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PRO FOOTBALL / BOB OATES : Best Player in the Best Game Was Hostetler

There might never have been a big game so well played by both teams.

The New York Giants, who won Super Bowl XXV, 20-19, accomplished exactly what they set out to do, powerfully moving the ball 87 and 75 yards to the two key touchdowns and keeping the high-tech Buffalo Bills off the field for all but 19 minutes 27 seconds.

But they couldn’t put the Bills away.

On a night when both sides kept coming back to score touchdowns or field goals and reclaim leads that had slipped out of their hands, Buffalo sent halfback Thurman Thomas speeding for 31 unbelievable yards to the touchdown that dropped the Giants behind, 19-17, on the first play of the fourth quarter.

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And so the New York quarterback, Jeff Hostetler, who is 7-0 as an NFL starter--though he was almost bludgeoned out of the game in the first half--had to win it throwing passes for the conservative, ground-bound, ball-control Giants.

Sustaining the last decisive drive for 7 1/2 minutes, Hostetler completed four passes as he led the Giants 74 yards to the winning field goal, a 21-yard gimme by Matt Bahr.

And still there was more. Could the Bills move the ball again? They could.

Could they kick a go-ahead field goal themselves? They couldn’t. For their specialist, Scott Norwood, the 47-yard try was just too long. One team had to lose, and, in those last four seconds, it was Buffalo.

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Why did two NFL teams suddenly erupt with a rousing ballgame after years of mostly dull Super Bowl football?

It might well have been the short break between games.

For only the third time in a quarter-century, there was only a week--instead of two--for the Super Bowl teams to think about the NFL’s highest-pressure event, and so, to the players, it had a familiar feeling.

In other years, after 14 days of stewing and fretting, the Super Bowl’s pressure has often wrecked the team that fell off the pace. But this time neither team choked when it got behind. In truth, neither seemed to notice that it was behind.

The Giants, for example, merely stepped up their game when the Bills advanced swiftly and smartly into a 12-3 lead in the second quarter after a spell in which Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly riddled them with passes.

Stopping Kelly on three important series after the Bills had assumed their 12-3 lead, the Giants struck on Hostetler’s passes for the touchdown that put them only two points out of it at the half, 12-10.

In the second half, Buffalo needed--and mounted--a comeback. Just when the ball-control New York offense had seemingly put the Bills away with a monstrous drive that consumed 9 1/2 minutes--producing a 17-12 lead--Buffalo capitalized on the only major mistake of the night to dart in front once more.

The mistake was Giant Coach Bill Parcells’ decision to run the ball on fourth down at the Buffalo 37. When Bruce Smith threw Ottis Anderson for a two-yard loss, Kelly and Thomas quickly whisked the Bills 63 yards, polishing off the drive with the best play of the night, Thomas’ 31-yard scoring run.

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This was a game in which there wasn’t a turnover in four quarters. There was hardly another mistake. It was both the most interesting and the best-played of all the Super Bowls.

The writers made the only significant error when they named Anderson--he goes by both Ottis and O.J.--the most valuable player. Anderson was dominant at times, sure enough--but he shared his position with another man, Dave Meggett, who played as well, considering Meggett’s work as kick runner, pass receiver and decoy.

Hostetler is the guy who earned the player-of-the-game tribute.

The No. 2 star was Smith, the Bills’ dominating defensive lineman.

No. 3 was Thomas, who averaged nine yards against the extraordinary Giant defense, and who out-gained Anderson, 135 yards to 102. Thomas out-gained everybody else.

No. 4 was Giant punter Sean Landeta, whose exceptional, long-distance free kick after a safety saved his side in the second quarter, and who later got off a 54-yard punt before pinning the Bills at their 10-yard line with the special-team play of the night in the last two minutes.

If Landeta had punted it only to the 20 or into the end zone, the Bills would have started their last drive from the Buffalo 20 instead of the 10. And, probably, they would have made the winning field goal at the end.

Anderson, as helpful as he was to the Giants, was only No. 5.

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This was Smith’s greatest game in a career that has carried him to general recognition as the NFL’s best defensive player.

Buffalo wouldn’t have been in it without him. Until the Giants wore him out chasing Hosteler, Smith had the Bills ahead.

In the final reckoning, the play of the game occurred in the second quarter, when Smith beat two Giant blockers and sacked Hostetler in the end zone.

First, Smith got a jump on the best New York blocker, John (Jumbo) Elliott and brushed him aside. Next, Smith piled into New York’s backfield blocker, Anderson, and quickly shoved the big halfback so far off course that Hostetler tripped over him and sprawled into the end zone.

When Hostetler got up, Smith caught him for a safety. But at the very end, Hostetler won the play from Smith. As the powerful Buffalo pass blocker grabbed Hostetler’s wrist to strip him of the ball, Hostetler summoned the strength to keep and lose only two points instead of six.

If Hostetler had lost six points there, the Giants probably would have lost the game.

And if Hostetler hadn’t moved the Giants in the fourth quarter, after Buffalo had pulled back ahead, they would have lost.

This was Hostetler’s game.


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