In this weekend’s Super Bowl the Denver Broncos top ranked scoring offense will be squaring off against the Seattle Seahawks number one ranked scoring defense. It’s been 23 years since the NFL saw a championship matchup of top-ranked units, with the last coming in Super Bowl XXV between the Buffalo Bills and New York Giants.
Back in 1990 the Bills high-octane offense led by Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas was tops in the league in points per game (26.8), first in passer rating (98.2), second in rushing touchdowns (20) and third in passing touchdowns (28). They also ranked in the top 10 in a host of other offensive categories as Buffalo’s no huddle attack reached critical mass during the 1990 season.
The Giants meanwhile led the league in points allowed giving up just over 13 points per game (13.2), stood second in yards allowed per game (262.9) and ranked fourth in both run and pass defense. New York’s front seven was talented and experienced led by outside linebackers Carl Banks and Lawrence Taylor.
The two teams were familiar with one another having met in the regular season in Week 15 at the Meadowlands, a game won by Buffalo 17-13 despite both starting quarterbacks going down to injury in Jim Kelly and Phil Simms.
New York used a clock-grinding ground game with their stout defensive front to give their opponents limited time with the football. In the NFC Championship game against the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers, the Giants held onto the ball for almost 39 minutes and allowed San Francisco just one third down conversion on eight attempts in an unlikely 15-13 victory to advance to Super Bowl XXV.
After preventing the 49ers from going to their third straight Super Bowl, Bill Parcells’ Giants team was riding high fully confident that their defense could have similar success against the league’s top scoring team in the Bills.
Buffalo had respect for the Giants’ ability to stymie high-powered attacks, but following a 51-3 rout of the Oakland Raiders in the AFC title game, Buffalo felt their offense was unstoppable.
Bills Hall of Famer James Lofton, who will be broadcasting from the sidelines at Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday, remembers how confident they were in their ability to put up points.
“We knew going into the game that they were a good defensive team, but when you are rolling like we were, I think we had scored 40-plus points against the Dolphins and 50-plus opponents against the Raiders you really have no fear of your opponent,” Lofton told Buffalobills.com. “At that point it’s about how well you play and not about how well your opponent plays.”
Where Buffalo bucked the Giants’ defensive trend in the playoffs was with their own run game. Thurman Thomas rolled up 135 yards on the ground on just 15 carries to average nine yards a rush. It was in stark contrast to New York’s previous two playoff performances. They had held the Bears to just 27 yards rushing in the Divisional round and the 49ers to 39 yards rushing in the NFC title game.
But Giants Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor said it was a necessary sacrifice in their game plan.
“We were able to take Thurman Thomas out of the passing game,” Taylor said after the Giants victory that night. “Whenever we run a five DB defense we’re going to suffer a little bit as far as the run goes and on the pass rush, but we were able to take him out of the passing game and it hurt Kelly.”
“They used that nickel back and Lawrence Taylor on the outside to cover the flat zone areas and so we had some short passing in there so they were able to collapse on that,” Lofton said. “It was one of the first times and one of the rare cases where we saw quarters coverage where they played four deep.”
Third down was an area where the Giants excelled all season. Ranked sixth in the league that year in third down defense, New York had held Chicago and San Francisco to a combined four conversions on 19 attempts on third down in the postseason. Against the Bills that trend continued as Buffalo moved the chains just once on third down in the entire game on eight tries.
“We were pretty simple in our approach. It was just a fast paced offense and they just made more plays than us on third down,” said Lofton. “We had chances and we didn’t take advantage of them. To be one out of eight, that’s not a lot of third downs to have during the course of a game. That’s something you would have in the first half if you were moving the ball a little bit.”
Lofton also recalls the Giants resorting to a questionable tactic to slow down their fast-paced attack that he again witnessed in the 2013 season on occasion.
“One of the things that we chuckle about that we saw happen a couple of times in this past season is players on teams that get injured who slow down the no huddle or fast-paced offense,” said Lofton. “We had that in that game and that was the first time that we had seen that. That was a wrinkle that they used. They had a couple of guys who would get injured and be writhing in pain and go back into the game a play later. For the most part though, they were just a great defensive team.
“I don’t know that they outschemed us. It was a 20-19 game and we had the ball for less than 20 minutes and it came down to the final drive of the game.”
Despite less than 19 and a half minutes of possession time Jim Kelly led a two-minute drive from his own 10-yard line, and successfully moved Buffalo’s offense into Giants’ territory on a nine-yard scramble with just under a minute left.
He then called timeout after hearing an unnamed person from Buffalo’s sideline calling for one.
“All of a sudden from the sideline, not from Marv Levy, comes a timeout call so we lose our last timeout,” said Bills former GM Bill Polian on ESPN this week.
Following a six-yard pass to Keith McKellar, Thomas carried for 11 yards on the next play, but did not get out of bounds forcing Kelly to spike the ball at the 47-yard line.
“Jim spiked the ball with eight seconds left,” said Polian. “If we had the timeout we would’ve used it after Thurman’s run, which could’ve got 10 to 15 more yards.
“Those little things are what make a difference. The use of that timeout called by somebody yelling from the bench, who Jim heard, not Marv obviously, and violating our absolute precept that you save your last timeout to get your team on the field cost us the world championship.”
“It came down to the final drive of the game,” said Lofton. “And we came up a point short.”
Buffalo was a seven-point favorite in that game against the Giants. Denver is favored by just two points against Seattle.
Polian, who made Peyton Manning the first pick in the 1998 draft, is confident that the veteran signal caller will have his fellow players mindful of the important details come Sunday.
“I’m certain that Peyton (Manning) has told his Broncos teammates that little things make a difference,” said Polian. “Take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves.”