The rallying cry in the Buffalo Bills' dressing room Sunday was, "Two for The Show!"
Two years. Two AFC Championship Game victories. Two trips to the Super Bowl, a.k.a. The Show.
No, it wasn't the prettiest of games. Yes, it was much closer than anyone anticipated.
But the Bills' 10-7 win over Denver allowed them to make good on a promise they had made to themselves and anyone else willing to listen after their loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV.
The promise was, "We'll be back."
And 13 days from now, the Bills will face Washington, which scored a 41-10 triumph over Detroit in the NFC title game later Sunday afternoon, in Super Bowl XXVI at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis. It marks the 12th time in NFL history a team has made repeat Super Bowl appearances; only two teams (Minnesota and Denver) have lost back to back.
"Last year's Super Bowl lingered in our minds -- four, five, six months -- and I didn't like that," quarterback Jim Kelly said. "We have the chance to go back, and there's not many teams that get a second opportunity. We have our second opportunity.
"Now, it's a matter of us going out and capitalizing on it."
That won't be easy against the Redskins.
"They've been playing well; we'll have to play extremely well to beat them," special teams ace Steve Tasker said. "You have to give Washington a little bit of an edge. They're a well-rounded team, they're going to be tough to stop.
"We've had the best record in the AFC, they've had the best in the NFC. It's just a good matchup."
A year ago, the Bills earned their first Super Bowl trip by using their high-powered, no-huddle offense to throttle the Los Angeles Raiders, 51-3.
On Sunday, however, the no-huddle was a non-factor and the Bills' defense, with its second great showing in as many weeks, paved the way to a fifth consecutive Buffalo playoff victory at Rich Stadium.
Not only did the Bills' defenders shut down John Elway and the Denver offense, they produced Buffalo's lone touchdown -- an 11-yard interception return by linebacker Carlton Bailey in the third quarter -- and came up with a game-saving play when cornerback Kirby Jackson forced and recovered a fumble in the final 1:28.
The Bills chewed off the next 1:11, leaving reserve quarterback Gary Kubiak, who took over early in the fourth quarter after Elway suffered a bruised thigh, 17 seconds to complete two passes that failed to move the Broncos past midfield.
Scott Norwood, the Bills' much-maligned kicker, also delivered under pressure with a 44-yard field goal for what would prove to be the winning points with 4:18 left in the game.
"I've never been around a team before that finds so many ways to win a football game," center Kent Hull said. "You can't coach it, and it's not bred. It's just a growing process. On this team, each individual player complements the other."
Granted, the Bills were fortunate Denver kicker David Treadwell missed
three field-goal attempts, bouncing the last two off the right upright.
But their defensive performance alone was deserving of a championship, especially with their offense struggling for every inch. The Bills finished with 213 yards and 12 first downs, and converted only four of 15 third downs.
Kelly was 13 of 25 for 117 yards, and was intercepted twice. Running back Thurman Thomas averaged only 2.8 yards on 26 carries and ended a playoff streak of four 100-yard rushing games with 72 yards.
In the first half, the Bills generated only 58 yards and reached Denver territory just once. On six possessions in the first two quarters, five ended in punts and one with an interception.
Then, in the third quarter, along came Bailey and nose tackle Jeff Wright for the game's only fireworks.
Two plays after cornerback Tyrone Braxton picked off a Kelly pass, the Broncos had a second-and-10 from their 19. Elway dropped back, intending to throw a middle screen to running back Steve Sewell. However, Wright jumped and batted the ball twice. Bailey, rushing on a blitz, grabbed it in midair at the 11 and ran to the end zone, stumbling the last 5 yards after a hit from Elway.
"There was one guy with a shot at me, and it was John Elway," said Bailey, whose touchdown was his first in organized football. "And I wouldn't have been able to come into the locker room Monday and go into our meeting and have the other linebackers say, 'I can't believe you let a quarterback tackle you.' So the only thing going through my mind was getting into the end zone."
"I tipped it once and I tipped it again," Wright explained. "Then I saw Carlton there. His hands were getting around the ball, and I just backed off and let him have it. I saw Elway there, and I thought, 'He has one man to beat. Can he beat him? Can he beat him?' "
Wright was determined to get a piece of the ball after being burned on a similar play by Elway earlier in the game.
"The next time, I was just bull-rushing the center and pushing him back in the pocket," Wright said. "But he let me go, and that's a read (that a screen is coming) you learn and it came to mind, so I backed up. Plus, Elway kept dropping and dropping, so I knew, right away, it was a screen and I just had to get back there."
The Bills made it 10-0 when they capped a nine-play, 50-yard drive with Norwood's field goal.
But the Broncos came right back with an eight-play, 85-yard march that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Kubiak with 1:43 remaining in the game.
They also gave the Bills a scare when free safety Steve Atwater recovered an onside kickoff at the Denver 49. On the next play, Kubiak completed a 7-yard pass to Sewell. Jackson came flying in with a hard hit that caused a fumble, and he alertly made the recovery at the Buffalo 44.
"We were in a zone defense and I saw Kubiak getting ready to throw the ball to Sewell and I just broke on the ball," Jackson said. "And when I got there, I hit him and stripped the ball from him. I was just lying there on the ground looking up and the ball was right beside me. So I just reached over and got it."
"Before that play, I was saying to myself, 'There's not going to be a Drive III against us,' " Jackson said, referring to Elway's two previous post-season miracle scoring drives. "We were talking about that the whole week -- that if it comes down to that, we were going to win the game."