ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Ravens got their first preseason taste of the NFL elite last week when the Green Bay Packers came to town. Tonight, the Buffalo Bills will provide a second helping, as the Ravens go through their final tuneup at Rich Stadium before next week's season opener against the Oakland Raiders.
When you think Buffalo, you think January, since the Bills have a habit of playing late into that month. For four straight years beginning in 1990, Buffalo ruled the AFC. And after missing the playoffs in 1994 for the first time in seven years, the Bills returned to the postseason last season, when they lost to eventual AFC champion Pittsburgh in the divisional playoffs.
"You have to compete against the best to be great, and Buffalo is in the playoffs every year," Ravens running back Leroy Hoard said. "For a long time, they were the AFC. If you wanted to get anywhere, you had to go through Buffalo. They still have a lot of the same guys, and until somebody knocks them off, they are still one of the teams to beat."
The Bills' cornerstones are getting older, but they are still among the most feared performers in the league. The multiple-set, no-huddle offense, which Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda ran from 1987-91, remains as potent as any NFL attack. Quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and wide receiver Andre Reed have 32 years of experience among them, and their fine offensive line is anchored by 11-year veteran center Kent Hull.
Throw in some fresh, speedy talent like rookie wide receiver Eric Moulds and second-year return specialist Henry Bailey, and the Bills present a nice blend of the old and the new.
The Ravens' defense has held its own during a 2-1 preseason. It gave up two long, scoring drives to the Packers in the first half last week, before the second team nearly shut out Green Bay's backups after halftime.
Tonight, the Ravens figure to be tested early and often by Kelly. And no one is hungrier for the challenge than cornerback Donny Brady, who could get the starting call at right cornerback in place of Issac Booth (quadriceps pull). Brady did not survive the final cuts with the Cleveland Browns last year. But after an excellent training camp and a solid preseason his second time around, Brady will be around after the Ravens trim their roster from 58 to 53 on Sunday. A fine performance by Brady tonight could earn him the starting job.
"It's time for me to make a good showing. If I'm needed to step in there for Ike, I've got to show the coaches I'm capable of holding down that spot, regardless of the situation," said Brady, who figures to draw either Steve Tasker or Quinn Early, both longtime veterans -- Early was acquired as a free agent from New Orleans -- in man-to-man coverage.
"Jim Kelly has been in this league for a long time, and this will be a big test. I like a good challenge," Brady added. "They've got some experienced receivers, but they've got to face some eager DBs. All 11 of us are eager to win. We don't care who we're playing."
The Ravens will be tested no matter who is playing quarterback. Kelly and backups Alex Van Pelt and Todd Collins each have had strong preseasons. They have combined to complete 68.7 percent of their passes for 650 yards, six touchdowns and only one interception in 83 attempts.
"Playing Green Bay head-to-head was a big plus for us," said Marchibroda, who will play his starters once again for the first half. "Buffalo is another good, solid football team. They've got the superstars, and they've got so many weapons. We've got to prevent the big play against them. And we've got to protect the passer against them."
At least, the Ravens will not have to worry about perennial All-Pro right defensive end Bruce Smith, one of the league's premier pass rushers. He will sit out with a knee injury. But Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown figures to have his hands full with outside left linebacker Bryce Paup, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
The Ravens moved the ball at will against the New York Giants two weeks ago and covered lots of ground against Green Bay last week, but they failed to sustain drives in the first half. Turnovers by quarterback Vinny Testaverde -- two against Green Bay, four in his past two games -- have marred his otherwise solid preseason.
It will be interesting to see how the Ravens respond in the raucous, hostile atmosphere of Rich Stadium, and how Testaverde and backup Eric Zeier maintain their poise against a defense that has forced 10 turnovers to spark Buffalo's 2-1 mark.
The Bills have forced three fumbles, and have intercepted seven passes. Seven different players have recorded one interception apiece.
NOTES: Pat Dye, the agent for running back Garrison Hearst, was as shocked as anyone by the Cincinnati Bengals' decision to claim Hearst and his $2.1 million salary off waivers on Wednesday. Hearst had been negotiating with the Ravens and his old team, the Arizona Cardinals. Dye, who reportedly had been talking about a $1 million, incentive-laden, one-year deal with the Ravens, ruled out restructuring Hearst's 1996 contract with the Bengals.
Asked whether Cincinnati took Hearst to keep him away from the Ravens, Dye said: "I don't know whether there is a hidden agenda, but I've got my cynic hat on with this one. This just doesn't add up. The problem with that picture is they are assuming he was headed to Baltimore, but it was a dead heat between Baltimore and Arizona. I just told Garrison he will either get released by the Bengals and go back to business, or they'll pay him $2 million to carry Ki-Jana Carter's briefcase. Either of those scenarios isn't too bad. Stay tuned."
Bengals offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet told the Associated Press that he might use Hearst and Carter in the backfield together on some plays. Carter, the top pick in the 1995 draft, missed the season with a knee injury.
Opponent: Buffalo Bills
Site: Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, N.Y.
Time: 7: 30 TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WJFK (1300 AM), WLIF (101.9 FM)
Line: Bills by 3 1/2
Preseason records: Ravens 2-1; Bills 2-1.
Pub Date: 8/23/96