The date was 3rd January 1993. Rich Stadium played host to the AFC wildcard playoff contest between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers. This game would go down in history for not only what happened on this day, but for forever changing both franchises. This story contains streaks, injuries, tactical mistakes, meltdowns, mother nature, empty seats, passion, concussions, collapses and above all, failure. This is the tale of the greatest comeback in NFL history.
The Story So Far
The Buffalo Bills were in the midst of the most successful period in their post-NFL-AFL merger history and their most heartbreaking. The team had won back-to-back AFC championships, but both their Super Bowl appearances ended in defeat. Their 1991 loss to state rivals the New York Giants was the most devastating. With 8 seconds to play with the score 20-19 to the Giants, the Bills’ Kicker Scott Norwood had a chance at glory from 47-yards. The kick flew less than a yard shy of the right-hand post, handing the Lombardi trophy to their neighbours. This result remains the smallest margin of victory in Super Bowl history.
Coming into the 1992 season, the Western New York franchise was determined to avenge their Super Bowl losses. Throughout the campaign, Marv Levy’s men conquered the rushing game on both sides of the ball. Led by the future NFL’s all-time sack leader Bruce Smith, their Defence allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league. Their Offence led the NFL in rushing yards with 2436, with fellow future Hall of Fame inductee Thurman Thomas spearheading the group. A star-studded passing unit was also at the AFC champions disposal. This collective contained three more future Hall of Famers in Quarterback Jim Kelly and Wide Receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton. Offensive Coordinator Tom Bresnahan liked to deploy a dangerous, no-huddle attack, with Kelly entrusted in calling the plays. This array of talent led the Bills to an 11-5 season. Despite having the same record as the Miami Dolphins, the Bills would finish second due to an inferior divisional record. However, their impressive performances were enough to secure them the highest-seeded wildcard spot.
Simultaneously, the Houston Oilers were also having the most successful period in their post-NFL-AFL merger history. The Texan team enjoyed a spell of reaching six consecutive playoffs. This streak was the longest active streak in the NFL and Houston’s history. Despite this, they only won one AFC Central championship and possessed a poor postseason record during this period. The team continuously crashed out early in the playoffs and never reached the AFC championship game.
Throughout the 1992 season, Head Coach Jack Pardee deployed a deadly ‘Run and Shoot’ offence. Hall of Famer Warren Moon led the unit at Quarterback. Fellow inductees Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews played a crucial role in this system by protecting Moon in the Offensive line. Their strategy proved fruitful as the team led the NFL in passing yards, with 4,231. Houston also possessed an underrated running game, with two times Heisman finalist Lorenzo White gaining 1,226 yards, seven touchdowns. The Texas-based side also assembled a robust defensive core. The unit proved arduous to break down, allowing the third least yards in the NFL that season, with only 4,532 total yards. Linebacker Al Smith and Defensive Tackle Ray Childress were the notable standouts from this group, receiving All-Pro honours for their performances. The Oilers achieved a 10-6 record, finishing second-place in the AFC Central but securing them a wildcard spot.
Before they met in the playoffs, the Oilers and the Bills would clash in the regular season’s final week. Houston would convincingly conquer their opponents 27-3. The result determined that Buffalo would fail to win their Division for the first time since 1987. The Super Bowl runners-up would additionally lose their star Quarterback Jim Kelly and the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Cornelius Bennett to injuries. The significance of their respective injuries meant both players would miss the rematch in the Playoffs. Buffalo’s backup Quarterback Frank Reich had the task of replacing Kelly during the game. However, his production was abysmal. He completed a dreadful 11 of 23 passes for 99 yards with two interceptions. With Kelly out, the underperforming Reich would have to start in the Wildcard game.
