Super experience: a little, and all bad Buffalo hopes third trip is the charm


MIAMI -- Slowly, but surely, the Buffalo Bills are making their way through the NFC East. A victory tour, it isn't.

Two years ago, it was the New York Giants -- and a 20-19 Buffalo loss.

Last year, it was the Washington Redskins -- and a 37-24 Buffalo loss.

This year, it's the Dallas Cowboys -- and most everybody is predicting a Super Bowl XXVII defeat for the Bills on Jan. 31 in the Rose Bowl.

Call it the Super Bowl smorgasbord. With Buffalo meat as the specialty.

And get ready for a lot of B-a-a-d Buffalo jokes.

Kent Hull, the Bills' loquacious center, knows what's coming -- a refresher course on the past two Super Bowls, served up by a media contingent in search of Super Bowl hype.

"We're going to Pasadena, and that's all I care about," Hull said. "I'll answer every one of them. Nobody will avoid any questions. We're just happy and tickled we're going back."

Once the Bills made their reservation with Sunday's 29-10 demolition of the Miami Dolphins in the AFC championship game, they suggested they were a different team.

They said they were more mature, and their quiet post-game celebration seemed a confirmation.

They said they are closer as a team. That they were not torn asunder by the public rush to second-guess the Jim Kelly-over-Frank Reich decision seemed to corroborate that theme.

They said they are a deeper team, and the fact that quarterback Reich, running back Kenneth Davis and linebacker Marvcus Patton have played prominent roles the last few weeks seemed proof.

They also are playing better defense. Since halftime of the 41-38, wild-card victory over the Houston Oilers, the defense has given up three field goals and one after-the-fact touchdown over 10 quarters.

So, the Bills (14-5) are a better team than in the past. But is it good enough to overcome the Cowboys (15-3) and eight years of NFC domination in the Super Bowl?

"If we stay together," linebacker Cornelius Bennett said, "we can overcome anything."

If there is going to be a turning point in Buffalo's three-year pursuit of the world championship, it might have arrived at halftime of the Houston game, when the Bills were staring at a 28-3 deficit that became 35-3. The ensuing comeback remade the team's image, if not the team, according to coach Marv Levy.

"That was a special win," he said. "It imbued the players with a great sense of pride, fostered confidence. I do think it had a carry-over. All of a sudden, the good qualities of the team were being recognized. People weren't talking about the bickering Bills, but of the good character the team showed in coming back.

"I think this team is more mature. They have overcome more controversial circumstances. I think they've gained some experience. Other teams have gotten better because they drafted higher. We haven't drafted as high, but our team has also improved."

The new Bills were able to survive a hazardous, wild-card path through Pittsburgh and Miami the past two weeks. Before the Bills beat the Steelers, the home team had won 15 straight AFC playoff games.

"Not many people thought we could do it," Kelly said. "But we have a great bunch of guys on the team, and everybody stuck together. We wanted to do it with class."

Against Miami, that meant a stifling defense that pounded Dan Marino and a short-thrust offense that cut the Dolphins to ribbons.

The two Super Bowl finalists have a few things in common.

Both offenses feature balance between the run and pass. The Cowboys rely on running back Emmitt Smith, although quarterback Troy Aikman threw for 322 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday. Smith, meanwhile, rushed for 114 yards and gained another 59 on receptions.

The Bills kept Kelly under wraps Sunday -- he passed for 177 yards and a touchdown -- and leaned heavily on their running backs. Thurman Thomas and Davis combined for 279 yards of the team's 358 total offense. Kelly, whose right knee withstood its first real test since it was hurt in the regular-season finale, figures to improve his deep game by Super Bowl Sunday.

The Cowboys have the clear edge on defense and in speed. The Bills have the obvious edge in Super Bowl experience. Both teams have the incentive.

"We've been dubbed the team that can't win the Super Bowl," said Bills defensive end Phil Hansen. "Fortunately, we get a chance to go back."

Cowboys-Bills comparisons

Individual leaders Quarterbacks .. .. .. NFL rank .. .. .. .. .. Production

Troy Aikman, Cowboys ... 3 ... .. 3,445 yards, 23 TDs, 14 interceptions

Jim Kelly, Bills . .. . 10 ... .. .. .. 3,457 yards, 23 TDs, 19 interceptions

Running backs . .. .. NFL rank .. .. .. .. .. Production

Emmitt Smith, Cowboys .. 1 ... .. 1,713 yards, 18 TDs rushing

Thurman Thomas, Bills .. 3 ... .. 1,487 yards, 9 TDs rushing

Receivers .. .. .. .. NFL rank .. .. .. .. .. Production

Michael Irvin, Cowboys . 7 ... .. 78 catches, 1,396 yards, 7 TDs, 17.9 avg. Andre Reed, Bills ... . 16 ... .. 65 catches, 913 yards, 3 TDs, 14.0 avg.

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Team .. .. .. .. .. .. .. NFL rankings Offense .. Total .. Rush .. Pass .. Defense .. Total .. Rush .. Pass

Cowboys .. .. 4 ... 5 .. .. 5 .. .. Cowboys .. 1 ... .. 1 .. .. 5

Bills . .. .. 2 ... 1 .. .. 6 .. .. Bills . . 12 ... . 2T .. . 20

Note: All statistics for regular season.

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