THE AFTERMATH OF THE COMEBACK: BUFFALO BILLS

This is the third and final part of Tale From Sport’s ‘The Comeback’ series. If you have missed them, please read Part 1 and Part 2 first.

After completing the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Buffalo Bills had their eyes on a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance. They would either go down in history as one of the most successful sides in NFL history, or the biggest chokers.


‘The Comeback’ Reaction

‘The Comeback’ is regarded by many as the Buffalo Bills’ most remarkable achievement. If you simply google the phrase ‘the greatest Buffalo Bills game of all time,’ the first result will link you to this contest. In his book, Steve Tasker wrote that the game is “probably bigger in Buffalo than the Ice Bowl is in Green Bay or the Immaculate Reception is in Pittsburgh, because those cities have experienced eight Super Bowls between them.” The Bills’ special teams superstar would also state that he believed it was the franchise’s crowning moment. According to Buffalo News’ Vic Carucci, the now-historic victory allowed the fans to rediscover their love for the team. The reporter stated that “People had become jaded, people had become upset with the idea that they just didn’t see the success at the end of the rainbow. And now they had this, and this reminded them of how special this football team really is.”

This game was Steve Christie’s first taste of NFL Postseason football. After his now-historic winning field goal, the Canadian questioned if all playoff games would be like this. The kicking shoe that Christie wore during this classic contest is now on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio as a monument to the game. In total, the Buffalo Sports Hall Of Famer would convert 336 field goal attempts throughout his 15-year long career. However, none would be as memorable as the one that sealed the greatest comeback in NFL history.

Frank Reich instantly gained legendary status in the Western New York area for his incredible and unexpected performance. The backup Quarterback was overcome with unbridled joy after the victory and could not hold the tears back when he returned to the locker room. The man who would have a hot dog named after him by local restaurants, The Reich Frank, created a unique experience during the postgame press conference for all in attendance. Known as a god-fearing, humble man, Reich asked the reporters to allow him to recite the words of his favourite Christian song ‘Christ Alone.’ The lyrics summed up the University of Maryland alumni’s feeling towards the game, “In every victory, let it be said of me, that my source of hope, and my source of strength, is Christ alone.’ The reporters respected his wishes, with not even the sound of a camera interrupting the man of the moment. Reich would tell Buffalo News that “I didn’t hear one click, I didn’t see one camera turn down. I don’t want to say I was vindicated. It wasn’t about me. It was about the message the song was sharing. I’ve been sharing that message for 20 years.” Reich was not the only player of the Bills squad that believed divine intervention helped their team on the day. The Baltimore Sun reported that Mark Kelso stating that he did not know what had happened to his team or their opponents for the game to unfold the way it did. The Safety was convinced that the only explanation for it was that a miracle occurred.

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Road To The Super Bowl

Buffalo’s victory secured them a place in the AFC Divisional Round against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Pennsylvania-based franchise celebrated their 60th anniversary in the league by winning the AFC Central, the same Division as the Houston Oilers, with an 11-5 record. This achievement was enough to obtain the first seed, thus giving them a bye in the playoffs. Over the season, their performance saw six of their players awarded with Pro-Bowl honours, including Hall of Famers Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson. The two sides had already gone to battle during week 10 of the regular season. Jim Kelly’s 3-touchdown performance lead the Bills to a 28-20 in front of a packed Rich Stadium. However, it would be the Steelers with home-field advantage during the playoffs. The Bills would also still be without their starting Quarterback, meaning Frank Reich would have to lead the Offence once again.

Pittsburgh led the league in takeaways during the regular season with an impressive 43 turnovers, but it would be their opponent’s Defence that would rule this Divisional round clash. The AFC Central champions would take the lead on their first offensive drive, with Kicker Gary Anderson converting from 38 yards, but this would be the only time they managed to put any points on the board. The Steelers would turnover the ball three times in their next four drives, with Quarterback Neil O’Donnel, who was making his return from a broken leg suffered a month prior, having a nightmare performance. Bills’ Cornerback Nate Odomes would cause the first turnover by intercepting a deflected pass. Two drives later, Bruce Smith forced O’Donnel to fumble the ball, with Defensive End Phil Hansen recovering the ball for the away side. The Steelers Quarterback would throw his second pick of the game on the ensuing drive, with Cornerback James Williams this time intercepting a poor passing attempt. In total, the brutal Buffalo Defence force four fumbles, three turnovers and seven sacks in a dominant display.

