American Football / Super Bowl XXVII: Dallas to stick to script and play monopoly: The Cowboys concentrate on California goals. Matt Tench reports from Pasadena

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The Independent Online
SHOULD visitors from Mars have witnessed proceedings here this week - and they have come from just about everywhere else - they could be forgiven for asking one simple question: big game, what big game?

The endless round of press conferences, media events and publicity stunts have not so much preceded tomorrow's Super Bowl as swamped it. Certainly a lot of the players have given the impression that they came prepared for two battles: a sporting one and a media one (and that maybe the first was easier than the second). 'This weekend, you know . . . it seems like Friday,' groaned an already weary Jeff Wright, the Buffalo nose tackle. 'And it's only Tuesday.'

But there is a game to be played, Super Bowl XXVII between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills, and contrary to first impressions, it may be worth waiting for. This was not the feeling in the immediate aftermath of the two championship games (the Super Bowl semi-finals) when the temptation was to ask what kind of a sport it was that spent six months setting up a finale that had all the competitive edge of a Frank Bruno fight.

The Super Bowl is contested by the winners of the American Conference and the National Conference, and not since the Los Angeles Raiders defeated the Washington Redskins in 1983 has it been won by a team in the AFC. In the nine consecutive games won by NFC sides, only two have been close. This monopoly has worried the great and the good of the NFL, since it has tended to turn their showpiece into a procession, but short of completely redrawing the play-off format there is nothing they can do about it.

After Jimmy Johnson's youthful Cowboys had confidently dispatched San Francisco on a tricky pitch in front of their own fans, a sense of ennui closed in, with the strong suspicion that history would continue repeating itself. The Cowboys, it seemed, were far too good for the Bills, worthy winners though the latter were of the AFC.

Why such conviction? Well, NFC teams had again dominated the regular season, and once in the play-offs it was the Cowboys who raised their game. With Emmitt Smith leading the league in rushing, Michael Irvin one of the very best receivers and the quarterback Troy Aikman in imperious form, the offense was dauntingly versatile. And yet the defense, short of headline names but full of heart and application, was even higher in the rankings.

By contrast the Bills were puzzlingly inconsistent. Having arrived at the last two Super Bowls with relative ease, this time their passage was anything but smooth. True, they had a 4-0 record against NFC teams, including wins at San Francisco and New Orleans, but they also lost to the Colts, Jets and Raiders, and should have been eliminated at the wild card stage of the play-offs when they trailed Houston 35-3.

Their history-making comeback in that game has been deservedly lauded, but it could only have occurred with the negligent co-operation of a disintegrating Oilers defense - a view clearly shared in Houston, who promptly sacked the two defensive coaches most responsible for their downfall.

However, continued exposure to the Bills makes it hard to resist second or third thoughts. Appropriately for a Super Bowl staged so close to Hollywood they do appear to have more stars than the Milky Way.

To the familiar list of glitterati (Kelly, Thomas, Reed, Lofton Bennett, Conlan, Talley and Bruce Smith) some new names have been added this year: Henry Jones, a third-year safety who solidifies the secondary, Ken Davis, a back-up rusher with the starter's skills, and Phil Hansen, a second-year, pass-rushing lineman who is taking some attention away from Smith.

Indeed, everywhere you look on the Bills roster there are players capable of making game-winning contributions.

The Bills are the first wild card team to make it to the Super Bowl, and have come through a testing month battle-hardened and relishing the role as underdogs.

'I'm happy with this football team,' Marv Levy, the Bills head coach, said defiantly. 'This team has won more games over the past five-year period than any team in the history of football has won over five years. It makes me swell with pride what we have accomplished.'

Yet it remains hard to resist Johnson's rallying call, 'How 'bout them Cowboys'. Assuming his tyros are not distracted by the hoo-ha of their first Super Bowl - and Johnson is not the sort of coach to allow that to happen - their beguiling mixture of solid virtues and youthful daring simply provides too many routes to victory. At this time of generational change they will not let their age group or the NFC down.

Dallas by 10.


Jay Novacek

Dallas tight end, No 84. Aikman's favourite target in the clutch (vital situations). Secure hands, and capable of making yards after the catch.

Ken Norton

Dallas linebacker, No 51. Son of the heavyweight boxer of the same name. Strong tackler but good also in pass coverage. Made key interception in NFC Championship game.

Kenneth Davis

Buffalo running back, No 23. Outstanding back-up for Thomas. Combines strength of a full-back with half-back speed. Would start in most teams.

Steve Tasker

Buffalo special teams player, No 89. Regarded as one of the best in vital area of special teams. Ferocious tackler, who is always likely to make a big play.

(Photograph omitted)