ATLANTA -- The AFC playoffs proved to be great theater this month, but once again produced no great teams.
Bombastic Buddy Ryan's Houston Oilers defense came up short when it counted most.
Miracle Joe Montana pulled two rabbits out of his hat for the Kansas City Chiefs, but could perform no magic while in a stupor on the sidelines of Rich Stadium.
That left the Buffalo Bills to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXVIII on Sunday in the Georgia Dome. The team that won't take no for an answer. The team that can't take the hint.
The team that has supplied the NFC with the past three of its nine consecutive wins in the most lopsided matchup in professional sports.
Can the Bills (14-4) beat the Dallas Cowboys (14-4)? Perhaps only in the Fantasy Football League. Even Buffalo's 13-10 win over the Cowboys in Irving, Texas, the second week of the season was tainted by the fact Emmitt Smith was still holding out.
The only thing these two teams have in common is that they both won by 17 points Sunday. The Cowboys whipped the San Francisco 49ers, 38-21, and the Bills bashed the Chiefs, 30-13.
This is a broken record, if not an identity crisis, for the AFC. The Bills have tried a number of different approaches. Internal bickering didn't work against the New York Giants three years ago. False braggadocio didn't get it done against the Washington Redskins two years ago.
The quiet, focused approach got them routed last year by the Cowboys, 52-17.
What's a coach to do, anyway? Go back to the basics, Marv Levy said.
"Last year coming back on the bus, sitting there, I said, 'You know, it doesn't make any difference if you come in on Monday or Tuesday, have the early practice or late, work out at USC or UCLA,' " Levy said.
"What matters is what you do when you show up at the stadium, how you play."
No, it's not nuclear physics. But Levy knew that already.
When Jeff Wright was asked what it would take to get over this hump, the Bills nose tackle talked psychology and turnovers.
"We've just got to believe," he said. "Go in with the attitude nobody will stop us. Last year we had way too many turnovers. We can't win if we give the ball up. We've got to execute like we normally do."
Quarterback Jim Kelly talked about having fun and the absence of mental strain. "There is no pressure on us," he said. "Nobody expected us to be here, but we are back."
Now, everybody expects the Bills to get blown out, and that's pressure of a different kind.
The raw data say there's no way the Bills will beat the Cowboys. The Bills average 22 fewer yards a game in total offense, surrender almost 50 more yards a game on defense.
The Cowboys run the ball better, throw the ball better. They're better against the run, better against the pass. They're better on special teams.
Dallas scored 47 points more than Buffalo, and gave up 13 fewer.
The one area the Bills truly excel over the Cowboys is in take-aways. They led the NFL with a suffocating 47 this season, compared with a modest 28 for the Cowboys.
For Buffalo to win Sunday, it will require something akin to divine intervention. Such as if Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman gets dinged in the head again. Or MVP Smith reinjures his shoulder.
It's likely going to take one of Kelly's best games just to keep the Bills close. And he's not had a great track record when it comes to these Super Bowl extravaganzas.
Still, if the Bills don't self-destruct like last year -- they threw four interceptions and lost five fumbles -- and if running back Thurman Thomas stays in a foul mood like the one that motivated him to rush for 186 yards Sunday, who knows what might happen? A real game might break out.
In the event it actually is close, here are a few matchups worth watching:
* Bills cornerbacks Nate Odomes (5 feet 8, 188 pounds) and Mickey Washington (5-9, 191) against Cowboys wide receivers Michael Irvin (6-2, 205) and Alvin Harper (6-3, 208). The Cowboys have more than an edge in size here.
* Bills defensive ends Bruce Smith and Phil Hansen against Cowboys tackles Mark Tuinei and Erik Williams, respectively. Tuinei will need help against Smith, who is having perhaps his best season. Williams might be the best tackle in football today, and that means the Bills' pass rush will be one-sided.
* Bills offensive tackle John Fina, a second-year man, against Cowboys defensive end Charles Haley, an eight-year veteran who has played hurt most of the season.
* Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey against Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Corey has acknowledged he'd be interested in coaching Charlotte's expansion team under former Bills general manager Bill Polian. Turner reportedly already has a job locked up with the Washington Redskins.
BILLS VS. COWBOYS
... ... ... ... ... ... ... Bills ... ... ... Cowboys
Points ... ... ... .. .. .. 329 .. .. ... ... 376
Total yards per game ... .. 328.8 ... ... ... 350.9
Rushing ... ... ... ... ... 121.4 ... ... ... 135.1
Passing ... ... ... ... ... 207.3 ... ... ... 215.9
Sacks ... ... ... ... .. .. 31 ... .. ... ... 29
Interceptions ... ... .. .. 18 ... .. ... ... 6
Fumbles lost ... ... ... .. 17 ... .. ... ... 16
Points ... ... ... .. .. .. 242 ... ... .. .. 229
Total yards per game ... .. 347.1 ... ... ... 297.9
Rushing ... ... ... ... ... 120.1 ... ... ... 103.2
Passing ... ... ... ... ... 227.1 ... ... ... 194.8
Sacks ... ... .. .. ... ... 37 ... ... .. ... 34
Interceptions .. .. ... ... 23 ... ... .. ... 14
Fumbles rec. ... .. ... ... 24 ... ... .. ... 14