The biting cold and a month layoff served only to fuel Jim Kelly.
The Buffalo quarterback showed no signs of rustiness Saturday in leading the Bills into the AFC title game by throwing over a snow-covered field for 339 yards and three touchdowns in a 44-34 victory over the Miami Dolphins.Kelly's passing and the running of Thurman Thomas, who rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns on the slippery Rich Stadium turf, advanced the Bills into their second conference title game in three years. Buffalo lost to Cincinnati in the AFC Championship Game after the 1988 season.
The Bills will play home Jan. 20 against the winner of Sunday's game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Raiders. Buffalo went 13-3 in the regular season.
Kelly sat out the final two games of the season with a sprained left knee suffered Dec. 15. He was nearly flawless in running the Bills' no-huddle offense to scores on Buffalo's first five possessions and 493 net yards.
"For not having played in a few weeks, the way that he handled himself and handled the offense I thought was remarkable," said Miami Coach Don Shula, whose team ends the season at 13-5.
Despite wearing a brace on the knee, Kelly also ran 5 times for 37 yards.
"I surprised myself," Kelly said. "I wasn't really thinking about scrambling but when field conditions dictated, I had to run. You have to do what you have to do."
Kelly's performance wasn't lost on his teammates.
"We wanted to come back and show people that a little injury wouldn't stop him," Thomas said of Kelly, with whom he feuded last year. "He's one of the biggest competitors I've ever seen."
Kelly completed TD passes of 40 and 26 yards to Andre Reed and 13 yards to James Lofton. He was intercepted once.
Lofton finished with 149 yards on 7 catches and Reed had 122 yards on 4 receptions.
"With weather conditions what they were, it takes a little more time for the receivers to get into their patterns," Kelly said. "The offensive line did a heck of a job, probably the best I've seen them play."
The game was a rubber match between the AFC East rivals, who split their regular season games - each winning at home.
Miami's Dan Marino completed 23 for 49 passes for 315 yards, three TDs and two interceptions. His scoring passes were 64 yards to Mark Duper, 2 yards to offensive guard Roy Foster and 8 yards to Tony Martin. Marino also scored on a 2-yard bootleg around left end.
Marino guided Miami on a six-play, 43-yard drive that cut the Bills' lead to 30-27 on Foster's first NFL reception a minute into the final period.
"We started to move the ball, we just didn't do enough," said Marino. "It's painful to lose when we were within three."
As he had all afternoon, Kelly countered Marino's scoring drive with one of his own. He guided Buffalo on a 63-yard, 10-play march, capped by Thomas's 4-yard TD run.
Miami's Marc Logan fumbled the kickoff and on the Bills' second play, Kelly hit Reed for his second TD catch of the day. This one went for 26 yards and put Buffalo ahead 44-27 with 9:52 to go.
Martin's TD came with 1:15 left to account for the final margin.
Pete Stoyanovich kicked a 22-yard field goal on Miami's opening drive of the second half but Buffalo countered with a 28-yard kick from Scott Norwood and led 30-20 entering the final period.
The Bills built a 27-17 halftime lead.
The Dolphins were able to stay close behind the big-play passing of Marino, who completed 7 of 19 for 135 yards in the half. His 64-yard TD throw to Duper with 9:04 left pulled Miami within 20-10.
Kelly, named the starter over Frank Reich Saturday morning, completed 11 of 16 for 222 yards in the opening half. He capped the Bills' opening drive with a 43-yard TD strike to Reed and added a 13-yard scoring pass to Lofton in the second quarter.
Thomas gave the Bills a 20-3 lead with 12:04 left in the second quarter, capping a five-play, 67-yard drive with a 5-yard TDrun.