BUFFALO, JAN. 10 -- For an entire decade, the Miami Dolphins tormented Buffalo and its football team. When Don Shula took command of the Dolphins, the Bills went zero-for-the-'70s against Miami -- 20 consecutive losses.
These are get-even times in Buffalo.
Jim Kelly, the quarterback who hasn't played since he was injured Dec. 15 in Buffalo's victory over the Giants, speaks uncertainly of his availability for Saturday's AFC playoff against Miami.
"The doctor says I'm cleared to play, but the doctor isn't in my body," Kelly said. "It will be my decision. Why endanger my career for one game?"
This sounds suspiciously like a mind game the Bills are playing with the Dolphins, keeping them uncertain about which quarterback they will face -- Kelly or Frank Reich. The Bills close all their practices to the media, but word leaked out that Reich had taken just a few snaps in the workouts this week.
Reich, the understudy who led Buffalo to a 24-14 victory over Miami Dec. 23 in a game that decided the championship of the AFC East and the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, requires a structured situation with a week's scripted preparation in order to play at his best. He is less effective coming into a game as a relief quarterback.
Kelly was the No. 1 quarterback in Tuesday's practice, the workout that always sets the pattern for the Bills' intentions for the weekend.
The weather bureau also seems to be playing with the Dolphins' heads. The early forecast for Saturday called for frigid weather in the low twenties. That was adjusted to a prediction for a temperature of about 30, with some snow flurries but no sign of heavy wind, which is critical in Rich Stadium.
When the Dolphins came to town last month, they seemed worried to distraction by Buffalo's reputation for fierce winters rather than the reality of the day itself. It was relatively mild by Buffalo standards -- 33 degrees at kickoff, no snow and wind of just 10 mph.
No matter what the weather bureau forecasts, it is unlikely Miami will benefit from a balmier day three weeks deeper into winter.
The mere idea of Buffalo weather is a bothersome thing to the Dolphins, who beat Kansas City last Sunday with the temperature in the low eighties. In the past 15 seasons, the Dolphins played only twice in Buffalo after Thanksgiving -- the Dec. 23 game and Nov. 29, 1987, when they lost, 27-0.
One of the byproducts of the December victory was that it brought a week of rest and recovery for Kelly, who strained a ligament in his left knee when a teammate, left tackle Will Wolford, was knocked into him. Kelly, despite his public words of caution, is known to lust for action in this game.
The last time he participated in a playoff game, a year ago in Cleveland, he passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns. Still, the Bills lost.
The one that got away is the pass he remembers best. It was launched from the Browns 11 with 14 seconds remaining as Cleveland held a 34-30 lead. The pass was perfect, thrown directly at Ronnie Harmon's hands as the Bills' running back worked free in the left corner of the end zone.
Harmon dropped the ball. On the next play, linebacker Clay Matthews intercepted Kelly's final pass to end Buffalo's Super Bowl hopes.
For the Bills, that play represented their crossing of the NFL Rubicon. Harmon was banished to the San Diego Chargers as a Plan B free agent a few weeks later.
The Bills, whose 1989 season was marked by bickering, the culmination of which was the identification of Kelly by star running back Thurman Thomas as the Bills' "weakest point" on a TV show, resolved to maintain harmony in 1990. They kept their resolution.
Kelly turned 30 a month after the Cleveland game. "Everybody has to grow up sometime," he remarked.
Kelly needed to grow up and he has. No longer does he publicly critique the play of his teammates. No longer does he shoot from the hip in his public statements. There were no postgame party incidents that landed him on Page 1 as there were in the past. Now the postgame parties are held in Kelly's basement, with almost all his teammates in attendance.
Even his personal appearance improved. The shaggy Kelly has been replaced by the well-turned-out Kelly. His hair no longer looks as if he had it done at Jiffy-Lube. He rarely refers to himself in the third person any longer.
He also is a changed man on the field, mostly because of the Bills' installation of the no-huddle offense.
Buffalo did not use the no-huddle against the Redskins in the final regular season game, since nothing was at stake for either team. But when they play serious football, the no-huddle is the most important element of the Bills' offensive ordnance.
Kelly has never quarterbacked the no-huddle against Miami. Reich, in fact, was the quarterback in the last two meetings at Rich Stadium. Buffalo won last year's game, 31-17.
Still, Kelly is unlikely to be bothered by wind, snow, sleet or low temperatures.
"What it will be," he vows, "is Buffalo Bills weather."