What's the big deal about the Buffalo Bills' game against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium?
Even though next week's game against Miami will probably decide whether the Bills win the AFC East or not, and even though the Giants already have won their division, the meeting of two 11-2 teams has generated a lot of excitement.
It's a rare match between two top-quality football teams in an NFL season marked by mediocrity. With three weeks left in the season, only 13 of the 28 teams in the league have winning records. In the NFC, four 6-7 teams are still in the hunt for wild-card berths.
Eighteen players on the Giants' active roster played on New York's 1986 Super Bowl team. It's a central core of players used to playing in big games against strong teams such as the Bears, 49ers, Redskins, Rams and Eagles.
The Bills have been to the playoffs the last two years but getting ready to face a team of New York's magnitude amid the media attention this one is getting is still a relatively new experience.
So this is a learning experience for the Bills, one which may help them down the line. If they win, all the better. But they should profit from the experience no matter the outcome.
"I want them to experience the fun of getting ready for a real strong opponent, realizing that we consider ourselves a strong team, too," said Bills coach Marv Levy.
Even if the first-place Bills win today and the second-place Miami Dolphins (10-3) lose their game Sunday against visiting Seattle, the AFC East race won't be over. It still would take a Buffalo victory over the Dolphins at Rich Stadium next Sunday to wrap things up for the Bills.
As difficult as it would be to overlook the Giants, you couldn't blame the Bills for at least taking a peek at the Dolphins once in a while.
"If we would overlook anybody, we would have overlooked the Indianapolis game last week," Bills quarterback Jim Kelly said. "We didn't, and that's why we came out prepared and focused, and that's why we were able to do what we did. That was come out with a big win."
The Bills disposed of the Colts, 31-7, continuing to keep their eyes on the little hurdles in the path toward the greater goal.
"I'm not looking to any other game except this one," Kelly said. "It's one more stepping stone we have to make in order to reach our goal."
Going into the season, the perception was that no AFC team was capable of standing up to any one of five or six NFC contenders in Super Bowl XXV. The Bills -- as well as the Chiefs and Raiders -- have done much to revise that notion, however, with the way they've run roughshod over most of their opponents.
Still, the Giants have been built on the philosophy that bigger is better, especially along both lines and at linebacker. New York's offensive line averages 6-foot-5, 283 pounds per man. The Bills' have been constructed with a stress on speed, intelligence and temperament rather than sheer muscle.
Aside from the obvious AFC-NFC implications, this will test those theories.
Kelly, the NFL's top-rated passer, and the NFL's highest-scoring offense will be facing the league's No. 1-rated defense. Buffalo won't steamroll the Giants the way they did the Eagles, Colts, Jets, Patriots, Cardinals and, to a certain extent, Houston.
"We have to play error-free football," Kelly said.
"I don't think there's weak spots in their defense," Levy said. "You have to be patient when you play them. In terms of style, they are close to what the Colts' style of play was, but with stronger players. They keep good field positions because their kick return game has been so good, and they're plus-17 in turnovers."
Beginning with their first series in the season opener, the Bills have found success with their no-huddle offense. Whether they will use it against the Giants and how effective it will be are questions to be answered, but it's given Giants coach Bill Parcells and his staff something to think about.
"We're going to have to prepare for it, and whether you huddle or not, offense becomes a matter of executing against a defense. . . . If your offense executes better than the defense, then you are going to move the ball whether there is a huddle or not," Parcells said.
"We're going to work very hard on it. It has been a resource for them and I'm certain they're going to use it on Saturday."
On the other hand, observers believe the Bills today will be facing the best offensive line they've faced all season.
If the Giants have been criticized, it's been for their lethargic offense, particularly in their two losses to Philadelphia and San Francisco.
It's a problem Parcells recognizes.
"No, we're not playing as good on offense as we did earlier in the year," Parcells admitted this week. "We're talking pretty hard with the team about it. We're going to have to do something or we're not going to get very far (in the playoffs) if we don't improve it."
One way to add a little more explosiveness to the attack is to use rookie running back Rodney Hampton more. Last week, New York used Hampton extensively in the 23-15 victory over Minnesota. He carried the ball 19 times for 78 yards and is more of a breakaway threat than starter Ottis Anderson.
It will be important for the Bills to stop the New York running game. If they can do that and force quarterback Phil Simms to pass more, it will allow Bruce Smith and the Buffalo pass rush to go to work. Smith has left himself a lot to prove after sounding off to the New York media during the week about his abilities.
Smith had four sacks against the Colts last week, but getting that many today would be inconceivable unless the Bills find a way to control the Giants' running game.