Bills supply another spill, another thrill

January 07, 1996|By KEN ROSENTHAL

PITTSBURGH -- Sure, they screwed up. They always screw up. But there was so much more to this game, just as there is so much to this team that always draws our scorn.

The Buffalo Bills can be maddeningly inept when the pressure is greatest, but if that is to be their legacy, then at least concede one point:

They never quit.

They're the punching bags of the NFL, but they never quit.

They had no business rallying from a 20-0 deficit to pull within five points of Pittsburgh yesterday in an AFC divisional playoff game.

But there they were, down 26-21 in the fourth quarter, on the road at Three Rivers Stadium, terrifying America again.

Bruce Smith was home with the stomach flu. Jim Kelly was getting a pain-killing injection. Someone named Alex Van Pelt was playing quarterback.

Yet, the Bills were that close to one of the greatest victories in franchise history, one that would have ranked with their comeback from a 35-3 deficit against Houston three years ago in the playoffs.

But, true to form, they screwed up.

Actually, that's unfair. The Steelers were the team with the more punishing defense, the more threatening offense. They not only deserved their 40-21 victory, but they also might actually be a threat to win the Super Bowl.

Still, no Bills postseason defeat is complete without the usual rousing session of "What if?" -- as in, "What if Scott Norwood had made that field goal to beat the Giants?"

On this day, with Smith lying in bed, with Andre Reed playing on a bad hamstring, with Kelly suffering a separation of the breastbone and collarbone, the excuses were more legitimate than usual.

You've heard of Montezuma's revenge. Smith suffered from TC new form of stomach disorder -- Tagliabue's revenge, a strain devised by the NFL to ensure an entertaining Super Bowl.

Smith is the league's all-time playoff sack leader. He helped the Bills lead the NFL in sacks this season. And without him, the Steelers simply ran wherever Bryce Paup wasn't.

The Steelers didn't believe Smith would remain in Buffalo -- "the only reason he wouldn't play is if he had one leg in the grave," linebacker Kevin Greene said. But Smith, running a 104-degree temperature, failed to post.

None of the Bills used that as an excuse, but when you lose a future Hall of Fame pass rusher and replace him with a journeyman who has played for nine teams, you're in trouble.

Karl Wilson acquitted himself well, but he was no Smith. The Bills had 49 sacks this season, none yesterday. Paup, the NFL sack leader with 17 1/2 , finished with five measly tackles.

"Quite a few times, I heard them yell, 'Opposite!' which means run the other way," Paup said. "What could I do?"

The Bills allowed touchdowns on Pittsburgh's first two series, but after that adjusted well, holding the Steelers without a touchdown their next 10 possessions. Of course, with the Bills, it's always something. On this day, it was the offense.

Kelly threw three second-half interceptions, and still has never won at Three Rivers. Thurman Thomas scored two touchdowns, but also lost a fumble at the Pittsburgh 17. Reed, held to two catches, simply was not a factor.

Van Pelt -- a former Pitt quarterback, of all things -- nearly was the hero. Nicknamed "Pill" for his resemblance to the Pillsbury Dough Boy, he's no Frank Reich. Heck, he was third on the depth chart until the playoffs started.

He got the call yesterday after Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd took out Kelly with a borderline spear. "Pill" popped a 2-yard touchdown pass to pull the Bills within 26-14, and started the drive Kelly completed to make it 26-21.

"That's when we fell apart," said Thomas, always an astute observer on such matters.

The Steelers struck right back with a touchdown, Kelly threw two straight interceptions and the Bills' 10-game winning streak in the AFC playoffs was over.

The defining moment occurred when Greg Evans intercepted Neil O'Donnell at the Buffalo 2 early in the third quarter. Evans began his return, and was running virtually uncontested when -- bam! -- he fumbled.

"I thought he was going to go all the way," defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.

Sorry, Wade.

Evans recovered, but was brought down at the Buffalo 21. Two plays later, Kelly was picked off.

Afterward, Kelly ripped the officials -- Pittsburgh's Ernie Mills landed only one foot in the back of the end zone on his second-quarter touchdown, and he wasn't pushed out. But the truth is, the Bills' time is almost up.

Kelly is 35, Smith is 32 and Thomas is a beaten-down 29. General manager John Butler did a magnificent job retooling after last season's 7-9 mess, and Thomas said, "With the way free agency is, everyone can have a chance."

Still, the Bills got by this season on their guile, and as usual, benefited from playing in a weak conference. They won't be returning to the Super Bowl any time soon, mercy on us all.

Indeed, it was only fair that Smith was forced to watch on TV yesterday, scratching his head like the rest of us. The Bills did us all a favor, returning to Super Bowl form before they could ruin the Super Bowl.

You've got to love 'em.

They never quit.

They always screw up.

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