The route was different. The destination was the same.
Despite following the treacherous path of three playoff games, including two away from Rich Stadium, the Buffalo Bills find themselves back in the Super Bowl for a third year in a row.
The last stop before Pasadena came Sunday at sun-drenched Joe Robbie Stadium, where they pounded the Miami Dolphins, 29-10, to win their third consecutive AFC championship. The Bills became only the second team in NFL history to reach three straight Super Bowls, and the fourth club ever to get there as a wild-card entry.
"I've never been prouder in all the years I've coached than to be associated with the men on this team," said head coach Marv Levy, whose club improved its record to 14-5. "It's been a long road and a hard road. There was a headline (in The Buffalo News) prior to the Houston (wild-card) playoff game that read, 'Bills Begin Longest Road Today.' I've used that this entire post-season.
"Today, it came through Joe Robbie Stadium."
On Jan. 31 at the Rose Bowl, the Bills will face the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII.
After a one-point loss to the New York Giants and a 13-point thrashing from the Washington Redskins, will the third time be the charm?
"I think this team has matured a lot, to where we realize that it's going to take a full effort of 60 minutes to go out and win a Super Bowl," Thurman Thomas said. "And that's what we plan on doing."
For the time being, though, the Bills, now 6-1 at Joe Robbie, can savor their third conference title.
"This is, no question, the sweetest of them all," Mark Kelso said. "And the thing that makes it the sweetest is that it was such a team effort. I thank God we've got 47 guys in this room who are willing to put the time in and do the things they need to do to get prepared to play, because you never know when you're going to be called on.
"The guys who are our so-called stars played great, and the guys who aren't our stars rose to the occasion."
On Sunday, the Bills rode the wave of a super-charged defense that hammered the befuddled Dolphins from start to finish, and the right foot of Steve Christie, whose five field goals (from 21, 33, 21, 31, and 38 yards) tied an NFL post-season record.
Jim Kelly, back in his starting job after missing two games with a sprained right knee, capped a week of controversy with a solid performance. He wasn't particularly sharp, but considering the layoff, his 17 completions in 24 attempts for 177 yards and a touchdown should be enough to quiet those who criticized Levy for going with Kelly over Frank Reich, who had been impressive in Buffalo's first two playoff wins. The only blemishes on Kelly's day were a pair of interceptions, neither of which led to Miami points.
"This is without a doubt the sweetest victory I've ever been involved with," Kelly said. "I want to thank my teammates for hanging in there with me all week. Every time I needed an encouraging word, they were there for me."
"Before the game, Jim was his same old self," center Kent Hull said. "He was running around the dressing room giving directives: 'Offensive line, you've got to do this . . . running backs, you've got to do this . . . and wideouts, when we run this route, you've got to do this.' He was very much in command, and usually that means he has a lot of confidence."
But after the two first-half interceptions, Kelly clearly shifted to a more patient approach. He threw safe screen passes (10 of his completions were to running backs) and handed off more as the Bills seemed content to settle for field goals and killing the clock.
That's where the dynamic one-two punch of Thomas and Kenneth Davis took over. Thomas ran for a game-high 96 yards on 20 carries, while Davis picked up 61 more, and a touchdown, on 19 attempts. Thomas also caught five passes for 70 yards and a score, while Davis had four receptions for 52 yards. Their combined 279 rushing and receiving yards were three more than Miami's total output.
Thomas and Davis were the featured players in the Bills' extensive use of screen passes, which they usually threw over the middle. Buffalo players and coaches proudly revealed they had "stolen" the play from the Oilers' run-and-shoot scheme. Last Wednesday, in fact, members of the Bills' offense studied a videotape of 20 Houston screen passes.
What they saw was that Houston would allow aggressive pass-rushers, like Miami's, to charge into the backfield, then quickly dump the ball over the first wave of defenders to the back, who then would run behind the blocking of the center, a guard and a tackle.
"It was probably the single-best play we ran today," Hull said. "The Dolphins are so aggressive rushing the passer, so we said, 'Let 'em rush.' Then get that back underneath them, then get some people in front of him and you've got linemen on DBs at that point."
"It's just a variation of a screen we've run all year long, it's just a little quicker," offensive coordinator Tom Bresnahan said. "The run-and-shoot teams do an excellent job of it. They've hurt everybody they've used it against. We just figured it fit into our offense, so we put it in."
The Bills' special teams also got into the act Sunday by forcing and recovering a fumble that set up the clinching touchdown in the third quarter, and with a punt deflection by Steve Tasker.
If the Bills' offense wasn't spectacular, their defense, which has allowed only one touchdown in 10 quarters, certainly was. Buffalo did exactly what it set out to do -- apply strong pressure on quarterback Dan Marino, who was sacked four times for minus-25 yards and was intercepted twice.
Marino almost never looked comfortable in the pocket. He had balls tipped at the line of scrimmage -- left end Phil Hansen batted one that he intercepted -- and often threw too hard on short patterns.
Despite playing with cracked and bruised ribs, right end Bruce Smith was his super-human self, registering seven tackles, including 1 1/2 sacks, a forced fumble and a blocked pass.
"The last 10 quarters, when it really counted, we played the best football we can play," said linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who had a sack. "And our secondary has done a tremendous job in those 10 quarters, which helps us get up in the quarterback's face and make sacks."
The Bills dominated the first half, with 207 total yards to the Dolphins' 114. Still, they failed to capitalize on good field position, thanks to the interceptions, a dropped third-down pass by Keith McKeller and a missed field goal. When the half ended with Buffalo leading, 13-3, on two Christie field goals and Thomas' 17-yard touchdown catch, there was a sense the Bills had blown too many scoring chances and were in danger of allowing the Dolphins to take control of momentum in the second half.
"We were a little concerned that we had squandered a lot of opportunities early in the ballgame to really put the game away," Hull said. "The offensive line was dragging in the heat, and when you start getting tired like that, you wonder how long you can go at that tempo."
But fears of a collapse disappeared on the kickoff to begin the second half when Mark Pike stripped the ball from Mike Williams, and Carwell Gardner recovered at the Miami 24.
"I had a real kill shot on the guy, and at the last minute he just kind of broke to his left, and I just came across his body and just slapped the ball out (with his left hand)," Pike explained. "It was almost the exact same play opening the second half of our game against Miami here last year. Carwell recovered that one, too."
Five plays later, Davis dived into the front right corner of the end zone, stretching to put the ball inside the pylon and give the Bills a 20-3 lead.
Davis said his touchdown run "was supposed to be a counter inside. But it clogged up inside, so I had to break it outside and try to beat them to the pylon. I had to outrun Louis Oliver and Jarvis Williams to the corner, and that's what I did. I put the ball across the line."
Meanwhile, the Bills limited the Dolphins to 2 yards in the third quarter.
"We've got to give their defense credit," Miami offensive tackle Richmond Webb said. "It makes it tough once you get behind. We just didn't show up and that's what makes it tougher to take."
Christie added another field goal in the third quarter, and two more in the fourth. The Dolphins could only manage a 15-yard scoring pass from Marino to Mark Duper midway through the final quarter.
"Something happened in that Houston game (when the Bills rallied from a 32-point deficit to win in overtime), and it's still going," Kelso said. "We really believe in ourselves, we've been tremendously blessed."