Buffalo special teams specialist Steve Tasker's toes were numb. His fingers were frozen. His body was sore all over.
The Bills, losers in the last three Super Bowls, are one step away from playing in another one after Saturday's 29-23 victory over the Raiders in an AFC playoff game contested in frigid temperatures at Rich Stadium.
"Everybody keeps saying that they don't want Buffalo in the Super Bowl," Tasker said. "But we have only three words for that--We Don't Care."
As usual, the Bills have a strange way of showing it. As usual, they fell behind early before the offense got going and the defense buckled down in the second half.
Tasker gave them one of their few first-half highlights.
On a field better suited for ice skating, Tasker returned his first kickoff of the season, breaking through the Raiders' coverage for 67 yards until Willie Gault ran him out of bounds at the Raider one-yard line, setting up a touchdown run by Kenneth Davis.
But the Bills couldn't stop the Raiders' offense, which was coming off its best game of the season last week against Denver.
The Raiders built a 17-6 second-quarter lead largely because quarterback Jeff Hostetler was hitting running backs Ty Montgomery and Napoleon McCallum on short patterns out of the backfield. McCallum scored twice on one-yard runs, had 45 yards by halftime and appeared well on his way to another big week.
Trailing in the playoffs. Sound familiar? It did to the Bills.
They fell behind the Houston Oilers, 35-3, in the third quarter of a playoff game last season before rallying for a 41-38 overtime victory. Did memories of that game jar the Bills out of their first-half slumber?
"No, not really," linebacker Darryl Talley said. "It's different circumstances this year--and two completely different teams."
The Raiders didn't blow a 32-point lead, as the Oilers did. But they did blow an 11-point advantage.
Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly completed four consecutive passes to move the Bills to the Raider 45 late in the second quarter. They picked up 37 more yards when cornerback Torin Dorn was called for pass interference against Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas scored on an eight-yard run on the next play to cut it to 17-13 at halftime.
"We just had to settle down and get the offense going," said Reed, who caught four passes for 53 yards. "We were a little too giddy in the first half."
That mood changed in the locker room at halftime. After giving up 17 points in the first half, the Bills' defense was blistered by defensive coordinator Walt Corey.
"Walt wasn't happy with us," defensive end Bruce Smith said. "He wasn't happy with us at all."
The Bills played as many as eight men on the defensive front in the second half and took away the short passes. The Raiders managed only 120 yards and one first down in the second half--an 86-yard touchdown pass play from Hostetler to Tim Brown.
"On Thursday, Walt came up with this great defensive scheme and we didn't get a chance to practice it Friday," linebacker Cornelius Bennett said. "We walked through it Saturday a little bit and executed it pretty well today."
And Corey's message got through to Smith. With the Bills leading, 29-23, Smith beat tackle Bruce Wilkerson and sacked Hostetler for a seven-yard loss on a key third-and-seven from the Raiders' 29 with 5:42 left in the game. After getting the ball back, the Bills ran out the clock.
Unlike the first half, the Bills' defense gave Kelly plenty of opportunities in the second half. Kelly, who completed 27 of 37 passes for 287 yards, had scoring passes of 25 and 22 yards to Bill Brooks in the second half.
It was easy to overlook Brooks, whom the Bills acquired from Indianapolis in the off-season. He had caught only one touchdown pass in the last six games. But his second touchdown catch of the game--on a crossing pattern in the end zone--put the Bills ahead, 29-23, with 12:05 left in the game.
"We thought Billy would be able to hit the seams a couple times," Kelly said. "It wasn't there a couple of times, but we called it again at the right time."