The momentum may have appeared to be on Houston’s side after overpowering their opponents just one week prior. However, the oddsmakers distrusted the effectiveness of their style of play in the playoffs. Their rationale was based predominantly on their previous postseason record. Despite missing their starting Quarterback, the Bills, fuelled by avenging their back-to-back Super Bowl losses, were the consensus favourites to advance.Embed from Getty Images
The Moon Shines Bright In Such A Game As This
It was a bitter, 38-degrees Fahrenheit day in Buffalo, New York as the two teams took to the field. The 17 miles-per-hour wind guaranteed to play a significant role throughout the contest. Despite being a Playoff game, Rich Stadium was surprisingly not sold out. Consequently, the game did not air live in the Western New York area due to the NFL’s blackout rule. This rule deprived the local fans who stayed at home from watching history unfold. Some of the Buffalo faithful would cross the border into Canada, watching the game in bars via satellite, whereas the rest had to settle for the radio broadcast.
Houston won the coin toss and elected to receive the ball to start this AFC Wildcard showdown. Warren Moon put on a masterclass during the first half. He proved why the NFL placed him in the ‘Top 25 Quarterbacks of all time’ list, eclipsing the Bills defence in nearly every play. Moon executed six of his seven passes during the opening possession of the game. The away side capitalised on their opponents playing a dubious Dime system instead of their established 3-4 package. Walt Corey, the Buffalo Defensive Coordinator, concluded that by placing his swift Defensive Backs in the Outside Linebacker position, it would negate Houston’s four speedy wide receivers. However, it left the out-of-position player imperilled against the Oilers’ Draw plays. The combination of this and Lorenzo White picking up a pivotal first down on a fourth-and-two play resulted in an 80-yard drive. Moon crowned the series with a touchdown pass to Haywood Jeffires from 3-yards, draining nine minutes of the clock in the process. Buffalo would respond in their ensuing possession with a positive 33-yard kick return by Kenneth Davis. Their repetitive run-run-pass approach came unstuck 18-yards shy of the endzone, disappointedly settling for a field goal attempt. Kicker Steve Christie converted the kick, putting the home team on the board.
The so-called underdogs struck back immediately. In a near-identical drive to their first, Warren Moon’s eminence in passing dazzled once again. The Quarterback repeated his feat of completing six of his seven passes during their second 80-yard march upfield. This time Webster Slaughter was the player to complete the drive following a seven-yard touchdown pass. The Bills defensive staff attempted to alter their team’s system during this passage of play, but it backfired spectacularly. These changes unwittingly enabled their opponents to execute their already hazardous Draw plays with greater ease. The visitors proceeded to tighten their grip on this game. With Buffalo reluctant to put their faith in their second-string Quarterback’s arm, Houston’s Defence pacified the home teams now-predictable run-run-pass Offence, causing an easy three-and-out in their next drive.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Buffalo’s Linebacker Darryl Talley likened Warren Moon’s performance to a surgeon, claiming “He could have been a plastic surgeon that day and given nine million facelifts.” His masterful dissection continued as the Oilers’ scored their third touchdown in three possessions. Despite their opponent providing excellent coverage, Moon’s pinpoint pass from 23-yards out was caught spectacularly by Curtis Ducan, who fell into the endzone. Ducan’s catch meant three of the four Houston Wide Receivers had now contributed to a touchdown. The Bills offence continued to struggle against the astute Houston defence. Desperate to close the deficit before half-time, Buffalo’s Head Coach Marv Levy elected to go for it on fourth-down after stalling on the Oilers 33-yard line. Their venture did not pay off as Reich’s pass sailed into coverage and fell incomplete. The ball returned to their AFC rival’s clinical Offence with just over a minute until the break.
Bills Linebacker Carlton Bailey confessed to the Baltimore Sun that “Every time [Houston] would score a touchdown, Shane [Conlan] and I would say to each other, ‘We need to go to the regular defense.” They ultimately got their wish, with the defensive staff finally decided to abandon the Dime game plan and utilise their proven 3-4 system. These alterations appeared to restrain their opponents somewhat, forcing them into a fourth-and-one situation. Unfortunately for the home fans, an ill-timed encroachment penalty gifted Warren Moon a fresh set of downs. Unsurprisingly, the first African-American Quarterback inducted into the Hall of Fame punished this mistake. His 27-yard pass at the end of the possession found Haywood Jeffries for his second touchdown of the game. Following the extra point conversion, the teams headed towards the locker room for half-time. The Bills faithful serenaded their team with boos and profanity as they left the field with the score 28-3 to the ruthless visitors.
