Bills dynasty, born in snow, faces cold storage

January 15, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- This is where it started three years ago. In frigid Rich Stadium, in the midst of a Buffalo blizzard, against the shivering Los Angeles Raiders.

When the Buffalo Bills pulverized the Raiders on Jan. 20, 1991, their 51-3 victory not only propelled them into Super Bowl XXV, but it also signaled the start of an AFC dynasty.

This is where it could end, too. In snow-packed Rich Stadium, in arctic conditions, against the Raiders.

The Bills' three-year dynasty, perhaps never more vulnerable, is on the line today when they tangle with the Raiders in a second-round AFC playoff game.

And, yes, the Bills have heard all the anti-Buffalo talk about how somebody has to step up and save the Super Bowl from Buffalo IV. They resent it, too.

"We don't care what these people want," defensive end Bruce Smith said this week. "The fact we worked our butts off, played hard game after game, showed we were a championship team . . . people should take that into consideration rather than [voicing] their own personal feelings.

"The pressure is definitely on them [the Raiders]. If they don't want us there, it's up to them to put us out."

After three straight Super Bowl losses, apparently not even Buffalo can get worked up over a playoff rematch of a 51-3 romp. The NFL lifted its television blackout of the game yesterday after granting the Bills two extensions. The Buffalo News reported that 8,000 tickets remained unsold yesterday morning.

The Bills (12-4) took their fifth AFC East title in six seasons when the Miami Dolphins collapsed down the stretch. Buffalo is the NFL's winningest team in the 1990s -- with 49 regular-season victories, 56 overall -- and is 6-0 at home in the postseason since 1988.

But cracks are beginning to appear in the dynasty.

The team's stars are aging, its architect -- general manager Bill Polian -- was fired after last year's Super Bowl, and upsets are not so uncommon. The Bills, who lost a total of five times at home in the previous four seasons, lost twice at Rich this season.

The last time it happened was Dec. 5, against -- who else? -- these Raiders. Los Angeles capitalized on a Thurman Thomas fumble in the fourth quarter with a 37-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Hostetler to Tim Brown for a 25-24 triumph.

In fact, the Raiders have won the past two meetings between these teams since that rout three years ago. They mugged the Bills, 20-3, in Los Angeles in 1992, as well.

With forecasts calling for bitter cold weather today, the issue this time might be decided in the running game. The Raiders (11-6) don't have much of one. But the Bills have had their problems, too.

Even though Thomas led the AFC in rushing with 1,315 yards (he was third in the NFL), he averaged a modest 3.7 yards a carry, the lowest of his six-year career.

What's more, the Bills' average gain per rush fell from 4.4 last season to 3.5 this season. And they had only three runs of 20 or more yards this season, compared with 13 a year ago.

What saved the Bills this season was their defense. They led the league with 47 take-aways, including 23 interceptions. It's a point of pride for a defensive unit that has often come under fire for past failures.

"That definitely made the season gratifying," said Smith, who had 14 sacks. "In the past, each and every time somebody would mention the Buffalo Bills, the only thing they'd show or mention is the offense. The fact we've stepped it up a notch or two and played the way we have this year is definitely a position we're proud of."

Of his team's brilliant three-season run in the AFC, coach Marv Levy says the Bills are more focused at playoff time.

"Our basic philosophy is win the next game," Levy said. "The most important game you play is the next game. We've been the team that won more games in the '90s than any other team. We played 10 playoff games, and won seven of them. Unfortunately the three we didn't win were Super Bowls.

"[But] there's a way to go before we get back and try to win one. This has been a tremendously resilient team, and I admire that in our players. I like what they're made of."

Levy will make that check again today. The Bills need to find a defensive answer for Brown, the Raiders receiver who blossomed this season with 80 catches and an AFC-high 1,180 yards.

Although the Raiders stress the deep passing game, they beat the Bills in December by throwing underneath the coverage to Brown, who had 10 catches for 183 yards that game. At the same time, they were sending James Jett and Alexander Wright deep.

That would figure to be the strategy, at least to open the game. The Raiders also will give the ball to running back Napoleon McCallum, a former Navy star, to see whether he can duplicate his 81-yard, three-touchdown performance in a 42-24 wild-card win over the Denver Broncos last week.

It has not gone unnoticed here, either, that Hostetler was the quarterback when the New York Giants defeated the Bills in the Super Bowl in 1991. Now he's back to see whether he can finish off the Bills.

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