The Cincinnati Bengals beat the spread Sunday because they beat the spread.
They beat the Buffalo Bills, 21-10, in the AFC championship game at blustery Riverfront Stadium because their rapidly maturing defense anticipated and adjusted to Buffalo's "spread" offense before the Bills even deployed it.
Favored by 4 points, the Bengals won by 11 because they replaced a linebacker and a run-oriented safety with a cornerback and a pass-oriented safety at the outset of the second half.
And it worked so well they almost stole the media spotlight from a funky dance called the Ickey Shuffle that almost gave way to the Ickey Sniffle early in the week when a nasty virus raced through the team.
"There were a lot of different ingredients of our defense that were undervalued," said Cincinnati linebacker Reggie Williams.
That's because the Bengals finished 15th in National Football League in yards allowed this season. This compared unfavorably with their offense, which led the league in yardage and scoring. And it left them open to criticism from the NFC bandwagoneers, who insist it will take more than a one-dimensional team to end that conference's recent domination of the Super Bowl.
In a 35-21 Cincinnati victory over Buffalo six weeks ago, the Bengals' defense allowed the Bills to storm back from a 21-0 deficit because it wasn't prepared for the Buffalo spread passing attack that features wide receivers Andre Reed, Chris Burkett and Trumaine Johnson and a running back--usually Ronnie Harmon and or Robb Riddick--in simultaneous patterns.
"We weren't ready for it last time," said defensive end Jason Buck. "We were off balance."
This time Cincinnati defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a former NFL defensive back, saw the spread coming. The Bills had managed just 35 yards rushing in 10 first-half carries. And LeBeau rightly figured Buffalo Coach Marv Levy would order quarterback Jim Kelly to come out gunning in the third period.
So he replaced linebacker Leo Barker with backup strong safety Barney Bussey and starting free safety Solomon Wilcots with rookie Rickey Dixon, who can also play cornerback.
The results were immediate and devastating to a Levy team that really would rather have been running. In Levy's two years with the Bills, they are 19-0 in games in which they have rushed 30 or more times.
But, on their first three possessions of the second half, the Bills totaled minus-12 yards. Twice during that span Buffalo sacked Kelly because he couldn't find anybody open in the Bengals' packed secondary.
On the fourth possession, Kelly threw two incompletions to force another punt.
On the fifth possession, Pro Bowl strong safety David Fulcher intercepted Kelly.
The Bills never got the ball back.
"Our defense is second to none when we really want to play," Bussey said.
Kelly finished with 14 completions in 30 attempts for 163 yards. The Bengals sacked him 3 times and intercepted him 3 times. They allowed a stingy 181 yards all afternoon and only 9:04 of possession time in the second half. Buffalo rushed only 17 times for only 45 yards.
But perhaps the most telling statistic was the Bills' failure to make a first down in 10 third-down tries.
"Buffalo's got the No. 1 defense in the AFC," Fulcher said. "But who's going to the Super Bowl?"
The Bengals' defense, which will be faced with the chore of stopping San Francisco 49ers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig in Miami, is built around a smallish front line backed by linebackers and defensive backs who are household names only in their own homes.
LeBeau prefers agility to bulk, technique to size. Buck and Jim Skow, the defensive ends, weigh 265 and 245 respectively. Tim Krumrie, is undersized for a nose tackle at 268 pounds. But he will play in the Pro Bowl later this month.
Krumrie's enthusiasm for football has caught on with his teammates and made him a local favorite in Cincinnati. At the North College Hill Bakery on Galbraith Road, you can buy an orange and black load of bread called, "CRUMB-RYE."
In its two playoff victories over Buffalo and Seattle, the Bengal defense has allowed only 2 yards per rush. And both the Seahawks and the Bills finished among the NFL's top-10 rushing teams this season.
"If you were to take us individually and stack us up against players around the league, we might not compare," Williams said. "But if you compare our 11 guys with anybody else's 11 guys, we'll stack up with anybody."
To be sure, Bengal rookie Ickey Woods produced two rushing touchdowns and shuffled delightedly with his teammates on the sidelines after each.
But where Woods was the focal point of the revelry, Cincinnati's defense represented a revelation.
"The Bengals' defensive line kind of surprised us," said Buffalo left guard Jim Ritcher. "They seemed stronger than the last time we played them."
And the jerry-built Cincinnati secondary, led by cornerback Eric Thomas, who intercepted 6 passes during the regular season and has one in each of the the Bengals' playoff wins, is proud of the "Swat Team" nickname it has invented for itself.
"People thought we had something to prove," Fulcher said. "But we don't think we have anything to prove to ourselves."