TAMPA -- Jim Kelly stepped into the Buffalo Bills' huddle with 2:16 left. His team trailed by two and was starting The Drive 90 yards from the enemy goal line; 60 yards would set up a makable field goal. His voice was calm and he had a short speech prepared: "We've got one timeout left. We have to get it to their 30. This is what champions are made of. Let's be one."
With that, the Buffalo Bills set off on an exhilarating, dizzying odyssey to win a Super Bowl, a trip that would bring both teams to their knees in one of the great championship games in pro football history. "Those last two minutes are the way the Super Bowl is supposed to be played," Kelly said later. "It's probably the script you'd have to write."
Kelly had the pen and the plot went his way. He started the drive by running eight yards to the 18 before the two-minute warning. On second down, when nobody was open against the Giants' eight-defensive back alignment, he struggled one yard to the 19, setting up third and one. The clock kept ticking and Kelly kept handing off. Even on third and one with 1:48 left he handed it to Thurman Thomas, who bolted 21 yards to the Giants 41.
Everson Walls made the tackle. There was nobody else behind him. Walls, a Cowboy for most of his career, used to be a Giants killer, and here he was making the tackle of his life. On the fourth play Kelly passed, but his toss to Andre Reed gained only four yards.
Back to running, he ran up the middle for nine yards. He didn't slide. This was no time to slide. The clock was down to 0:48. "I had to run the ball a couple of times when I didn't want to," Kelly explained. "It looked like they were dropping everybody off into coverage, eight defensive backs. Why risk something when we got the plays we wanted and the results?"
The Giants, meanwhile, had decided that if they were going to get beat, it wasn't going to be by Thomas, Reed or James Lofton. "Those are the guys," safety Dave Duerson said, "you have to take out." So Duerson replaced linebacker Pepper Johnson midway through the series to put a fresh pair of legs on Thomas. "We were looking for any edge," he said.
The Giants were playing a zone, except for Duerson. His job was to stay with Thomas come hell or high water. Kelly completed an eight-yard pass to tight end Keith McKeller at the 40, and the Bills lined up frantically with 30 seconds left, but the clock stopped for an instant replay. Can you imagine an instant replay reversing a pass that might mean the difference between winning or losing a Super Bowl championship?
As it was, the replay didn't intrude on the game. McKeller caught the ball all right, and Kelly needed 10 more yards to complete his role in the script. Kelly, who calls his own plays, thought the element of surprise would work best, so from the shotgun he handed the ball to Thomas. With no timeout, he handed off. The Giants, in retrospect, thought it was brilliant.
"They'd been running delays to Thurman for 10, 12 yards a crack," Duerson said.
Thomas got the 10 yards. The ball was at the 30, just as Kelly promised. With eight seconds left, Kelly spiked the ball to stop the clock. He handed the pen to Scott Norwood to write the ending. Norwood's roommate, safety Mark Kelso, wouldn't look. "I knew if it was meant to be, it would go through, and if it wasn't . . . "
Could this really have been the Super Bowl? Men on their knees, coaches holding hands and crying. It was sport at its damnedest, that's what it was. It was a game so riveting, so compelling, it made you forget about the two hours it took to get into the stadium gates.
The security around Tampa Stadium, the fear of terrorism what it is, seemed three times the security was at the White House the day after war began; it seemed five times the massive level of security at any airport in the United States. Bags were checked a hundred yards or so from the stadium walls. Everybody was electronically scanned from head to toe. The NFL warned this would happen, but still nobody was really prepared to be stared down by a man dressed entirely in black, wearing a cap that said, "Bomb Squad."
But it all was worth it. It was the greatest Super Bowl of all time, wasn't it? Well, maybe not for Norwood. He had never made a field goal in his NFL life longer than 49 yards. It wasn't a chip shot. He said he didn't get his hips around, probably, which is why his leg was unable to whip the ball inside the right goal post.
"The mind plays terrible games on people," Walls said. "I'm sure any other time he'd make that field goal. But there are intangibles you're dealing with. These are human beings; it's not computerized."
In a room beneath the field of madness, Coach Bill Parcells sat looking understandably smug. Parcells is one of those "I told you so" guys. Everybody's against him, everybody's wrong all the time. He never said so, but you got the feeling he got a kick out of his guys, the best defense in the world, holding the great Buffalo no-huddle just enough when it counted.
"Up until about 15 minutes ago," Parcells said 15 minutes afterward, "that no-huddle offense was the rage."