Great Kid, Don’t Get Cocky
The atmosphere in the Houston and Buffalo camps were polar-opposites. The Oilers coaching staff recognised that their game plan was operating flawlessly on both sides of the ball, leaving no need for any alterations. Many accused the team of being overconfident and acting as they had already won during the break. Talking to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Warren Moon refuted these claims. Although, he would proceed to state that “there were a few guys smiling. Not laughing, but they had a look of comfort on their faces.” The Quarterback did not share the same sentiment, claiming “It wasn’t that I was scared, but I just wasn’t totally comfortable that the game was out of reach.” Wary of any complacency, Moon delivered a stark reminder to his teammates about their last playoff campaign. The Texas-based team led the Denver Broncos 21-6 before seemingly losing their concentration. John Elway and company capitalised on this and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. The former NFL Offensive Player of the Year demanded his teammates had to maintain their focus for the full 60 minutes and learn from their previous failures.
If the Bills stood any chance of staying competitive in this contest, significant adjustments were needed both tactically and mentally. It was paramount that their Defence had to find a way to limit Warren Moon’s passing, without leaving themselves exposed to their opponent’s deadly Draw plays. Reverting to their regular 3-4 formation, abandoning the disastrous Dime experiment, had the potential to be the catalyst of this mission. However, it would take more than just a tactical shift for them to restrict Moon.
A fuming Walt Corey, whose initial tactical setup was arguably a significant factor in his team’s shocking defensive display, erupted with a now-famous expletive-laced tirade aimed towards his unit and their mentality. Corey told the Pro Football Hall of Fame that “The thing that bothered me was their approach. To me, they looked timid. They looked like they were going to get in the right spots, but they weren’t going to make anything happen afterwards” The former Kansas City Chiefs coach questioned the attitude of his players, pondering if they were frightened to make something happen. His colourful speech appeared to have inspirited the majority of his players. However, in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Safety Mark Kelso rejected the claim that Corey’s raving inspired him. Kelso was disgusted by the crude method the coach applied and hoped this game would not encourage similar strategies being utilised in the future.
Their offensive issues were indisputable; their play-calling and execution on the field lacked aggression. Their monotonous run-run-pass approach generated minimal results. Offensive Coordinator Tom Bresnahan had to release the restraints he imposed on Quarterback Frank Reich, trusting his passing ability on more than just third-and-manageable plays. Despite being a frequent backup, Reich may have been the perfect applicant to direct a comeback. During his tenure at the University of Maryland, the New York native replaced starting Quarterback Stan Gelbaugh after trailing the Miami Hurricanes 31-0. Reich’s dominating performance, which included a 68-yard touchdown pass, led the Terrapins to a miraculous 42–40 comeback victory. Maryland’s upset win set the record for the biggest comeback in NCAA Football history at the time. The former third-round pick admitted to the New York Times that while repeating this feat was feasible, no one thought about winning the game at that point. Before heading out for the second half, the Bills third-string Quarterback, Gale Gilbert, gave the future Indianapolis Colts head coach a simple message, “Hey, you did it in college, there’s no reason why you can’t do it here.”
Unlike Walt Corey, Head Coach Marv Levy refrained from a strong-language verbal-onslaught. Instead, the second World War veteran delivered a simplistic address that would appeal to his men’s egos. According to billszone, Levy said to the team, “You’ve got thirty more minutes. Maybe it’s the last thirty minutes of your season. When your season’s over, you’re going to have to live with yourselves and look yourselves in the eyes. You’d well better have reason to feel good about yourselves, regardless of how this game turns out.”Embed from Getty Images
Reich, Wind And Fire
With their coach’s words still fresh on their minds, the teams returned to the field for the second half. The Bills would be on the offensive to commence the third period, setting the stage for Frank Reich to make lightning strike twice. If this were an inspirational sports movie, the rousing half time team talks would stoke a fire in the second-string Quarterback eyes. A flashback to his college conquest would incite the belief that he could overcome such substantial odds. The former third-round draft pick would take to the field and scored a touchdown on his first drive, creating the spark his team required to win the game. Except, this was not a movie.
