The Buffalo Bills made their most emphatic statement yet for inclusion with the NFL's elite teams Saturday, but may have paid a dear price in the process.
The Bills, now 12-2, pinned a 17-13 setback on the New York Giants before a rain-soaked Meadowlands crowd of 66,893.
Now 3-0 against the dreaded NFC East, Buffalo desperately clung to a 14-10 first-half lead and posted a major victory despite losing quarterback Jim Kelly with a sprained medial ligament in his left knee.
Kelly was injured on a freak play with 5:30 left in the first half and is expected to be out at least until the AFC playoffs. That means he would miss next Sunday's Rich Stadium showdown with the Miami Dolphins. And according to Bills physician Dr. Richard Weiss, he could be out up to six weeks.
Losing both Kelly and Saturday's game would have been a double blow for the Bills.
However, they squeezed out just enough offense in the second half with backup quarterback Frank Reich at the helm and kept the Giants out of the end zone the final three quarters with an inspired defensive performance.
"We hung in there and stuck together," said Bills defensive end Bruce Smith, who put himself in the spotlight earlier in the week with his statements to the New York media suggesting he had surpassed Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor as a defensive force.
Smith was credited with no sacks, but he was immense against the Giants' running game with 10 tackles, six primary hits, some of them thundering.
"I had a funny feeling it was going to be a slugfest," said linebacker Darryl Talley, who led the Bills with 11 tackles. "It boiled down to blood-and-guts football.
"After Jim was hurt, we were determined not to let the game slip away. I think that was the best half of defense we played this year. Guys making plays, coming up with big plays at the times we needed them."
The Giants finished the game with a huge advantage in possession time (38 minutes to 22) and outgained the Bills, 313 yards to 264, but New York managed only two short Matt Bahr field goals, from 23 and 22 yards, the last three quarters.
Like the Bills, New York lost its starting quarterback. Phil Simms left the game with a sprained foot in the third quarter and was replaced by Jeff Hostetler.
Although the victory put pressure on the second-place Dolphins (10-3), who face Chuck Knox's Seattle Seahawks in Joe Robbie Stadium today, it did little to settle things in the AFC East title chase.
A Buffalo victory over Miami next week would decide the division. If Miami wins today and beats the Bills, Buffalo would have to win at Washington and Miami would have to lose at home against Indianapolis Dec. 30 for Buffalo to win the division.
There were only a few -- New York Jets defensive coordinator Pete Carroll, for one -- who forecast a long afternoon for the Giants' supposedly invulnerable defenses against Kelly and Buffalo's no-huddle offense and short passing game. They were right.
Before he left the game, Kelly, using the no-huddle and the shotgun formation almost exclusively, had blitzed the Giants for two touchdowns.
New York had taken a 7-0 lead on the first series of the game, pounding out 71 yards in 10 running plays and one pass completion, with Ottis Anderson pushing it across from the 1-yard line on a fourth-down play.
It took Kelly and the Bills offense only six plays to respond, going 74 yards for the tying touchdown. The big play was a 48-yard screen pass to Thurman Thomas. The touchdown came on a crossing pattern to Andre Reed, who caught the ball running a shallow pattern from right to left, then turned upfield for the touchdown.
"After they scored on the first possession, to come immediately back with a touchdown drive meant a great deal," said Bills coach Marv Levy.
When Clifford Hicks broke up a third-down pass for Stephen Baker, the Giants were forced to punt on their next possession and Buffalo soon took the lead. For good, as it turned out.
Staying in the no-huddle, the Bills went 78 yards in 11 plays, with Thomas scoring from 2 yards out on a sweep of the left side. A Kelly-to-Reed completion for 36 yards was the big play in the drive.
The touchdown came in the first minute of the second quarter.
The Giants narrowed the margin to 14-10 on Bahr's field goal with 5:56 left in the half.
Two plays later, Kelly was injured after hitting Reed for an 8-yard completion. Ironically, if Giants linebacker Taylor hadn't dropped a sure interception on the previous play, Kelly and the Buffalo offense would have been off the field.
Kelly went down when Bills left tackle Will Wolford fell against his left leg. Both players went down, each writhing in pain. Wolford was injured on the play when Giants linebacker Carl Banks was blocked into him by Bills guard Jim Ritcher. Wolford returned to the game briefly in the second half, but left again in favor of rookie Glenn Parker.
Kelly, the NFL's top-rated passer, did nothing to diminish his numbers before the injury. He completed 7 of 11 passes for 115 yards and the touchdown throw to Reed.
Reich, who did not practice with the Bills' first offense because of the short practice week, admitted to being a little rusty. He completed 8 of 15 passes for 97 yards.
One of the completions was a big one, a 43-yard bomb to Don Beebe that set up an insurance field goal by Scott Norwood from 29 yards out at the :04 mark of the fourth quarter.
It was important because the Giants had just narrowed the lead to 14-13 and it meant New York needed more than a field goal to win when it gained possession for a final time with 1:04 left to play.
Already out of timeouts, the Giants got a huge break when Bills punter Rick Tuten got off a poor kick that carried only 24 yards to the New York 43. The Giants managed to move to a first down at the Bills' 26. Hostetler spiked the ball to stop the clock with 24 seconds left, then threw three incompletions to turn the ball over the the Bills.
The Buffalo defense had to turn back the Giants four times in the second half after Bahr's second field goal made it 14-13 with 4:07 left in the third quarter.
The next Giants possession was snuffed out when Talley and Bruce Smith stopped Maurice Carthon for no gain on third-and-1 from the Giants' 38.
New York was at the Bills' 13, within easy field-goal range, on its next possession before a holding penalty against right guard Bob Kratch and a bad snap in shotgun formation by Bart Oates created a 19-yard loss back to the Giants' 42.
On the next New York series, an offensive pass interference penalty against rookie receiver Troy Kyles rubbed out a 15-yard completion to Stephen Baker to the Bills' 22 and left the Giants with a third-and-18 from their 47 instead. Hostetler was forced to scramble on third down and Talley tackled him after a 3-yard gain, which wasn't nearly enough.
Reich and the Bills' offense were satisfied with not doing anything to lose the game in the second half.
"As long as we don't turn the ball over deep in our own territory, it's gonna be hard for the other team to drive the field and score on us," said Reich. "So my first thought was just to go in there and try to move the (first down) sticks, and don't create any big turnovers, any big mistakes and just try to move the ball, take the conservative approach.
"As it turned out, we needed just one field goal. Don Beebe made a great play for me and that turned out to be enough, because our defense played so well."