team's run-and-shoot offense well in Moon's absence.

But the Oilers will be trying to win at Buffalo for the first time in 16 years (Houston is 0-4 in Buffalo since a 13-3 win in 1976).

"It does make it tougher because you have to go up into their place and play this time," said Moon, who completed six of 12 passes for 80 yards and one touchdown while playing in three series last week. "Some of the things that you didn't have to worry about like crowd noises and weather conditions, we're going to have to worry about."

Houston's sixth straight playoff appearance is the longest current NFL streak, but in their last five, the Oilers have failed to get past the second round.

Yet the Oilers are coming off what they consider their best performance of the season, and they are confident because they won four of their last five regular-season games.

"There shouldn't be any doubt in our players' minds that if we go in there and play well, we can win," Pardee said. "If they keep playing that well in the playoffs, it will be good enough."

But Pardee also issued his team a warning.

"When you beat a team soundly like we did, they'll be more fired up and they'll have more respect and it's a playoff game," he said.

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