Hold on to helmets: These Bills could win Wild-card success shows new maturity

KEN ROSENTHAL

January 18, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

MIAMI -- Here we go: Thurman Thomas shampooing with Crazy Glue to keep his helmet from going astray. Jim Kelly demanding Buffalo fans recite a pledge of allegiance. Scott Norwood appearing in Pasadena like a voodoo doll.

You're thinking it, I'm thinking it, we're all thinking it.

Oh no, not Buffalo.

It's a natural reaction for all those tired of having their Super Bowl parties ruined, but the Bills are back, and they belong.

Yesterday, they won their third straight AFC championship by trouncing Miami, 29-10. It could easily have been 59-10, but the football gods took pity on the sad and often sacked Dolphins.

Yes, the AFC is only slightly stronger than the ACC. Yes, Miami committed five turnovers. Yes, Joe Robbie Stadium officials could have shifted to the baseball configuration even before the final gun sounded.

Don't hold it against Buffalo.

The Bills did this the hard way, rallying from a 35-3 deficit against Houston, then winning at Pittsburgh and Miami after 15 straight victories by the home team in the AFC playoffs.

The last wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl was the 1985 New England Patriots. The only other NFL team to win three straight conference titles was the 1971-73 Dolphins.

Think it's easy to repeat? Ask the Redskins. Teams suffer injuries. Teams get complacent. Teams grow old. Any number of disruptions can occur, and yet here come the Bills, dangerous as ever, and hungrier.

"There's a lot of meat left on that chicken," said Will Wolford, the Bills' 297-pound offensive tackle.

The Bills intend to sate themselves once and for all. They'd probably be considered one of the great teams in NFL history, if not for Norwood's missed field goal two years ago. Instead, they're mocked as the Denver of the '90s.

It's a simplistic analysis, not to mention unfair. The Bills won their first two playoff games behind their second string, then showed again yesterday that their varsity is as talented as any in the NFL.

Kelly completed 17 of 24 passes, Thomas rushed for 96 yards and defensive end Bruce Smith was his old ferocious self, forcing a fumble, figuring in seven tackles and recording 1 1/2 sacks.

And those are the guys who were hurt.

Here's a team that benched a quarterback who completed 37 of 57 passes for 449 yards, six touchdowns and one interception in its first two playoff games, yet rolled merrily along.

Kelly averaged only 10 yards a completion, relying mainly on screens to Thomas (five catches, 70 yards) and Kenneth Davis (four catches, 52 yards). His controlled play ended any debate over coach Marv Levy's decision to snub Frank Reich.

The bickering Bills of old would have picked sides, back-stabbed both quarterbacks, taken a straw poll.

These Bills just yawned.

"One of the things people don't realize is that this team has grown up a lot," Thomas said. "Everyone tried to start a controversy about Frank Reich and Jim Kelly. We're not going to let anything bother us. We're just going to go out and play football."

The Bills? Just play football? What a concept.

Maturity -- that was the buzzword in the happy yet subdued Buffalo locker room.

"If you dwell on the past, it eats at you," linebacker Darryl Talley said. "We're more mature. We know what we're getting into. We know we're going to have to play sound football."

Oh, the Bills still have their moments, like when they lost back-to-back to Indianapolis and the New York Jets in weeks 12 and 13. Even yesterday, they led only 13-3 at halftime, with Kelly getting intercepted twice inside the Miami 5-yard line.

It didn't matter. The Dolphins kept stumbling over themselves, losing three fumbles, allowing three sacks, getting a punt partially blocked and dropping a half-dozen passes. The Bills scored on their first three possessions of the second half, and that was that.

Since falling behind Houston, 35-3, they've outscored their playoff opponents 91-16. Yesterday, they pounded a Miami team that didn't allow San Diego inside its 40-yard line in a 31-0 shutout a week ago.

We know, we know, it's only the AFC, America's Favorite Chokers, losers of eight straight Super Bowls.

Maybe now it will be different.

"One more river to cross," Kelly said.

OK, Jim, make sure no one drops their paddles.

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