Bears Get It Half Right, but Bills Win : Interconference: Chicago unable to capitalize on first-half dominance and Buffalo pulls away, 35-20.
One of the last things a good new quarterback learns is how to get the ball into the end zone after getting it down the field.
Jim Harbaugh has suddenly mastered most of the fine points. But in his first year as the unchallenged quarterback of the Chicago Bears, the former No. 1 draft choice from Michigan hasn’t yet developed a consistently effective touchdown punch.
It was on the goal line that the Buffalo Bills outplayed him Sunday to win a duel of unbeaten teams, 35-20, as Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, after a shaky start, finally did all the things Harbaugh wanted to do.
Before a sellout crowd of 80,366, the Bills won their fifth consecutive game--and dropped Chicago to 4-1--by scoring touchdowns when nothing less would do after Harbaugh kept striking out to end a series of long drives.
“We self-destructed almost every chance we got,” Chicago Coach Mike Ditka said, blaming the defeat even-handedly on his whole team--which lost two touchdowns on penalties.
Free safety Mark Carrier’s 43-yard run with an interception was nullified by an offsides on Tim Ryan, and Harbaugh’s 17-yard pass to Neal Anderson was called back because of offensive pass interference on Darren Lewis.
With more offensive consistency, however, the Bears could have overcome their mistakes.
“The Bears are tough,” said Buffalo Coach Marv Levy, whose 5-0 start has put him in line for another shot at coach of the year. “We were thrilled to beat a team this good.”
In the end, Kelly, the NFL’s quarterback of the year so far, had 303 yards passing and three scoring throws on 19 completions in 29 attempts. And former Raider receiver James Lofton had the honor of running into the end zone--backing in, actually--on the game’s key play, a 77-yard pass play.
But the truth is that most of those good things happened to the Bills after Harbaugh, with the help of running back Anderson and good up-front blocking, had pushed them around for most of the first half.
The Bears held possession for 26 of the first 28 minutes, a long Buffalo dry spell in which Kelly had only two first downs. But with two minutes left before halftime, the Bears had scored nothing but field goals for a 6-0 lead.
At that point, collecting himself during the two-minute warning, Kelly showed Harbaugh how to do it--how to finish off long drives, how to play to win. Swiftly moving 85 yards, the Buffalo quarterback completed five passes in a row, the last a 33-yard pass into the end zone to wide receiver Al Edwards as the Bills earned a 7-6 halftime lead.
With the confidence born in his two-minute drill, Kelly extended his streak to 10 for 10 opening the second half--and that improved Buffalo’s lead to 21-6 before Harbaugh, on his fifth visit into scoring position, finally rolled a six on Anderson’s two-yard sweep.
In what was now a 21-13 game, most of the fourth quarter remained, and the Bears had regained the momentum. Or so it seemed. They lost it instantly, as soon as the next play, the Kelly-Lofton 77-yard bomb that made the rest of the game anticlimactic.
“I gave the cornerback (Lemuel Stinson) a little move outside, and went straight up the field,” said Lofton, 35, whose four-catch day--for 122 yards--made him the fourth most productive receiver, all-time.
Asked why he backed the last 15 yards into the end zone, Lofton said: “I turned around to see who was gaining on me.”
Buffalo halfback Thurman Thomas, who finished with 117 yards after a 27-yard first half, was running mostly draw plays, as usual, out of Buffalo’s no-huddle shotgun formation.
This isn’t the simple formation it used to be when the Bills started using it a year or so ago.
“We can run it 12 or 14 different ways,” Levy said.
In other words, the Bills have 12 or 14 different shotgun formations, in which, at various times, Thomas lines up ahead of, even with, or as much as a yard behind Kelly. This gives the AFC’s best back several different running angles behind various blocking schemes, and he makes the most of it.
The Buffalo defense improved this week, the Bills said, because defensive end Bruce Smith returned from the injury list after missing four games.
Smith, however, sat out most of the Bills’ big second half.
To stop Chicago in the second half, the Bills rested Smith and blitzed Harbaugh continually with one of their four linebackers, including Cornelius Bennett, who had a Pro Bowl-type game.
“Every time I went to throw (in the second half), a linebacker was running free,” said Harbaugh, who completed 17 of 35 passes for 203 yards.