ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Even if nothing more comes of their season, there will be a last hurrah for the graybeards of the Buffalo Bills this year.
Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas assured themselves of another December playoff run when the Bills beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 20-9, yesterday to gain a berth in the NFL's wild-card round next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Nearly out on their feet from a three-game losing streak and a budding flu epidemic, the Bills wiped out a 9-3 deficit in the second half and knocked Kansas City out of the playoffs for the first time since 1989.
They'll have home-field advantage Saturday when they face the upstart Jaguars at wintry Rich Stadium, where the Chiefs were greeted with a wind chill factor of 22 degrees and light snow flurries.
"It is kind of a new beginning because now we get a chance to wipe the slate clean," said Bills receiver Steve Tasker. "We're 10-6 and up until this week, we looked like we were stumbling into the playoffs, if we got in."
The Bills won their virtual elimination showdown against the Chiefs with a second-half comeback inspired by their most seasoned players.
Smith, the team's 33-year-old Pro Bowl pass rusher, triggered the rally with a sack and forced fumble against Chiefs quarterback Steve Bono in the third quarter. That was after he directed a searing halftime tirade at the Bills' somnolent offense, which had two first-half turnovers.
"Basically, I told the guys, 'You might not like what I say,' " Smith said. "I told them, 'We can't have plays like that. If we don't turn the ball over, we're going to win the game.' "
It turned out to be prophetic advice. The Bills fumbled away the second-half kickoff, but had no more giveaways after that. And when the Bills' defense collected three turnovers from the Chiefs in the second half, the game turned dramatically. They were the first take-aways generated by the Buffalo defense in four games.
"It goes back to when we're taking the ball away, we win," Bills coach Marv Levy said.
Still, it was up to the Bills' offense to find the end zone, a task that became increasingly difficult in consecutive losses to Indianapolis, Seattle and Miami.
That's where Kelly, 36, and Thomas, 30, come in. Kelly, weakened by the flu that was spreading rapidly through the team last week, completed 10 of 13 passes for 168 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.
For most of the day, Thomas was a shadow of his former self. Playing with a sprained ankle, he ran for 43 yards, and only 19 in the second half. But his 27-yard run with a screen pass sparked the go-ahead scoring drive.
Any chance the Chiefs had ended with two interceptions thrown by the erratic Bono, who reclaimed the starting quarterback job when Rich Gannon suffered a hamstring pull last week.
The Chiefs (9-7) had so little confidence in Bono that they called ++ 28 running plays and only seven passes in the first half. Operating out of a rare two-tight end offense, they had the ball inside the Buffalo 5-yard line for a total of seven plays in the first half -- and came away with only six points on two field goals.
Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said he never considered going to Gannon, whose mobility was limited.
"The idea was to work our running game as best we could in an effort to create a tempo," Schottenheimer said. "I think we did that. We didn't create a tempo in the passing game."
The Chiefs are facing an overhaul that may include president Carl Peterson, who said he hopes to return to Kansas City. Given the subpar play of Kelly, who threw 19 interceptions this year, and Thomas, who still had his eighth straight 1,000-yard season, the Bills also will contemplate changes.
But now, at least, they will have one more day in the playoff sun.
Pub Date: 12/23/96