For NFL's final stories, only the titles remain Bills, Chiefs feature abundance of subplots and major characters

January 23, 1994|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Kent Hull, veteran center and eloquent spokesman for the Buffalo Bills, reached into his locker last week and pulled out the T-shirt that has come to represent the prevailing mind-set in upstate New York this month.

"Let's 'em all off and go for 4," it read.

"This says it all," Hull said, holding up the shirt for a handful of reporters to see. "This is the way we feel."

The Bills, who feel underappreciated and unloved, have taken to wearing their emotions not only on their sleeves, but their chests as well.

And today, they go for an unprecedented fourth straight Super ** Bowl appearance when they play the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game at Rich Stadium.

The Bills, who were brash even while losing the first three Super Bowls, have an attitude of arrogance when it comes to these postseason affairs.

Linebacker Cornelius Bennett even sounded combative in addressing the anti-Bills issue.

"The whole team feels the same way," he said. "We want to get there. In your face to everyone who didn't believe in us."

That's merely one of the subplots in the confrontation between the AFC East champion Bills (13-4) and the AFC West champion Chiefs (13-5).

* There are the quarterbacks: the Chiefs' Joe Montana, the man who hasn't lost a Super Bowl (4-0), against the Bills' Jim Kelly, the man who hasn't won one (0-3).

* There are the coaches: Kansas City's Marty Schottenheimer, who is 0-2 in AFC title games, against Buffalo's Marv Levy, who is 3-1. Schottenheimer once played for the Bills, and Levy once coached the Chiefs.

* There is the weather. A week ago, the Bills beat the Los Angeles Raiders, 29-23, in sub-zero conditions on an artificial surface that was more ice than plastic. Optimistic forecasts are calling for a thaw into the 40s, which would likely reduce the Bills' famous home-field advantage.

* Then there is the haunting perception of the Bills as big-game losers. It's a label they would carry to Atlanta this week even if they do what no other team has done since the Super Bowl began.

"Unfair as it is, for all the accomplishments this franchise has achieved over the last four or five years, we're still considered a loser," Hull said.

"Until we win the world championship, that tag is going to stay with us. But I'm very gratified to do what we did."

Said Bennett: "Twenty-six other teams would love to do what we've done. [But] until we win the big one, people will say that. Hopefully, this time, we'll get there and take care of that."

The man who suffers most from this credibility gap, perhaps, is Kelly. He is 3-1 in championship games, 0-3 in Super Bowls. Today, for only the second time in his career, he's matched up against Montana. The first time the two met was in November, when the Chiefs' defense harassed Kelly into a 23-7 loss in Kansas City.

Kelly threw for 214 yards, but was intercepted three times. Montana thew for 208 yards and two touchdowns and was intercepted once.

Although he beat the Chiefs in a playoff game two years ago, Kelly has not performed well in five career games against them. He's 2-3 with six touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and 13 sacks.

If it's a game of big offensive plays, both quarterbacks are on a roll. Kelly gave an extraordinary effort in beating the Raiders, completing 27 of 37 for 287 yards and two touchdowns, bringing the Bills from behind three times.

Montana has been at his fourth-quarter best in the postseason, delivering the Chiefs past the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Oilers.

"His name and his reputation speaks for itself," Bills defensive end Bruce Smith said. "He's not just a great quarterback, he's a phenomenal one, probably the best whoever played this game. And he's just that great a leader."

Buffalo's defense played a big role in the team's success this season when the offense experienced a power shortage. The Bills put together a curious mix of statistics: they ranked next-to-last in total yards allowed, but were fifth in scoring defense. That's because they led the league in take-aways (47) and were second in turnover ratio (plus 12).

"They're a playoff-tested team," Chiefs running back Marcus Allen said. "I've known those guys for a long time. They're tough and physical defensively. When it's on the line, they play extremely hard. . . . It's going to be a very physical game."

The Chiefs' defense is no less physical, no less menacing. It recorded nine sacks against Houston last week. In 16 regular-season games, the Chiefs had 35 sacks, an average of 2.2 per game. In two playoff games, they've rung up 12.

This will be Schottenheimer's third shot at the Super Bowl in a coaching career that included two near-misses with the Cleveland Browns. An unwanted reputation is just around the corner if the Chiefs lose. Allen said his teammates are aware.

"They realize he's had some times in the past when his team haven't been able to go all the way," Allen said.

"This is his opportunity, as well as ours, so I think a lot of guys are really pulling for him."

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