SUPER BOWL XXVIII / BUFFALO BILLS vs. DALLAS COWBOYS : Winner Will Pass Reality Check : Overview: Dallas appears ready to dominate again. But this isn't the same Buffalo team that lost last year.


Not that there isn't much mystery to Super Bowl XXVIII, but to understand it, all you have do is look up.

It's right there on Interstate 85, the major highway running past the Georgia Dome.

It's on two billboards featuring the face of Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman.

He appears to be sneering.

He is accompanied by two words.


Such is the Cowboys' inspiration, and Buffalo Bills' torment, as they meet today at 3:18 p.m. PDT, the first time two teams have played in the Super Bowl two years in a row.

Get real. The Cowboys, with virtually the same team that defeated the Bills by 35 points in the last Super Bowl, are going to choke?

Get real. The Bills, losers of a record three consecutive Super Bowls by an average of 16 points, are going to suddenly become winners?

Get real. The Cowboys are going to lose after playing the best single half of football in the league this season during last week's rout of the San Francisco 49ers?

Get real. The Bills are going to win after barely beating the Raiders in the playoffs' first round?

Get real. Aikman and Emmitt Smith also-rans?

Get real. Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas champions?

The differences between the two teams were evident this week, even in their off-field crises:

For the Cowboys, it was being forced to move to a secret hotel Saturday night to avoid the crush of fans.

For the Bills, it was rescuing special teams star Steve Tasker from a security guard who wouldn't let him attend a team meeting.

The guard didn't think he was a player.

"We know what everybody thinks," Bill linebacker Darryl Talley said. "But that's everyone else's problem."

It is with that defiant attitude that the Bills have spent their last few days. They have glared. They have cursed reporters. They have rarely smiled.

For maybe the first time, they have treated the Super Bowl less like an event and more like another week of work.

That is exactly what Coach Marv Levy wants.

As he and his team have matured, they have realized that perhaps the best way to win the Super Bowl is to not try to win the Super Bowl .

Their record nine pressure-induced turnovers last year reminded them of that.

"Our goal is not to win the Super Bowl championship," Levy said. "Our goal is to prepare in such a way as to beat the Dallas Cowboys."

In other words, "If you forget about the Cowboys and just look at the Super Bowl, I think you miss the forest for the trees," Levy said. "Or is that the tree for the forest? I never could figure that out."

The Cowboys haven't been quite their usual swaggering, quote-toting selves.

It's as if they know there is no sleeping dog in these United States right now as big as the Bills.

Jimmy Johnson has not guaranteed a victory. Michael Irvin has not been crowing about his jewelry.

Charles Haley has not punched anything . . . or anybody.

"You don't get to four consecutive Super Bowls unless you have great talent and beat a lot of quality teams," defensive end Jim Jeffcoat said of the Bills. "We know what we're in for."

Of course, that is what they were saying before last year's Super Bowl in Pasadena.

But then, shortly after the Bills took a 7-0 lead--yes, they actually led in that game--the Cowboys scored four touchdowns before halftime after a variety of turnovers.

What is so different about this year? What makes the Bills think they even have a chance?

"I think everything is different," Levy said, later adding, "as to why, I really can't give you answer that isn't groping."

Here are some guesses:

--Last year Kelly and Thomas had a variety of injuries before the game that worsened with each hit.

By the time the rout ended, Kelly had thrown the ball only seven times and Thomas had rushed only 11 times.

This year, Cowboys Aikman and Smith have the injuries. Aikman is still recovering from a concussion suffered last week; Smith has a separated shoulder.

Neither injury is expected to keep them from beginning the game at full strength.

But no such guarantee can made after their first meeting with Bill defensive end Bruce Smith, who is having his best season and is playing for his gravely ill father.

--Last year, the Cowboys had two weeks to prepare for the most unusual offense they have faced, the Bills' no-huddle attack. They figured out enough to be able to get four sacks and cause many of those turnovers.

This year, they had only one week. And Johnson is worried.

"That is not going to be enough preparation time, I'm afraid," he said. "The shortened time does not work in our favor."

The Bills agree.

"We like just having one week," Levy said. "This way, we can keep our rhythm."

--Last year, the Bills didn't have the strong, speedy linebackers required to handle tight end Jay Novacek, who caught seven passes for 72 yards and a touchdown.

The deficiency also opened holes for Smith, who rushed for 108 yards and one touchdown.

This year, youngsters Mark Maddox and Marvcus Patton have become inside forces on a defense that led the NFL with 47 interceptions and fumble recoveries.

"We feel we're quicker inside now," Talley said. "And stronger."

--Last year, Kelly had one target: Andre Reed. This year he also has speedy Bill Brooks and improved tight end Pete Metzelaars.

Perhaps has a result, Kelly has not thrown an interception in 64 playoff passes this year while completing 68.8%.

Brooks, who signed last spring as a free agent from the Indianapolis Colts, has caught both of Kelly's playoff touchdown passes. He gives them the deep threat they have been lacking.

Metzelaars, who caught only two passes in last year's Super Bowl, led the team with 68 catches. The Cowboy front seven can't simply worry only about stopping Thomas anymore.

None of this means the Bills are a better team than the Cowboys. Far from it.

Aikman has completed 70% of his passes in five postseason games, with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. That gives him a 113.3 rating, the highest in NFL postseason history with at least five games.

Smith, despite the shoulder injury, has 260 total yards in two playoff games with a touchdown rushing and receiving.

As for the Cowboy defense, it is enough to say that their two playoff opponents have averaged 57.5 yards rushing.

All week, those who have said that these Cowboys could be stopped have been told to get real.

But who knows? On the 25th anniversary of the Joe Namath-led upset of the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts, it might be time for this Super Bowl to once again get a little unreal.

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