With their Defence negating the home side’s attack, Frank Reich and the Offence had to capitalise on the opportunities their teammates had made for them to secure their second playoff victory. According to UPI, Reich admitted he felt the pressure of the situation, stating that “I think I was more nervous about this game than the game against Houston, being on the road and up against a big crowd.” Despite his nerves, the Quarterback had an impressive performance. He completed 16 of his 13 passing attempts, gaining 160 yards and threw a touchdown in both the second and third quarter with no interceptions or turnovers. Fullback Cardwell Gardner converted their third touchdown of the game on a one-yard rushing play in the fourth quarter. As the clock reached zero at the Three Rivers Stadium, the dominate Buffalo side emerged victorious with the score 24-3.

The Western New York side reached their third straight AFC Championship game, becoming the first team since John Madden’s legendary Oakland Raiders during the ’70s to achieve this. If they were to make their third Super Bowl appearance in a row, they would have to conquer the team that pipped them to the AFC East title during the regular season, the Miami Dolphins. The legendary Head Coach Don Shula led his team to an 11-5 record, topping their Division due to their superior conference record. The Florida team achieved a 9-3 record against AFC teams whereas Marv Levy’s men only went 7-5. Both sides secured away victories against each other during their regular season battles. The Dolphins dominated the first contest 37-10 at Rich field, whereas Buffalo managed to secure a hard-earned 26-20 win at the Joe Robbie Stadium.

Two years prior, the two teams put on a classic shootout in the AFC Divisional round. The Bills would emerge with the 44-33 victory. Both sides gained over 420 yards each and secured 24 first downs during this classic. Despite matching their rivals score throughout the game, Miami would ultimately be undone by their three turnovers. On 17th January 1993, the fans inside a sold-out Joe Robbie Stadium would not witness history repeat itself. Instead, Bruce Smith and the rest of the Buffalo Defensive unit would force those in attendance to endure something far worse. The Dolphins faithful watched in horror as Dan Mariano’s Offence would give up an abysmal five turnovers as the Bills dominated their Divisional rivals. In total, Marv Levy’s men made two interceptions, recovered three fumbles and restricted the home side’s running game to just 33 yards. Marino attempted 44 passes but only completed 22 of them as the Florida side were limited to a single touchdown and field goal.

Despite being a vital part of ‘The Comeback’ and their Divisional round victory, Frank Reich was benched for the Championship game in favour of a returning Jim Kelly. The regular starter seemed to still be rusty after his injury layoff as he struggled to find the endzone throughout the contest. The Hall of Fame Quarterback would have respectable 17 completions in 24 attempts, gaining 177 passing yards and scoring a touchdown. However, he would also be picked off twice. The Running Back partnership of Thurman Thomas, who was also making his return from injury, and Kenneth Davis were crucial in the Buffalo offence. The duo had a combined 39 rushing attempts, gaining 157 yards with Davis scoring one touchdown. They would also prove pivotal in the passing game. The pair achieved nine completions in 10 attempts for 122 yards with Thomas scoring a 17-yard touchdown in the 2nd quarter.

Whilst the Running Back core may have been responsible for 14 of the away teams points, there was a Bills player who would single-handled score more. After his heroics during ‘The Comeback’, Kicker Steve Christie continued his fantastic postseason form by converting five field goals during the contest, tying the then NFL playoff-record for most in a single game. The combination of their monstrous Defensive performance, an elite running game and a kicker on fire led Buffalo to dismantle the Dolphins 29-10, securing their place in their third consecutive Super Bowl and winning the AFC Championship.

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Third Time’s The Charm

On 31st January 1993, all eyes were on the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California for Super Bowl XXVII. The NFC Champions Dallas Cowboys were the final challenge for the Buffalo Bills in their quest to avenge their previous two Super Bowl losses and finally hoist the Lombardi trophy. Fourth-year head coach Jimmy Johnson’s star-studded team topped a strong AFC East with a 13-3 record, a then-franchise record. Their Offence, led by the legendary Hall of Fame “Triplets” trio of Quarterback Troy Aikman, Running Back Emmitt Smith and Wide Receiver Micheal Irvin finished second in the league in scoring with 409 points. Smith also led the league in rushing for the second consecutive year with 1,713 yards and 18 touchdowns. Despite none of the unit receiving a pro bowl selection, the Cowboys defence was truly dominant during the regular season. They finished the campaign as the number one overall defence in the league, only allowing 4278 yards in total. They would also concede 243 points, ranking them fourth league-wide. Despite having comparable stats to other legendary defences of the modern era such as ’85 Bears or the ’91 Eagles, the Cowboys defence typically goes under-appreciated for their incredible performance throughout the season. A large reason for this is because they are often compared to the “Doomsday Defence” that the Texas franchise possessed during their dynasty years throughout the late ’60s and ’70s which won two Super Bowls and competed in three more.

