0-2 Bills will carry some extra baggage with them to Pasadena for Super Bowl

MIAMI — MIAMI -- As he walked off the field and into the tunnel at Joe Robbie Stadium, Nate Odomes chose to remind everyone in the vicinity of the Bills' checkered past. Looking directly into the stands, where a cluster of Dolphins fans were jeering both the visitors and the home team, Commentary

the Buffalo cornerback raised three fingers on his right hand and waved them in triumph.


The message was meant to be positive. His team was returning to the Super Bowl for the third consecutive year, equaling a feat last achieved by the Dolphins two decades ago. But it also was running the risk of compounding its reputation for ultimate failure.

In gaining another opportunity for their first NFL championship, the Bills positioned themselves for a dubious achievement award of historic proportions by defeating Miami, 29-10, yesterday.


They have lost a Super Bowl in the Southeast and the Midwest and now will have the chance to do so on the West Coast. They pTC have fallen to the Giants and the Redskins and now stand on the threshold of a third consecutive loss to a team from the NFC East. They will be carrying extra baggage to Pasadena, Calif.

Even Thurman Thomas conceded as much. The running back, who would have been the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXV but for the misdirection of Scott Norwood's kick and who became the inadvertent symbol of his team's ineptness in Super Bowl XXVI by misplacing his helmet before the first play from scrimmage, was subdued after a brilliant performance against the Dolphins. He remembered it all too well.

"I'm not really too excited," Thomas said, "because, in the back of my mind, there's that doubt. We're going back to the Super Bowl and might lose. But I don't want to dwell on that now."

Understandably, this is the time for the Bills to look forward. "We have a great chance [to win]," linebacker Cornelius Bennett said, "as long as we play the way we did in the last 10 quarters." During those 150 minutes, Buffalo outscored the Oilers, Steelers and Dolphins 91-23. Still, they all were AFC teams.

Because an NFC club has won the past eight Super Bowls, several by embarrassing margins, the public perception is that the Bills are about to have the turf pulled out from under them again. "I'm sure whoever wins the NFC is going to be favored," Thomas said before the Cowboys overcame the 49ers, 30-20, yesterday in Candlestick Park and quickly were made a seven-point favorite.

Yet, the Bills believe they can stand up to the past as well as to the other conference. "We don't have any fear," coach Marv Levy said, "just because we've lost [the last] two Super Bowls."

They will make their case in two weeks with what they say is a cohesion born of adversity and a defense that no longer appears vulnerable to NFC East smash-mouth football.

"It happened in the second half of the Houston game," safety Mark Kelso contended. "We developed some unity [after rallying from a 35-3 deficit]. I think it helped us that it took so many guys to do it. We weren't relying on just a couple of guys."


Indeed, the Bills reached the AFC championship game despite the absence of quarterback Jim Kelly for the first two games of the playoffs and Bennett for one, despite physical problems that hampered Thomas and defensive end Bruce Smith. All the team's stars made their presence felt yesterday, however.

Thomas was credited with 120 yards rushing and receiving in the first half, exceeding the total output of the Miami offense in that span, and Smith led a stampede that smothered dangerous Dan Marino.

"I feel better about this team," general manager Bill Polian said, "because our defense is so much sounder than it was a year ago."

Phil Hansen, the young defensive end whose development has provided balance in the Bills' pass rush, credited the improvement to Smith's health. The man appeared in only five regular-season games last season and was well below par in the playoffs. "Every offensive line we go up against has to be aware of him," Hansen said.

Smith set up the first score of the game and the first of Steve Christie's five field goals by forcing a Marino fumble. He was credited with four tackles and 1 1/2 sacks and provided constant pressure. But it was Hansen, the second-year player from North Dakota State, who qualified for the highlight films when he batted a Marino pass into the air and then caught it for the first of two Buffalo interceptions.

So frustrated was Marino that, following an incomplete pass, he offered an explanation to Hansen. "I tackled him just after he threw the ball on one play and we both wound up laying on the ground," the Bills lineman recalled. "He said, 'My receivers just don't want to get open today.' I just looked at him and smiled. I think they couldn't get open against our secondary."


Indeed, the Buffalo defensive backfield was up to the standard set by Smith, Hansen, Bennett and linebacker Darryl Talley up front. "It's just like a stereo," said Odomes, who forced and recovered the first fumble of the game. "Right now, our volume is turned up."

In the blare of victory, the cornerback was willing to dredge up the memories of Tampa and Minneapolis. But Odomes also understood the down side. "It's gratifying to go back," he said, "but 30-40 years from now people are only going to know who won. I don't think you get proper respect until you win it all."

Here goes nothing.