Bills turn back Eagles, continue NFC East mastery Smith's sack of Detmer, blocked punt key 24-17 win


PHILADELPHIA -- The Buffalo Bills won yesterday with a draw play that wasn't in the game plan, a blocked punt that wasn't designed to get the block, and a goal-line stand that might alter the balance of power in the AFC.

Other than that, the Bills' 24-17 triumph over the Philadelphia Eagles held all the usual elements of their decade-long mastery of NFC East teams.

Among those elements were key contributions by Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, and yes, even Jim Kelly.

The biggest was delivered by Smith, Buffalo's All-Pro pass rusher, who sacked quarterback Ty Detmer on fourth down in the final 30 seconds with the Eagles threatening on the Bills' 3-yard line.

Smith's second sack of the day inflicted the first loss of Detmer's five-game stint as Eagles starter. It also boosted the Bills' regular-season record against the NFC East to 13-3 since 1986, including 4-0 this season.

"I think we've intentionally gone out and played well against the NFC," Smith said. "They're always talking about how they dominate [in the Super Bowl]. We had that in the back of our mind."

The Bills, of course, have lost four times to NFC East teams in the Super Bowl, which is a lot to carry in their collective minds. But that's another story. This one was how the Bills (7-3) stole a game on guile and grit to keep a share of the AFC East lead with the New England Patriots.

This was a game that made a decisive turn early. When rookie Gabe Northern raced in untouched from the right side to block Tom Hutton's left-footed punt in the first quarter, he effectively drained the Eagles' momentum and deflated a Veterans Stadium crowd of 66,613.

Northern not only blocked the punt, but was the only one aside from Hutton who seemed to notice. He scooped up the loose ball at the Eagles' 18 and scored his first NFL touchdown with ease.

"We didn't even have the punt rush on," Bills coach Marv Levy said. "We rush one or two players from the outside to make the punter hurry. But I think I saw their punter juggle the ball and Gabe did a good job to block it."

Northern's end-zone exposure tied the game at 7. It wasn't until the second quarter, after Philadelphia led 10-7, that the Bills took control when Kelly, Buffalo's struggling quarterback, directed a 16-play, 64-yard touchdown drive for the lead at 14-10.

Kelly executed the Eagles into their third loss against seven wins. He converted nine of 13 third-down plays.

Probably his biggest third-down conversion wasn't a pass at all, but an ad-lib he pulled from the playbook. Facing third-and-13 at the Eagles' 34 in the third quarter, he called a draw for Thomas, who scampered 23 yards to the 11 to set up Early's touchdown.

"That wasn't even in the game plan," Thomas said. "That's the style of game Jim Kelly likes to play. He comes up with [different] wrinkles every time."

The Bills needed wrinkles and then some. The Eagles ran 19 more offensive plays, had 133 more total yards and had a 12-minute edge in possession time. But every time the Bills needed a big play, they got it. Especially from the defense, and especially at the end.

There was a big pass deflection in the end zone by rookie strong safety Matt Stevens with the Eagles at the 9 at the end. There was a key tackle by free safety Manny Martin at the 3 after Irving Fryar's catch on third down.

Finally, there was Smith's fourth-down sack when Detmer couldn't find any open receivers.

"We tried to flood the zone," Detmer said. "I'd have to look at the film to see what happened for sure, but I didn't feel comfortable pulling the trigger. We had good enough protection to get rid of it if somebody was open."

Pub Date: 11/11/96

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