Put Your Money on the Bills

Now that Amy Van Dyken's gold-medal perkiness is finally subsiding and your Colorado Rockies are on a road trip to respect, let's turn our attention for a moment to the game with the big helmets. The National Football League pre-season is two weeks old, and on September 1--the same date Hitler invaded Poland--the hostilities will get under way for real.

All right. Who's the likely Super Bowl winner this season?
Surely not those Dallas Cowboys again, a team jaded by success, weary of the spotlight and beset by internal problems ranging from four crucial free-agent defections to the anything-goes goofiness of their head coach to the hotel-room videos possibly showing their star wide receiver buying drugs. Dallas still has the goods, but bad karma looms large.

How about the San Francisco 49ers? Maybe, but the once-great club by the Bay is getting old, it can't solve its salary-cap problems and it's already suffered two key injuries in the warmups. Not only that, some other NFC upstarts (hello, Brett Favre) are fast closing the gap between the dog meat and the elite in the league's superior conference.

Kansas City? Not a bad pick. That 13-3 record last season was no accident, the Chiefs' powerful defense put four players in the Pro Bowl, and 20 of the team's 22 starters are coming back for more. After living, like so many others, in Joe Montana's huge shadow, quarterback Steve Bono looks ready for prime time at last, and K.C.'s shocking playoff loss to Indianapolis last winter should serve to keep the Chiefs sharp and hungry all season long.

Fine, but our choice is somebody else. A club that's gone to the Super Bowl four times but never caught the ring. A team with a grizzled, oft-injured veteran in his mid-30s at quarterback, who knows the clock is running on the old career and would love just one more shot. A team with a huge home-field advantage and an outstanding offense.

Who else but the Buffalo Bills?
The cynics and fatalists in the top row of the stadium may snicker, but those much-maligned Bills may have come within one case of the flu of returning to the Super Bowl again last year: Their monster defensive right end, Bruce Smith, was too sick to play against eventual AFC champ Pittsburgh in the divisional playoff game, and without Smith threatening to crush him on every play, Steelers QB Neil O'Donnell got the job done.

Well, Bruce Smith has had his bowl of chicken soup and he's just fine now, thank you. Quarterback Jim Kelly, plagued by a sore knee and a bad shoulder last year, had arthroscopic surgery on the latter in the off-season and says he's feeling stronger than ever at age 36. Meanwhile, versatile running back Thurman Thomas, the guy who misplaced his helmet before Super Bowl XXVII, has never lost his head or his heart. He came back from a couple of gruesome leg injuries in mid-1995 to become just the third back in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons. O.J. may still be the greatest Buffalo ball carrier ever to pull on a jersey, but Thurman's got a better work ethic--and he's never been to Nicole's house.

So, then. Is this the same old story in Buffalo? A refurbished Thurman Thomas as the workhorse, and Machine Gun Kelly, patched back together himself, putting weary defenses to rout with short passes out of that irksome no-huddle offense? Well, it might be, except for the Bills' hugely improved defense and what could be one of the league's most spectacular receiving corps.

The 1996 Buffalo "D" is the kind of group another AFC team that has lost four Super Bowls--you know who you are--can only envy. The physical and spiritual anchor is still Smith, but when Green Bay failed to re-sign linebacker Bryce Paup after the 1994 season, he took revenge in spades as a Buffalo Bill. Paup made 126 tackles, scored a league-best 17 1/2 sacks last year and set a fire under teammates en route to Buffalo's sixth divisional championship in eight years. The Bills lost swift fellow linebacker Cornelius Bennett to Atlanta in the off-season, through free agency. But he's been replaced by former Detroit Lion Chris Spielman, who's matchless against the run.

The Buffalo secondary, meanwhile, was a M*A*S*H unit in 1995: Cornerbacks Jeff Burris and Marlon Kerner and safeties Kurt Schulz, Henry Jones and Matt Darby all went down with injuries, but everyone's healthy again (Darby has been let go), and head coach Marv Levy believes adversity has toughened his defenders. Certainly, injuries proved how deep they were.

Then there's the Andre Reed story. The Bills expected to lose their all-time leading receiver to another team after 1995, so they scuffled to get Saints free agent Quinn Early and grabbed Mississippi State's swift Eric Moulds with a first-round draft pick. But then Reed re-signed with Buffalo, giving the club a triple threat they couldn't have dreamed of last season, when Buffalo receivers caught 63 fewer passes than in 1994. Add utility man Steve Tasker and tight end Lonnie Johnson to the mix, and Jim Kelly should be a passably happy man this year.

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