MAKING THE CASE Revived defense, experience give Bills the edge


PASADENA, Calif. -- It took one miracle and two road victories for the Buffalo Bills to get here.

This time, they won't blow the chance.

They won't need divine intervention, either, to beat the Dallas Cowboys today in Super Bowl XXVII. They've got all they need -- an improved defense, another year of maturity and an offense that is ready to make up for the past.

The NFC mystique? Not a factor.

While the Bills were going 40-11 over the past three seasons, they were going 10-4 against NFC teams. Two of those losses came in meaningless, end-of-the-season games when Buffalo rested its regulars. The other two came in the Super Bowl.

Granted, these rebuilt Cowboys are pretty good. They have all the necessary elements to be a great team -- a dominant defense, a thoroughbred running back, a strong-armed quarterback and big-play receivers.

What they don't have is Buffalo's experience, and no matter what coach Jimmy Johnson says, that will make a difference.

No, it didn't help the Bills against the Washington Redskins a year ago. But the Redskins were the better team and they were better coached.

The Cowboys don't have that dual advantage. The Bills have restored their defensive thunder this year, and they've retooled the offense.

A year ago, defensive end Bruce Smith was a mere shadow of the pass rusher he was in 1990, when he had 19 sacks. A knee injury cost Smith most of the 1991 season.

Now he's healthy again. And he's one of the NFL's best pass rushers again. He had 14 regular-season sacks and 2.5 in the playoffs. The Cowboys will have to double-team Smith on right side, and that should free up people like left end Phil Hansen and linebacker Cornelius Bennett to get to the passer.

OK, so quarterback Troy Aikman has faced the vaunted Philadelphia Eagles pass rush. But he also was throwing against the Eagles secondary. This isn't the Eagles secondary.

Cornerbacks Nate Odomes and James Williams have been superb through the playoffs, and strong safety Henry Jones is going to the Pro Bowl.

But the biggest improvement in the Bills' defense is the run defense. They jumped from 24th in the NFL to a tie for second. That's because nose tackle Jeff Wright has been healthy all year, and the inside linebacker tandem of Bennett and Shane Conlan has come on strong.

Offense? Quarterback Jim Kelly was intercepted four times against the Redskins last year. Thurman Thomas rushed for 13 yards. Don't expect to see those numbers again.

Kelly will be 33 shortly and knows time is running out. He is mentally tough, and he's still capable of making big plays.

Thomas, meanwhile, has shaken his reputation as an arrogant, selfishplayer during a week of goodwill at the Super Bowl.

While Emmitt Smith is arguably the best running back in football, Thomas is clearly the most dangerous. He can turn a big play catching a quick screen pass as well as running off tackle.

Dallas' defense ranked No. 1 statistically this season in the NFL. A Doomsday Defense it isn't, though. The four-man pass rush is the key. Stop it, and you can beat the Cowboys in the secondary. This is where Kelly will come up big.

There is one other significant factor. The Bills have a kicker they have confidence in now. Steve Christie has made 32 of 39 field goals, including eight of nine in the postseason.

There is no denying the Bills are lucky to be here. The 32-point comeback against the Houston Oilers was miraculous. But the Bills have made the most of their second life.

They've come too far now to have the world championship slip out of their grasp again.


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