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Cincinnati’s Roadblocks to Keep Bills Busy Today

Times Staff Writer

Welcome to the Jungle, where they have fun and games.

The Jungle is where the Bengals roar, and the elephants in the offensive line conga, and the Ickey shuffles.

And the Buffalo roam?

Not without an upset.

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The Jungle is Riverfront Stadium, site of today’s American Football Conference championship between the Bengals and Bills, combatants who are almost mirror images of each other. They are young teams that had hot starts (11-1 for the Bills, 7-1 for the Bengals) and slower finishes (1-3 and no road victory since Nov. 14 for the Bills, 5-3 for the Bengals).

The Bills had a great defense and an efficient (No. 11 in the league) offense.

The Bengals had a great offense and a fair (No. 15) defense.

Neither team lost a home game, which is where the Jungle comes in, making the Bengals a solid four-point pick. They’re not in Buffalo anymore, Toto.

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The home-field advantage is not to be discounted in postseason, where it seems to count for even more. According to Mort Oldshan’s Gold Sheet, home teams are 58-26 since 1979.

But the Bills have more problems facing them than that.

Such as:

--The Bengals’ running game. They flattened the Bills, 232 yards’ worth, in their Nov. 27 meeting, and they hit Seattle for 254 last week. If they can manage 150 today, they will thwart the basic Bill game plan, which counts on controlling the ball.

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--The Bills’ rushing defense. Inside linebacker Shane Conlan says his injured arch has improved enough for him to start, but Coach Marv Levy notes that Conlan has played only one quarter in 6 weeks. Without Conlan, and with Art Still, Fred Smerlas and Darryl Talley hurting too, the Bills dropped in the last month from No. 6 against the rush to No. 12.

--The hot Bengal quarterback. The problems Jim Kelly has had this season? Boomer Esiason had that season a year ago, when his touchdown pass-interception ratio was 16 to 19 and he was almost booed out of town. This season, Boomer turned it back around and went 28-14, to Kelly’s 15-17.

And now for Classic Matchup II, the Bengal offense vs. the Bill defense, with the winner, in all probability, going to Miami.

Classic Matchup I didn’t go so well for the Bills, who gave up 149 yards rushing in the first half and lost the battle for time of possession, 41:21 to 18:39.

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“They killed us,” said Smerlas, the Bills’ Pro Bowl nose tackle. “I felt like I was playing under Niagara Falls.

“We lost a lot of credibility. You know, the classic matchup, the No. 1 offense against the great defense, and they ran through us like we were Swiss cheese.

“I don’t think if we’d had everybody (Conlan and cornerback Derrick Burroughs were out and Talley, a fine run defender, was lost early), we could have stopped them. They were running left, right, up the middle, passing. They did everything they wanted to against our defense, which we weren’t accustomed to. They were just on, and we weren’t.”

The Bengals have nice backs: big, fast, boogalooing Ickey Woods, and smaller, faster James Brooks, but the key is left tackle Anthony Munoz, the former Trojan who is matched today against right end Bruce Smith in your basic duel of titans.

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Munoz is the line’s kingpin. Some critics consider it to be large--280 pounds a man--but ordinary, except for the all-world Munoz, who takes it to another level.

Others consider the line to be a good cut above that. In any case, it’s a load.

“They’re huge,” Smerlas says. “They come out and they maul you.

“They try and get the corner on you. They push you by the hole--or lock you up and let the back make the decision.

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“What they do, they create a new line of scrimmage with their size. If you start trying to run with them laterally, they push you 3-4 yards back, and the back can dive for 4 yards. Or if your ‘backers pursue straight down the line, they have the great cutback ability, Ickey Woods and Brooks.

“Either way you go, they’re tough to defense. They’re so strong, they can lock you up at the line of scrimmage. Their backs are so smart, if the backside ‘backers aren’t staying home, they’ll cut it back and made the big, big play out of it.

“They have the great offensive line that has the quickness to cut you off and the backs to pick the holes. They legitimately are the best offense in the NFL.”

However, the classic matchup is only half the battle, if the most important half.

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Can Kelly rise above his sea of troubles?

Can the Bengal defense contain him?

In the first meeting, the Bengals took a 21-0 lead . . . and Kelly, unfazed as ever, led a rally to within 28-21 early in the fourth quarter.

The Bills were driving again until Robb Riddick fumbled at the Cincinnati 35. The Bengals then drove 65 yards the other way for a 35-21 victory.

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Things being what they were, pregame discussion centered around Bengal Coach Sam Wyche’s fast one--his no-huddle “attack” offense.

A week ago, Seattle got around it by having nose tackle Joe Nash feign injuries, which allowed the Seahawks to get their nickel backs and extra pass rushers.

Wyche indignantly dubbed it “the big Nash attack.” Of course, it was Wyche who started this; why not just line up and play the game, like everyone else?

Anyway, Levy last week accused the Bengals of having 12 or 13 players at a time on the field, making it impossible to counter-substitute.

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Replied Wyche: “Tell him to check the films.”

Then Wyche called Levy and pledged to play fair.

And Levy said he would, too--as long as he had a chance to get the right personnel on the field.

And Wyche said, well, he couldn’t promise they wouldn’t snap the ball on quick counts now and then.

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With luck, they’ll get it sorted out in time to have a football game, too.


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