Less than two minutes into the half, Reich’s pass attempt on a third-and-nine play bounced off Tight End Keith McKeller’s hands into the grateful clutches of Houston’s Safety Bubba McDowell. The University of Miami graduate took the ball to the house, scoring a 58-yards pick-six, extending the visitors lead to 32-3. If conceding so early into the quarter on an offensive play was not devastating enough, Buffalo’s franchise running back Thurman Thomas was struck down during their drive. The 1991 NFL MVP suffered a hip injury that would see him sidelined for the rest of the game. The Bills called upon Kenneth Davis to replace their downed superstar, meaning the AFC Champions had to attempt a comeback with a Backup Quarterback and a second-string Running Back. The Bills’ radio broadcast team had given up hope, debating how their opponents would fare against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round. In a now-famous broadcast, a member of Houston’s radio team proclaimed, “The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they’ve been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.”
While the Bills’ were hoping lightning would strike twice for Reich, it was another natural occurrence that instigated their potential comeback. As Al Del Greco, the Oilers’ Placekicker, began his kickoff to restart the play, a gust of wind knocked the ball off the tee. This freak event resulted in an unintentional squib kick. The ball hit an unprepared member of the home team before landing around the halfway line. After a frantic scramble, it was Buffalo’s Mark Maddox that miraculously came out with the ball. With a Quarterback looking to redeem himself after an interception and a Running Back looking to establish himself in the game, the Western New York side drove up the field.
Houston had multiple opportunities to halt their adversaries. During the first play of the possession, Linebacker Eddie Robinson, who ironically would later join the New York State franchise, should have picked off a pass that sailed directly through his hands. This missed chance resulted in a 24-yard completion for the reigning AFC champions, with Tight End Pete Metzelaars securing the catch. The Texan team rebounded, forcing the Bills into a fourth-and-two situation. Marv Levy instructed his squad to forgo a field goal attempt once again and go for the first down. Kenneth Davis was the man entrusted to make this crucial play. Davis repaid the faith placed in him by locating a hole in the Defence and gaining more than enough yards to keep the drive alive. Two downs later, the former second-round pick would conclude the attack with a two-yard scoring run, giving the home team their first touchdown to celebrate.
At half time, Levy instructed his Special Teams Coordinator Bruce DeHaven to attempt a surprise onside kick through the middle of the field when the first opportunity arose. DeHaven explained to the Pro Football Hall that “It’s a kick that works when they’ve only got five guys up front and they’re not in an onside return mode yet.” As the Bills were ready to restart the game, all the pieces fell into place. Steve Christie, who was on kickoff duty alongside his roles as Placekicker and Punter, was directed to attempt the precarious play. Although the side had only practised the kick for the first time just two days prior, they executed it flawlessly. The ball bounced towards the Oilers Linebacker Rick Graf, however, before he had a chance to claim possession, Buffalo’s Defensive End Mark Pike obliterated him. The ball would bounce-free before Christie himself recovered the ball.
The Bills’ Offence knew they had to capitalise on this vital opportunity their Special Teams had manufactured. Center Kent Hull stated to the Pro Football Hall of Fame that “At that point, I said, ‘If we score here, we’re back in this ball game.” Hull would also say that the unit believed the momentum had shifted in their favour, giving them the confidence to drive down the field. Their new-found belief was justified as it took a mere four plays for the home side to find the endzone. Wide Receiver Don Beebe broke free from the Oilers defence, leaving himself completely open. Frank Reich floated the ball directly into the hands of the current Head Coach of the Aurora University Athletics, who took it to the house for a 38-yard touchdown. However, this play should not have stood.
