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.

If he doesn't get hurt again.
All of this beautiful nonsense--the Bills finally winning their first Super Bowl and breaking the NFC's thirteen-year grip on the big prize--is based on the notion that Kelly can get through another year without going into traction or having the team trainer send both his knees to the Mayo Clinic. Without Kelly, the Bills probably can't even break even, much less go all the way. Kelly's likely backup, Alex Van Pelt, is not your Super Bowl-ready quarterback. He may not be your Jacksonville Jaguars-ready quarterback.

This is the same kind of problem, of course, that threatens a certain NFL team closer to home. If there's a guy who deserves a Super Bowl win more than Jim Kelly, who now has the horses to win one, it's John Elway, who probably doesn't have the Broncos to do it. If Elway goes down, his probable successor is Bill Musgrave, the Van Pelt of the Rocky Mountain West, and Denver's dim chances for glory this year will be all but dead.

But we weren't talking blue and orange, were we? We were talking Buffalo Bills, and if, through some miracle, they were to actually rise up in the 31st Super Bowl and beat the renewed power in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers (say, 28-21?), then there might be hope for that other AFC team with four Super Bowl losses on its resume. Well, wouldn't there?

In the end, a late-running long shot named Dare and Go was cast as the unwitting villain of the piece. Dare and Go became the pitcher who stopped DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The team that ended the UCLA Bruins' basketball victory string at 88. He is the flu bug or ankle sprain that will some day keep Cal Ripken out of the lineup.

On Saturday afternoon at Southern California's Del Mar racetrack, Dare and Go sailed by Cigar at the quarter pole of the $1 million Pacific Classic, ending that great horse's bid to become the only North American thoroughbred in this century to win seventeen consecutive races. Another legend, Calumet Farm's Citation, won sixteen in a row (including the 1948 Triple Crown) before being beaten on January 26, 1950, and everyone in racing was praying that their sport's only crossover star would, at age six, surpass Big Cy and bring some new luster to their beleaguered game.

Everyone, that is, except Dare and Go and jockey Alex Solis.
Those two didn't mind defeating greatness and providing their handful of backers with $81.20 to win. More power to the bad guys, we guess.

In the course of his streak, which began with a switch from turf to dirt in October 1994, Cigar won at nine racetracks in six states and on the treacherous shifting sands of the Dubai World Cup. While collecting $9 million in purses (including the Breeders' Cup Classic), he became an athlete almost as well-known as Michael Jordan or Troy Aikman. At Belmont Park this spring, even Jack Nicholson lit up a cigar in tribute. Jockey Gary Stevens, who finished a close second in Dubai aboard Soul of the Matter, said that in the deep stretch, Cigar gave him and his mount "a look I've never seen before." What kind of look? "Scary. Like Mike Tyson," Stevens said.

Other measures of his quality? The great Secretariat never won more than five straight. And at Del Mar Saturday, the entrepreneurs were selling bumperstickers: DOLE/CIGAR '96.

Now the streak is ended, and racing can sink back into the doldrums it's endured since everything from baseball fever to casino gambling cut into racetrack attendance and dollars bet.

Truth be told, even Dare and Go's able rider acknowledged the problem. In the Del Mar winner's circle, Alex Solis actually apologized to Cigar and company before opening the champagne. For his part, Cigar's rider, Jerry Bailey, allowed that he likely shouldn't have chased the scorching pace set Saturday by Siphon. That speedball softened Cigar up, and when both frontrunners tired, Dare and Go picked up the pieces and finished the mile and a quarter in a very fast 1:59 4/5.

So. Has the king been deposed?
Don't bet on it. Look for Cigar at the Breeders' Cup this October, and look for him to win.

Meanwhile, racing fans can try to absorb a beautiful irony. Before Saturday, Cigar had never run on the dirt at Del Mar, which is just down the road from the Rancho Santa Fe home of his proud owner, Allen Paulsen. But Del Mar was the site of his only win on grass in eleven attempts. Only last week, Cigar's unhappy early career on the turf felt like an aberration, a detour on the run to heaven. This morning, he reminds us that we are all mortal.


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