Monday, September 14, 1992


San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO - It was a football game, but the tempo resembled a heavyweight title fight. Both teams so punched themselves out on a warm, late-summer afternoon that by the fourth quarter Sunday neither had much left.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, the Buffalo Bills had more in reserve. After five of the previous nine possessions in the second half ended on turnovers, the Bills' Thurman Thomas ran 11 yards for the touchdown with 3 minutes 4 seconds remaining that gave Buffalo a 34-31 victory over the 49ers.

Thus the Bills are 2-0 and the 49ers 1-1 after a record-setting game.

''I thought Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Carl Lewis were going to come into the game before it was all over,'' said Bill Polian, Buffalo's general manager. ''It looked like the 4x100-meter relay.''

The 49ers averaged 8.8 yards a play; the Bills 7.1. At one point, eight consecutive possessions, four by each team, ended with scores. ''It seemed like the offenses were going downhill all day,'' said Buffalo tight end Pete Metzelaars, who caught two touchdown passes.

With Steve Young throwing for a career-best 449 yards, the 49ers piled up a team record 598 yards; they and the Bills (488) combined for 1,086, the fourth-highest total in National Football League history. It was the first game in the NFL's 73-year history in which neither team punted, and only the third game in which both quarterbacks passed for more than 400 yards apiece.

At the end, it was mistakes, not the Bills, that killed the 49ers. Three second-half drives by the 49ers into Buffalo territory ended in turnovers, including Nate Odomes' interception of a poorly thrown pass by Young with 6:48 remaining that led to Thomas' winning touchdown.

Then, with 54 seconds to go, Mike Cofer missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt - wide right - that would have sent the game into overtime.

''Their offense should be commended, but I guess I don't necessarily feel like commending anyone right now,'' 49ers coach George Seifert said.

It was the 49ers' first loss to an AFC East team in 11 games dating to 1983, and the 49ers' first loss to anyone in 13 games, counting exhibitions, since last Nov. 10 at New Orleans.

''The frustrating part about it is we had our chances and we turned the ball over,'' said 49ers center Jesse Sapolu. ''We missed an easy field goal in the beginning. Those are the kinds of chances you just don't blow against an offensive team like that.''

It was a major victory for Buffalo in its bid to overcome the stigma of two losing Super Bowls: a win on the road against a good NFC team.

''We have a long way to go, but the 49ers are a great team and there's this AFC-NFC thing,'' Metzelaars said. ''To win a game against the NFC is a great thing for us.''

Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, who was 22 of 33 for 403 yards, said: ''We had a lot to prove to ourselves. It was just a matter of playing Buffalo Bills football.''

While many will point to Cofer, who also missed a 33-yard field goal tr on the game's first drive, as the culprit, the simple fact is that the 49ers' shortcomings on defense cost them. Looking at the score, that isn't too hard to figure out.

At the start of the game, San Francisco tried to match up with the Bills' high-powered offense just by tinkering with personnel. The 49ers took out strong safety David Whitmore and began the game with a secondary consisting of three cornerbacks and one safety to cover the Bills' three wideouts.

Later, believing Buffalo would not hurt them running the ball, the 49ers went to a full-time nickel defense, using three cornerbacks - Don Griffin, Eric Davis and Merton Hanks - with safeties Whitmore and Dana Hall.

Metzelaars, who caught 15 passes for 114 yards the last two years, caught four for 113 yards and the two touchdowns Sunday. There was obvious confusion in the secondary on both of his touchdowns; on the second, a 24-yarder, pass rusher Tim Harris was trying to cover him.

''I haven't caught many passes in five years, so they figured, 'What's the use of covering a guy?' '' Metzelaars said.

The Bills, employing the no-huddle offense most of the game, were able to limit defensive substitutions by the 49ers, who normally rely on that, and frequently created mismatches, such as lining up Thomas as a wideout and forcing a linebacker to cover him. That strategy paid off when Thomas caught a touchdown pass with Bill Romanowski trying to cover him.

What it looked like was hell for the defenses, and all this happened with two of the 49ers' most potent receive rs, Jerry Rice and Brent Jones, on the bench. Rice suffered a concussion when he was tackled in the first quarter, and Jones suffered a strained hamstring early in the second quarter.