The referees failed to see that Houston’s Cornerback Jerry Gray’s push caused which caused Beebe to step out-of-bounds before re-entering the field to make the catch. This action should have resulted in an illegal touching of the football penalty against the Receiver, yet there were no flags in sight. The NBC commentator Todd Christensen highlighted the error during the TV broadcast, but only after inspecting a replay. In today’s NFL, the play would be reviewed and likely overturned. Unfortunately, it was not until 1999 that the NFL had a replay challenge system. Therefore they could not reverse the glaring mistake. Despite the protests by the Oilers, the touchdown stood, making the score 35-17. Andre Reed would later declare it took cosmic interference for the infringement to go unpunished, saying “those planets were lined up. They were lined up right” for his team.
It appeared Houston might have let their frustrations affect their focus. The Texan side luckily downed the ensuing kickoff on their 28-yard line after a miscommunication caused Running Back Garry Brown and Wide Receiver Leonard Harris to collide while trying to catch it, with the latter somehow securing possession for the away team. Following this, a brawl broke out between both sides. Mark Maddox instigated this scrap by pushing his opposition’s Cornerback Darryll Lewis following the play’s end. After the dust settled and surprisingly no admonishments, the Oilers offence entered the battle looking to maintain their dominant first-half form. This phase of the Moon-led attack, however, proved to be less effective. A reinvigorated Bills defence finally uncovered an answer to their opponent’s passing game. With the help of an extra Linebacker in their setup, the unit limited Warren Moon’s options significantly. The Hall of Fame Quarterback’s air of invincibility vanished as he could only muster 3 yards during this three-and-out possession. Safety Mark Kelso imperatively broke up a deep out pass intended for Receiver Curtis Duncan on third down, forcing Houston to punt for the first time in the game.
Buffalo had a fantastic field position for their next drive thanks to their old friend mother nature. Oilers’ Greg Montgomery punt only travelled a disappointing 25-yards, being downed on his 41-yard line. The strong wind that opposed him consequently limited his range, making this the second time the conditions conspicuously helped the home team. Just like their last possession, it did not take Marv Levy’s men long to reach the endzone, although this time, there was no controversy involved. Reich started the drive with an 18-yard completion to James Lofton, before hitting Davis for a screen pass, resulting in a 20-yard gain. Noticing the Oilers’ Defence was fully committed to jumping Lofton when he ran a post route, Reich devised a plan to use that against them. “I called a play where we put James on a post and Andre [Reed] on an out-and-up, and sure enough, they jumped on James hard again and Andre was wide open,” the Quarterback told the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The plan worked flawlessly, a miscommunication between Houston’s Defensive Backs Steve Jackson and Marcus Robertson allowed an unmarked Reed to secure the catch before taking the ball into the endzone. This 26-yard touchdown marked the team’s third in just ten minutes and 18 plays.
Houston, We Have A Problem
The Oilers were imploding, and the home side knew it. Andre Reed recounted to Buffalo News that “They were so discombobulated, they didn’t know what they were doing.” Additionally, Steve Tasker doubted Warren Moon’s leadership abilities, questioning if he, or anyone in the Houston attack, could motivate their unit to “Turn it back up” and save their team from collapsing. The next offensive drive for the away side may have answered Tasker’s question. In just their first play of the possession, Moon launched his worst pass of the game. The ball soared through the middle of the field, far above the head of his intended target Webster Slaughter. In a desperate attempt to salvage the play, Slaughter tipped the ball into Bills Safety Henry Jones’s path. The 1992 All-Pro electee promptly made the interception before carrying the ball back to his opposition’s 23-yard line.
Houston’s Defence appeared to bail out their misfiring Offence in the ensuing drive. After containing Davis’ running attack to a handful of yards and Reich throwing the ball away begrudgingly on third down, the away side forced their opposition into a fourth-and five situation 18-yards from the endzone. Marv Levy had possibly the most important decision of his coaching career to make. On the one hand, the Hall of Fame coach could have elected to take the manageable field goal attempt, reducing the deficit to eight points. The issue with this choice was that since the two-point conversion did not exist in the NFL until 1994, his team would need more than just another touchdown to complete their unlikely comeback. Furthermore, a successful field goal effort in the fourth quarter would be improbable since they would be kicking into the raging wind.
