When they won the game in the first half, the Buffalo Bills looked like a San Francisco 49er team playing the no-huddle offense.
At the same time, Buffalo’s best defensive player, Bruce Smith, resembling the old Lawrence Taylor, broke down the New York Giants’ offense.
Then both teams lost their quarterbacks--possibly for the season--whereupon the Bills hung on to get a 17-13 victory Saturday in a matchup that was billed in nearby Manhattan as a Super Bowl preview.
It might not be remembered as that unless the two quarterbacks return.
On a chilly, rainy day in Giants Stadium, Buffalo’s Jim Kelly went down first, leaving late in the first half with damaged knee ligaments that could require surgery.
“I’ll be out three weeks unless I’m lucky,” he kept saying.
In the third quarter, New York’s Phil Simms went to the bench with a sprained arch, which, the doctors said, can be more serious than it sounds or looks.
“The good news is that the Simms X-rays were negative,” Giant Coach Bill Parcells said.
It was about the only good news the Giants had in the course of slipping to 11-3 in the highly competitive NFC. They had entered December 10-0.
The Bills advanced to 12-2 when they survived a second-half battle of backup quarterbacks, a struggle in which Buffalo’s Frank Reich and New York’s Jeff Hostetler moved their teams repeatedly though scoring only three points apiece.
After Kelly had outplayed Simms in a 14-10 first half, Hostetler’s third-quarter drive improved the Giants to 14-13.
That put it up to Reich, who, on the game’s next series, drove the Bills to the three points that got Buffalo in position to win, 17-13, unless Hostetler could take the Giants to a fourth-quarter touchdown.
It wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t. On one possession he came down to the Buffalo 13, where, in shotgun formation on third down, Giant center Bart Oates took his club out of field goal range with a wild snap.
Next, reaching the Buffalo 21 on a 17-yard pass to wide receiver Stephen Baker, Hostetler lost all that, and 10 yards more, on offensive pass interference against a decoy receiver who was across the field from Baker.
“We must have had 10 opportunities to (win) this one and blew them all,” Parcells said.
Giant linebacker Taylor, for example, was in position to score two touchdowns on intercepted passes.
“I just couldn’t make the plays,” he said.
Thus he was outplayed by Smith, Buffalo’s 275-pound defensive end, who had promised he would.
“I wasn’t knocking Taylor last week when I said I’m better than he is,” Smith said.
“My full statement was this: Over the last 10 years, Taylor was the most dominant defensive player in the game. This season, I have emerged to be the best.”
On Taylor’s own turf, it looked that way.
The Bills, however, have played good defense for years. What’s different about this team is that it’s also playing good offense.
Coach Marv Levy and his offensive coordinator, Ted Marchibroda, have given Buffalo a well-structured short-passing attack that resembles San Francisco’s. In fact, it proved more successful against New York than San Francisco’s--which had been held to one touchdown Dec. 3 in the 49ers’ 7-3 victory over the Giants.
There were two reasons for that:
--Most Buffalo plays were dispatched from no-huddle formations that kept the Giants off balance throughout most of Kelly’s time on the field.
--The Bills’ main ballcarrier, Thurman Thomas, demonstrated again that he is one of the league’s quickest. Though weighing less than 200 pounds, Thomas obliged the Giants to put more men on him than they had put on any 49er running back earlier this month.
A year or two ago, the Buffalo offense was as conservative as the Giants’ still is.
“We’ve evolved into this gradually,” Levy said.
“We can play a more (wide open) game now because we have the people to do it--especially a big tight end who can catch the ball, Keith McKeller, not to mention (wide receivers) Andre Reed, James Lofton and Don Beebe.”
Said Buffalo General Manager Bill Polian: “We decided in the off-season that we have the personnel to open up in the no-huddle offense.”
In other years, the Bills haven’t really integrated pass plays into their run-oriented offense until the playoffs, when it was too late.
The way they passed in the first half won a big game. On successive series, Kelly led the Bills 76 and 78 yards to short-yardage touchdowns--throwing sometimes from shotgun formation on first down and moving the team as a rule with no-huddle plays.
“We have what it takes to run the no-huddle now,” Levy said. “We can leave our regular personnel on the field and throw the ball in power formations.”
Reed scored the first touchdown on a six-yard pass and Thomas the second when he cut inside Taylor on a two-yard run.
The Giants had begun the game by plodding 71 yards on the ground to a fourth-and-a-foot touchdown by halfback Ottis Anderson.
Thereafter, finally replacing Anderson, rookie Rodney Hampton gained most of his 105 yards on similar ground plays. His problem in the clutch was that he ran into Smith too often.
Once more, the Giants seemed to be playing too conservatively to make a Super Bowl impression this winter. For example, on successive plays at midfield in the second quarter, they ran the ball on second and four and third and two, then punted.
On their next series, after getting to the Buffalo 10-yard line on penalties, the Giants played for their field goal with a power run, a draw play, and a third-down pass that Simms threw away.
That used to be Buffalo football, too. No more. The Bills have jumped into Super Bowl contention by abandoning their conservative approach. On numerous running downs now, they throw the ball, they attack their opponents, they come with four receivers on first down, they leave the huddling to such as the Giants.
Whether the Bills can stay in the championship race is now up to Reich, who was 3-0 replacing Kelly last year. He seems to have the native ability. On defense, Smith has it.