The Cowboys were the oddsmaker’s’ favourite to emerge victorious from the biggest game of the year. However, questions were raised over their ability to perform on such a big stage with an inexperienced and youthful starting defensive core, whose average age was just over 25 years old. With the Bills having the experience edge due to appearing in the last two Super Bowls and possessing a deadly no-huddle offence, some media believed that the New York team would rattle the young Dallas defence and dominate them. A loss for the Bills would give the franchise the unwanted accolade of becoming the first team to lose three consecutive Super Bowls despite being only the second team in history to appear in three in a row.

The Buffalo Bills had a dream start to the Super Bowl. After forcing the Cowboys to a 3-and-out on their opening possession, Steve Tasker managed to block the ensuing punt, knocking the ball out of bounds at their opponents 16- yard line, giving his side’s Offence excellent field positioning. It only took four plays for the Bills to find the end zone, with Thurman Thomas scoring a 2-yard touchdown run to give them the lead early in the game. They had the opportunity to extend their lead after Dallas once again were forced to punt on their next drive; however, their dream start would quickly turn into a nightmare. After advancing to the halfway line, Jim Kelly was put under pressure by a blitzing Kenneth Gant, which resulted in the Quarterback throwing a poor pass directly into Safety James Washington’s path for an interception. Troy Aikman would take advantage of this situation, leading his Offence down the field finding Tight End Jay Novacek in the end zone after a 23-yard touchdown pass on their sixth play of the drive.

Things would go from bad to worse for the Bills as they were forced to start their next drive on their own 10-yard line after Mark Maddox was penalised for an illegal block during the kickoff. On the drive’s first play, Jim Kelly would fumble the football after being stripped-sacked by Defensive End Charles Haley. The ball landed directly into the grateful hands of Cowboys’ Defensive Tackle Jimmie Jones as he fell into the endzone for Dallas’ second touchdown in just 15 seconds. This remains the shortest time between touchdowns in a Super Bowl to this day. The nightmare would continue as Kelly would throw another interception early into the second quarter. Safety Thomas Everett picked off the Quarterback’s pass as Buffalo faced a fourth-and-goal situation just four yards shy of the endzone. Kelly’s bad day at the office would come to an abrupt end on his next drive. Dallas’ Linebacker Ken Norton Jr leapt to sack the former first-round pick, bringing him down awkwardly as he was attempting a pass. The hit re-injured the knee that Kelly had sprained earlier in the season, forcing him to leave the field for the rest of the game. Bills were forced to turn to “The Comeback” hero Frank Reich, hoping he would once again work his magic and guide the franchise to their first Super Bowl victory. However, the
change in Quarterback would not change the momentum of the game.

After Buffalo settled for a field goal on Reich’s first drive, the Cowboys ruthlessly tore down the field. They would score their third touchdown of the game in just five plays, with Michael Irvin taking Troy Aikman’s 19-yard pass into the endzone. Marv Levy knew his team could not continue to make mistakes if they had any chance of salvaging anything from this half. Unfortunately for the Bills Head Coach, the offensive implosion would continue on their next play. Thurman Thompson fumbled the ball after being hit by Defensive Lineman Leon Lett following a swing pass attempt. Jimmie Jones would recover possession for Dallas, allowing the on-fire Aikman and the rest of his unit to start their next attack on the Bills 18-yard line. The 1989 first overall pick wasted no time connecting his fellow “Triplett” member Irvin again on the first play. The receiver dived into the endzone for his second touchdown of the game, becoming the second player after Ricky Sanders to catch two touchdowns in the same quarter in a Super Bowl, just 18 seconds after his first. As of the time of writing this, this achievement stands as the faster pair of touchdowns scored by a single player in Super Bowl History.

With a minute to go before half-time, the Bills frantically attempted to narrow the Cowboys 18-point lead before the break. Their desperate endeavour led to yet another fumble, with Reich and Kenneth Davis mistiming a simple handoff. Luckily for the Western New York side, Davis recovered the ball, keeping the drive alive. However, Just two plays later, Reich took an ill-advised shot down the field in an attempt to find his receiver, Don Beebe. The former Chadron State never found any separation from his marker Larry Brown during his route, with the Cowboys’ Defensive Back reading the play correctly and made the easy interception. The Buffalo Bills ended the half with an abysmal five turnovers.

