Shortly before 1 p.m. Saturday, the Miami Dolphins' team bus came rolling down One Bills Drive, precisely on schedule, and began disgorging players onto the sloping driveway that leads into the tunnel and dressing rooms of Rich Stadium.
The Dolphins' players and coaches were not what you would characterize as a giddy bunch. Most funeral processions are more exuberant. Their expressions were grim and unrevealing, much like the skies above Western New York. Don Shula's face resembled that of a statue.
Exactly 24 hours before their long-awaited meeting with the Bills, the Dolphins were a businesslike group. They came, they dressed, they engaged in a light, 75-minute workout, then they dashed back to the buses. There was no one laughing or talking trash, the way they did here a year ago. No inflammatory quotes this year, thank you.
Tom Olivadotti, the Dolphins' defensive coordinator, actually called the Bills' Frank Reich "as good a quarterback as there is in the league." Dan Marino said he was "disappointed" that Jim Kelly was hurt and unable to play for Buffalo.
Even Tim McKyer, an outspoken sort who refers to himself as "the Michael Jordan of defensive backs," was uncommonly bland in his public pronouncements the day before the big game.
"No one's concerned about respect or anything," said McKyer, who played for San Francisco's Super Bowl champs a year ago. "This is a big game. A lot is on the line in this game. We have to go out and win it. The intensity level is going to be doubled from a regular-season game."
The intensity is understandable. If the Bills win today, they clinch a third consecutive AFC Eastern Division title and, more important, the home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. If the Dolphins win, they move into a tie and, with the tie-breaker advantage, could win the division outright with a victory in next week's finale.
But if the Dolphins were getting fired up, they did their best to conceal it Saturday. The only sign of heat came just before practice, when a van arrived on the field and towed four "Hot Seat" heated athletic benches to Miami's side of the field. The temperature was hovering around 50 degrees at the time, but the Dolphins are taking every precaution against the volatile Buffalo winter.
"You have to be able to play in and through any kind of weather," said Olivadotti. "It probably is being made too much of. As far as what will decide the game, whether it'll be the run or the pass, who knows?"
But chances are, the team that wins will be the one most able to run the ball. Much of the Dolphins' renewed success this year is due to their running game. In their 11 victories, the Dolphins have averaged 118 yards on the ground. In their three defeats, they have rushed for a pathetic average of 29 yards. Sammie Smith, Miami's leading rusher, had an aggregate total of 17 yards in those three games.
"We just haven't done a good job running the ball (in losses)," said Miami quarterback Marino. "There's no secret to it. You line up and come off the ball, and if you do that well and your backs make the right decisions, you're going to be able to run the ball. In the games we lost, we didn't run the ball too well. But we've also won some games where we didn't run the ball well.
"I don't think that will be a problem. If we're forced to throw the ball, we've been able to do that before and win games. So if we have to throw the ball on every down to win the game, that's what we'll do. But I don't think that'll be the case."
Certainly the Bills would be content to run the ball on every down if they could win that way. That's essentially what they did here a year ago, when Reich filled in for Kelly and led Buffalo to a 31-17 win. The Bills ran the ball 51 times for 280 yards that day.
This is a far different Miami defense, however. The Dolphins are ranked fifth in the NFL in overall defense and pass defense, and second (to the Giants) in points allowed. They held the Bills to 44 yards rushing in their 30-7 rout in Week Two in Miami. Even Reich conceded that Buffalo will need a balanced attack to win today.
"The key is execution, especially on offense," McKyer said. "And defensively, we just have to play tough, hard-nosed football. We're focused, positive and I think we're up to the challenge."