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THE NFL / 1996 | THE NFL / T.J. SIMERS

These Bills Are Definitely Due

August 31, 1996|T. J. SIMERS

Meteorologist Ed Mahoney relayed the information from the city's very own chief forecaster:

"While he can only give you the average temperature here each year for Jan. 12, the date for this year's AFC championship game--24 degrees--he can make this prediction: You're wrong picking Buffalo to make it to the Super Bowl."

No, not for a second do the locals want to consider yet another death march to the Super Bowl only to be beaten up in Jay Leno or David Letterman's monologue for another year.

"Super Bowl? I don't think people want to get all worked up about this," said Linda Soltis, director of communications for the city's chamber of commerce, the organization designed to get people all worked up.

Deal with it, Buffalo. Your aging heroes will still have their hurrah, secure the frozen-tundra advantage for the AFC championship game, then snap the NFC's 12-game stranglehold with a victory in Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.

"It would be the sports story of the 20th Century if this team came back to win, wouldn't it?" said Ralph Wilson, the team's only owner in its 37-year history. "But oh gosh, no, I can't predict it's going to happen. The other night in a span of five minutes, two of our defensive linemen limped off the field and without those two guys we don't stop anybody, so no, I can't predict."

No such restrictions here: Buffalo outclasses the AFC because of Wade Phillips' defense, quarterback Jim Kelly's efficiency and because Marty Schottenheimer still coaches Kansas City.

The Bills led the NFL in sacks a year ago, have added middle linebacker Chris Spielman to deal with the run-oriented teams in the AFC East and will field their best receiving corps since reaching their first Super Bowl in 1991.

The battle for home-field advantage may very well mean everything in the AFC, but Kansas City concludes the regular season in Buffalo: Advantage Bills.

"If we get that far--to the AFC championship game--I'll buy all the buffalo wings you can eat," Wilson said. "But right now that's crazy talk."

No more ridiculous than last season, when Indianapolis played Pittsburgh for the AFC championship. The Steelers won with Neil O'Donnell demonstrating that a team doesn't have to have a quarterback to win. But O'Donnell has moved on to the New York Jets and Pittsburgh will start Jim Miller this season. Even O'Donnell was never that bad.

"On paper we have put together the best team we could and we have spent a tremendous amount of money," Wilson said. "Second to Dallas in money spent, they tell me, although I don't know if that's a compliment. And we have kept our core of great players together.

"It would be great to win the Super Bowl, especially because [Coach] Marv Levy is 71 and has gone through so much with his illness [prostate cancer]. But that may be reaching a little too far. I'll say this: We've got the team that--if the breaks come our way--we could win a Super Bowl, but that requires a lot of good bounces."

It also requires a complete breakdown in the way they play football in the NFC. Early indications are that might already be happening in Dallas and San Francisco, leaving only Green Bay as the team to beat.

The Cowboys couldn't win without Emmitt Smith a few years ago as he held out for a new contract and now they will see if they can triumph without Troy Aikman's top two targets: wide receiver Michael Irvin and tight end Jay Novacek. The pair caught 15 of the 16 touchdown passes thrown by Aikman a year ago, and although Irvin will return after serving a five-game suspension, there is some doubt that Novacek will recover from a back injury.

"I know Green Bay is looking at it like, 'Dallas, Dallas, Dallas,' " Aikman said. "But there's no guarantee we're going to be there in January."

Not even a mention of San Francisco. The 49ers still have quarterback Steve Young, but for how long? A year ago he sat out five games because of injury, and he went down seven times this exhibition season behind an offensive line of lugs. The 49ers still do not have a Ricky Watters-type running back threat on first and second downs, and instead of starting the likes of Deion Sanders, Eric Wright or Eric Davis at cornerback, they open with Stiffs 'R Us in Marquez Pope and Tyronne Drakeford.

Dallas still wins the NFC East title in a breeze and San Francisco gets no challenge in the NFC West, but they have dropped back to the Pack, making it a three-team tournament for postseason celebrations. Green Bay's test is to stay even with the Cowboys and 49ers in the battle for home-field playoff advantage against the toughest division in football--the NFC Central.

The Packers have won 13 of their last 14 games in Lambeau Field, which has a grass surface. But this season they play in four domes on the road, and will also be trying to snap a six-game losing streak to the Cowboys in a Monday night game at Dallas on Nov. 18.

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