The third quarter was mostly uneventful, with the only notable event was Dallas’ kicker Lin Elliott converting a 20-yard field goal to extend their lead to 31-10. That was until he final play of the quarter. With Bills on the Cowboys 40-yard line, Franck Reich escaped from the pocket to deliver a beautiful pass that found Don Beebe in the endzone. Despite their disastrous first-half performance, the AFC champions only found themselves 14 points behind. Considering they overcame a 32-point deficit during ‘The Comeback’, Buffalo knew they had the ability to turn this game around. They just had to stop the Cowboy’ attack and not make any mistakes defensively.

Dallas’ opening drive of the period resulted in a touchdown. On their second play, Aikman launched a 45-yard pass to Alvin Harper. The receiver was wide open on the Bill’s 7-yard line. He caught the ball uncontested before taking the ball into the endzone to extend the Cowboy’s lead.

After failing to stop their opponent’s Offence and time running out, the Bills needed another miracle to turn the game around. However, their prayers would not ›4be answered this time as their remaining hope would vanish on their next two drive. Thomas Everett recorded his second interception of the game after a poor passing attempt from Reich to James Lofton. The Safety took the ball to the Bills’ eight-yard line before Emmitt Smith’s impressively broke into the endzone on third-and-goal. Things went from bad to worse as following the kickoff return, a high snap caused the Bills’ backup Quarterback to turnover the ball once again, with Linebacker Ken Norton Jr recovering the fumble, returning it nine yards for yet another Cowbow’s touchdown.

Dallas had dismantled their opposition, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter alone. This point total is the highest any team has achieved in a fourth-quarter in Super Bowl history, with only the Kansas City Chiefs replicating this in 2019. The Texas-franchise also became just the second team to score two non-offensive touchdowns in a Super Bowl. Only the 1984 Los Angles Raiders had accomplished this before.

With the score 52-17. the game was all but over. However, a comically memorable moment occurred during the final minutes of play. Frank Reich’s nightmare game continued as he was strip-sacked by Defensive End Jim Jeffcoat. Leon Lett recovered the ball for the soon-to-be Super Bowl champions. Lett, 64-yards away from the endzone, had an empty field in front of him, with a touchdown practically guaranteed. The defensive tackle decided that it was the perfect time to showboat, prematurely celebrating on the 10-yard line. Lett was unaware that Don Beebe had made up the ground and was hot on his heels. The Buffalo receiver swatted the ball out of Lett’s outstretched arm before he crossed the goal line, denying a record-breaking third non-offensive touchdown. Instead, the ball rolled out of the endzone for a touchback.

Lett would somewhat redeem himself as he sacked Reich in the final seconds, ultimately wrapping up the game. Buffalo’s humiliating and self-destructive performance saw the Dallas Cowboys win their first Super Bowl since 1978. The Bills became the first side in history to lose three consecutive Super Bowls whilst also setting the record for the most turnovers in a Super Bowl with a horrific nine. After a fairytale start, the Bills playoff run ended in a nightmare.


Failure

The following season, both Buffalo and Dallas reached the Super Bowl yet again, setting the stage for a rematch at the Georgia Dome. This game marked the only time in history that the same two teams have played each other in two consecutive Super Bowls. The Bills, determined not to lose the biggest game of their sport for the fourth time in a row, held a 13-6 lead going into half time. However, it was almost a tradition at this point for the AFC East side to find a way to lose when it mattered the most. Marv Levy’s men could not put a single second-half point on the board as the Cowboys scored 21 unanswered to secure the Super Bowl repeat 30-13. Emmitt Smith controlled the second half, dismantling his opposition defence and scoring two touchdowns to earn the MVP honours.

Interestingly, despite both teams possessing future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Jim Kelly and Troy Aikman, there were no passing touchdowns in this game. This fact is even more surprising considering the Bills completed the most passes in Super Bowl history at that point with 31. This game also marked the last time Buffalo would ever reach a Super Bowl as of writing this.

The Buffalo Bills became a national joke after their four consecutive Super Bowl losses. To this day, many pundits and media outlets compare any majors failures or collapse in sports to the franchise. Despite being the only team in history to complete the improbable task of reaching four Super Bowls in a row and achieving the greatest comeback in NFL history, this team would be primarily remembered for one thing, failure.

Author: Ross Paul

With three years of working as a freelance Sports Journalist and a degree from Sussex University under my belt, I decided that it was time to focus on a passion project of mine. I created Tales From Sport in the hopes of producing the most in-depth, high quality articles about the most interesting stories in the history of sport. My main focus is writing about the NFL, however, I also produced content on the MLB, NHL and Football. I am a die-hard Chicago Bears, Chicago Cubs, Winnipeg Jets, Stevenage FC and AC Milan Fan and avid sports memorabilia collector.

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