The Buffalo Bills left no doubt Sunday how serious their championship intentions are.
The Bills demolished the Indianapolis Colts, 31-7, before a crowd of 53,268 in the Hoosier Dome for their 11th victory and clinched at least a wild-card playoff berth.
However, the Bills have more ambitious goals than a mere wild-card spot. They want to win a third straight AFC East championship and clinch home-field advantage in the playoffs. One sure way to do that is to defeat Miami in two weeks at Rich Stadium.
"We played pretty darn well," Bills coach Marv Levy said of Sunday's performance.
The Bills continue to confound those who nervously wait for them to let down against a team they are favored to defeat, such as the Colts. It didn't happen Sunday, as Buffalo made it 2-0 for December, 4-2 in road games, 6-1 in divisional play and 9-2 in conference play.
Instead of floundering, the Bills were as sharp as ever on offense, with Jim Kelly throwing touchdown passes to Andre Reed on their first two possessions. Later, Thurman Thomas ran for two touchdowns, and a 63-yard pass from Kelly to Thomas set up a 25-yard field goal by Scott Norwood in the third quarter.
Bruce Smith registered four sacks in the first 20 minutes to lead a superior defensive effort, which limited Indianapolis to 127 yards, equaling the season low (by Phoenix) against Buffalo. The Colts had only 52 net yards passing. The Bills also picked off three Jeff George passes, two of them leading to Buffalo touchdowns.
Once again, the Bills went without a huddle and lined up in shotgun formation extensively early in the game as they marched off to a 14-0 lead in the first 7 1/2 minutes.
Once again, Kelly excelled in the shotgun. In the first quarter, the Buffalo quarterback completed 10 of 12 passes for 125 yards and the two Reed touchdowns, the 36th and 37th of Reed's career. That made the 26-year-old receiver the Bills' all-time leader in touchdown receptions. He had been tied at 35 with Elbert Dubenion.
But it wasn't all Kelly and Reed.
"We had a lot of players play awfully well," Levy said.
Thomas, for example ran for 76 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per attempt, and caught four passes for 91 yards. The NFL's leader in scrimmage yardage added 167 Sunday for a total of 1,499 as he averaged 8.35 yards every time he handled the ball.
The biggest surprise of the day was how flat and disspirited the Colts were right from the start. The word in Indianapolis was the Colts were primed for a prize effort.
If they were, it never showed. They did not look fired up, and missed blocks and tackles all game. Eric Dickerson, their featured back, ran tentatively. He gained only 33 yards in 12 attempts. His longest run was 7 yards.
And, there were a few times when quarterback George went down easier in the face of the Buffalo pass rush than Alex Stewart did in his fight with Michael Tyson Saturday night.
"You really have to give Buffalo credit," said George, who never settled down and completed only 13 of 25 passes for 93 yards. "They are probably the best team we have faced. They have a great offense and a great defense. They don't make mistakes. They knew we were struggling and that we had to pass. They were able to put a lot of pressure on us. Bruce Smith is one of the best in the league and you can't really stop him."
The Bills forced a punt on the Colts' first series and went right to work. A screen pass to Thomas gained 13 yards. Thomas ran for 10 with a handoff out of the shotgun. Kelly kept the drive going by hooking up with James Lofton for 12 yards on a sideline pattern on third-and-9 from the Colts' 42.
After a screen pass to Thomas lost 4 yards, Kelly hit Reed on a post pattern for the touchdown.
"When we got a mismatch, we exploited it," said Reed.
On the touchdown play, the Bills lined up with three wide receivers to one side and tight end Keith McKeller.
That meant the Colts had to cover one of the wide receivers with a safety. It turned out to be Reed, who beat strong safety Keith Taylor.
An interception and 14-yard return by Kirby Jackson of a ball that linebacker Cornelius Bennett deflected led to the second Buffalo touchdown less than three minutes later.
This time, Kelly passed to Reed and McKeller on shallow crossing patterns to put the Bills at the 7. Then Kelly hit Reed in the middle of the end zone for the touchdown.
"I was just trying to find a hole," said Reed, who worked free on an in-cut.
Smith single-handedly wrecked the Colts on their next possession, sacking George on successive plays. After the Colts punted, the Bills went from their own 40 to a first-and-goal at the Colts' 8. However, they turned the ball over for the only time in the game when Don Smith took a shuttle pass from Kelly, but lost the ball as he vaulted over Colts free safety Mike Prior at the 2-yard line. Ralph Jarvis recovered the fumble for Indianapolis.
The Bills got a third touchdown before halftime, however, on a 5-yard run up the middle by Thomas.
Indianapolis had Dickerson on the sideline and went with a three-wide receiver set, with Albert Bentley lined up in a one-back set, when they drove for their only touchdown early in the third quarter.
Kelly and Thomas answered that with a 63-yard completion on the first play after the kickoff and ended up getting the Norwood field goal to make it 24-7.
"I was proudest of the fact that our team . . . came back on the next series," Levy said.
"That was the biggest series in the game," he said. "We didn't get the TD, but we got three points and that took a little air out of them."
Of course, the Colts didn't have much to start with.
Thomas ran 23 yards on a draw play to score early in the fourth quarter to complete the rout after the Bills had gained possession on a pass interception at their own 49. Newcomer Cliff Hicks broke up a George pass for Jesse Hester and the deflection ended up in the hands of defensive end Leon Seals.
Kelly, the NFL's top-rated passer going into the weekend, now has 23 TD passes and only nine interceptions, and raised his completion percentage to 63.3. Only Warren Moon, Joe Montana and Randall Cunningham have thrown for more touchdowns this season.
Miami is two weeks away, but for now the Bills turn their attention to Saturday's game against the NFC power New York Giants in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
"We're going to have one serious ballgame there," promised Bruce Smith. "It's an opportunity. I'm looking forward to it. The whole team is looking forward to it."