The Buffalo Bills took care of Barry Sanders.
Sure, he ran for his customary 100 yards. Sure, he had his usual, spectacular, now-you-have-him, now-you-don't long gain.
But if there was one major factor in the Bills' 22-13 victory over the Detroit Lions Sunday, it was that they never allowed the superstar running back to kill them. For that matter, they never allowed any of the Lions' many offensive weapons to do much damage.
And when it came right down to it, when the Bills' defense had to stand its tallest, the man at the bottom of the pile in Detroit's end zone was none other than Sanders. That gave the Bills a safety and a 15-13 lead with 2:12 left in the fourth quarter.
For the near-sellout crowd of 78,025 in sun-splashed Rich Stadium, the game could have ended right there. But two plays after the Lions' free kick, rookie running back Antowain Smith punctuated the Bills' second straight win with a 56-yard touchdown run, his second 50-plus-yard scoring dash in as many games. The defense forced Detroit to turn the ball over on downs, leaving Buffalo with a 3-2 record to carry into next week's AFC East showdown in New England.
From where he was standing on the sidelines, Bills coach Marv Levy couldn't see much of the game-winning safety.
"I just saw a big pile and the official's hands go up (to signify two points)," Levy said. "Mine were in the same position . . . but a little lower."
Yes, it was a good time for prayer.
After all, the Lions had chipped their way back from a 13-3 first-half deficit to tie the game at 13-13 on an 8-yard touchdown run by quarterback Scott Mitchell with 5:54 remaining in the game. Controversy surrounded the drive when, two plays before the score, strong safety Henry Jones clearly made an interception that was disallowed. Then, while protesting the officials' decision, Jones pulled off his helmet ever so briefly and was penalized 6 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The Bills' offense still had a chance to take back the lead, but it was able to drive only as far as the Lions' 40.
That's when Buffalo's special teams -- looking to redeem themselves after three disastrous performances -- came up huge for the third time in the game. First, there was Eric Moulds' 53-yard kickoff return to set up a touchdown early in the second quarter. Then there was a blocked punt and recovery by Ken Irvin that set up a field goal just before halftime.
And, finally, there was Chris Mohr perfectly pooching a 39-yard punt that Eric Smedley downed at the Detroit 1 with 2:22 on the clock.
"That's the ultimate for us," said Mohr, who had his best day of the season in averaging 45 yards on eight punts. "That's about the only way we can score points, so to speak, on the punting unit -- to down it at the 1 and get a safety. And this game was a great way to get our confidence back in ourselves and get the fans' and media's confidence back in us."
"They had one man out on me," Smedley said. "My first job is to get off the line and get myself down there in position where I can make a break on the ball wherever it may bounce. So I got myself into position and I was able to break left to right, grab the ball and make a good play."
After Mitchell overthrew wide receiver Herman Moore on first down, the Bills' defensive coaches and players were expecting a run by Sanders.
A run-stopping alignment was called. The defensive line and linebacker Bryce Paup got a great push against an offensive line that was without starting left tackle Ray Roberts -- who suffered a knee injury while returning a fumble to set up a third-quarter field goal -- and had right tackle Larry Tharpe on the left side and rookie Juan Roque on the right. And left end Phil Hansen combined with right end Bruce Smith to bring Sanders down a yard deep in the end zone. It marked the first time in his organized-football life that Sanders ever remembered being tackled for a safety.
"I screamed to Phil, 'Widen out, they're coming our way, Phil!' " said Bills linebacker Chris Spielman, facing his former Detroit teammates for the first time since joining Buffalo as a free
agent last year. "Phil made a great play to beat the tackle. I ran outside the guard and took that cutback away. (Nose tackle) Ted (Washington) had the 'A' gap. Bruce was on a slant from the backside and had that covered. There was no way they were getting anything out of it."
"He (Sanders) kind of slowed down because he was looking to cut back," Hansen said. "If he'd have had a full head of steam, he might have been able to get out a yard or something. But once he slowed down, we zeroed in on him and that was it."
Field position was a game-long problem for the 3-3 Lions, whose average drive start was their own 23.
"In the first half, we never had any kind of field position at all and our special teams just stunk," coach Bobby Ross said. "They literally put us in the hole the whole first half."
The Bills had to lean heavily on their defense and special teams because their offense didn't do a whole lot beyond breaking a first-quarter scoring drought with a nice 10-play, 53-yard drive to Steve Christie's 47-yard field goal. Before Smith's TD run, the Bills had only 214 yards of offense and nine first downs.
Their second-most impressive play of the day came early in the second quarter, two plays after Moulds' 53-yard kickoff return to the Detroit 40. Quarterback Todd Collins -- who finished 11 of 18 for 122 yards -- found wide receiver Andre Reed for a 43-yard touchdown pass on a deep post pattern. Reed easily beat strong safety Harry Colon in one-on-one coverage.
"It was a matter of me getting behind the guy and he was real deep, and Todd threw a perfect ball," said Reed, who finished with five catches for 95 yards. "He put his hand in there, and I kept my eyes on it."
Smith finished with 88 yards on 13 carries, but most of that was on one play. Other than Reed, the only sparkplug for Buffalo's offense was veteran running back Thurman Thomas, who gained 73 yards on 13 attempts and had five receptions for 21 yards.
Sanders finished with 107 rushing yards, including an eye-popping 40-yard gain in the third quarter during which he made a cutback to cause a host of defenders to overrun the play. Moore finished with a game-high eight receptions for 116 yards.
But Buffalo's defenders limited the Lions to only one touchdown and intercepted a pass.
"We're a good defensive football team," Spielman said. "We're damn good."