For the past four years, NFC teams that play defense have trampled AFC teams that do not in the Super Bowl.
The Buffalo Bills are ready to throw that trend back in the haughty NFC's face . . . if they get by the Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday in their first AFC title game appearance in 22 years.With Bruce Smith, Leonard Smith and Cornelius Bennett leading the defense and the special teams blocking two kicks and consistently establishing field position, the Bills beat the Houston Oilers 17-10 Sunday to earn that trip to Cincinnati, where they lost 35-21 on Nov. 27.
"They're a fine defensive football team," said Houston coach Jerry Glanville, whose team constantly self-destructed in the "red zone," inside the Buffalo 20.
"Rather than us doing something wrong, give them credit for doing something well," Glanville said.
"We played great defense and we played SUPER on special teams," echoed Buffalo coach Marv Levy, whose team's 12-4 record was largely attributable to defense. "I told them all along - don't be dumb and don't be dirty and I think we accomplished that."
Said nose tackle Fred Smerlas:
"You got what you paid to see - the best defensive team in the AFC."
In fact, Buffalo's ninth victory without a loss at Rich Stadium this season was a battle of lost opportunities, with Houston losing more.
While the Bills failed on fourth and one plays from the 3- and 5-yard lines and were inside the Houston 20 four times without scoring, they managed when they had to.
They got their first score 4:25 into the second quarter when Robb Riddick went over from the 1 at the end of a 44-yard drive that began when Leonard Smith blocked Greg Montgomery's punt.
"We heard all week that they had the best special teams unit in the NFL," said Smith, obtained in an early-season trade with Phoenix. "Our special teams rank pretty high, too."
Tony Zendejas' 35-yard field goal cut it to 7-3 with 4:28 left in the half.
But Bruce Smith blocked a 38-yard attempt with 19 seconds remaining in the half ... two plays after Warren Moon slightly overthrew Drew Hill in the end zone and Hill juggled the ball over the end line, injuring his neck that kept him out of the rest of the game as he slid into the goal post.
Then, came perhaps the game's key sequence.
On the first series of the third quarter, Houston's Tracey Eaton intercepted Jim Kelly's pass at the Buffalo 40. The Oilers moved briskly to the 2, helped by a late hit called against Bennett - one of the few times the Bills got overenthusiastic against the AFC's most penalized team.
But with third-and-goal, the Oilers tried an option, a play that's worked for them in the past. It didn't this time, as Moon pitched the ball far behind Mike Rozier and it rolled out at the 14. Then, under pressure, Zendejas shanked a field goal wide left.
"We got that turnover and moved down to the two, then we had that play," guard Mike Munchak said. "From then on it snowballed a little bit. We had three plays and out situations and they finally got going."
The three plays and out were the work of a defense led by two All-Pros, Bennett and Bruce Smith, who constantly harassed Moon, who began the second half 0-for-8 after throwing for 145 yards in the first half.
Moon, who finished 17 of 33 for 240 yards, said he was also troubled by an inflammed elbow that has troubled him in the past.
"They put a lot of good pressure on us but that's nothing we didn't expect coming into the game," Moon said.
"We just didn't execute well in certain situations."
Then the Buffalo offense finally got going, taking just five plays to go 59 yards for the score that gave the Bills a 14-3 lead with 2:58 left in the period.
The drive began with a 26-yard pass to Chris Burkett from Kelly, who finished with 19 completions in 33 attempts for 244 yards. It ended on an 11-yard TD run by Thurman Thomas, who carried just seven times for 75 yards in what, for a day at least, was a pass-oriented Buffalo offense.
Norwood added a 27-yard field goal 3:25 into the fourth quarter and missed another a few minutes later. Houston finally scored with 5:12 left on Mike Rozier's 1-yard dive at the end of an 80-yard drive but the Oilers never got the ball back because the special teams struck again - Steve Tasker stripped Curtis Duncan on John Kidd's punt and Ray Bentley recovered to seal the victory.
The win ended a string of three losses in four games that began after the Bills clinched the AFC East title at 11-1.
Not coincidentally, the Bills played those four without linebacker Shane Conlan, a Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro who may be back next week.
In fact, Levy alluded to that when he was asked if he thought Houston missed Hill.
"Not as much as we missed Shane Conlan."
Cincinnati and the NFC had better take heed.