On the other hand, the Buffalo Head Coach could decide to go for it. If successful, there was a possibility of closing the deficit to just five points, assuming the Offence could find the endzone at the end of the series. This outcome would result in the home side being only one touchdown away from taking the lead. However, should the decision backfire, they would turn over possession to their opponents, gaining nothing from the drive. The Oilers could then drain the clock, allowing little time for the Western New York team to complete their comeback, or even extend their lead. Levy already knew what he wanted to do if this situation were to arise. “I told the other coaches if we hit a fourth [down], we’re going to go for it if it’s anywhere near a reasonable distance for the first down,” he told the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Frank Reich called a timeout to discuss how to approach this critical moment down with his Head Coach with time ticking down. According to Buffalo News, the Quarterback believed he knew which play would unlock the Oilers defence. “It was Bull 65. We were going to run four receivers on four vertical routes. If they play Cover 2, I have a chance to get Andre down the middle.” Levy gave the New York native his blessing, despite some objections from his coaching staff, putting the most significant gamble of his coaching career in his hands. Andre Reed recalled the team’s attitude before the snap, “It gives me chills just thinking about it. I remember in the huddle, we didn’t say, ‘We have to make this or else.’ It was, ‘Let’s make this and go get the ball back.'” Kenny Davis was the original intended target of this play, running a route designed to secure the first down. However, Reich got his wish, Houston lined up in a Cover 2 formation. As predicted, Reed found himself un-covered through the middle of the field before a perfect 18-yard pass by the Quarterback found him in the endzone. The Hall of Fame Receiver’s second touchdown meant that the Bills had remarkably reduced their deficit from 32 points to four in just seven minutes.
Like their opponents at half time, the Oilers needed to make significant alterations to their approach in the fourth quarter if they wanted to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive. The Texas-based side’s last drive of the third period almost ended catastrophically. A Warren Moon 15-yard completion to Webster Slaughter, marking the first, first-down of the half for Houston, was immediately followed by the Quarterback fumbling the ball while being sacked by Bills linebacker Darryl Talley. Thankfully for the away side, Lorenzo White managed to recover the ball, denying a chance for the reigning AFC Champions to score an easy, go-ahead touchdown. Two plays later, Moon once again launched a reckless ball through the middle of the field, similar to the one Henry Jones intercepted in their last series. History almost repeated itself as the ball bounced off the Safety’s helmet but hit the ground before he could catch it. Greg Montgomery once again had to punt into the wind, resulting in another underwhelming, 24-yard hit. Buffalo received the ball on their 48-yard line with 11 seconds of the quarter remaining.
Exits And Entrances
With the belief that a comeback was imminent, the Buffalo faithful that remained in the ground was at a fever pitch. While trailing 35-0, many of the home fans had seen enough, denouncing their team as they headed to the exits. Wide Receiver Steve Tasker detailed in his book how he remembers “seeing so many empty seats” during the third quarter. Mark Pike admitted to Buffalo News that he even believed that his wife had probably left to pack for the offseason at that point. The Bills General Manager Bill Polian, who was relinquishing his post at the end of the season, recalls witnessing his soon-to-be replacement John Butler’s meltdown. Butler allegedly said, “This team stinks, we’ve had it, we’ve had enough. Let’s go.” before exiting the stadium. The exact number of fans who decided to go home rather than bear another half of potential heartbreak is unknown. However, the space left behind was undoubtedly visible to the players and TV cameras.
As the news broke that their team were storming back, many that had abandoned hope just fifteen minutes prior attempted to return to their seats in Rich Stadium. Unfortunately for them, their tickets did not permit re-entry. Undeterred, numerous fans aspired to scale the ground’s fences, reluctant to miss potential history unfold. The security notified those in charge of the organisation about the bedlam occurring outside. After a brief discussion, the decision was made to forgo their preexisting rule, allowing the fans to re-enter through the gates. Some reports even claim that many without a ticket managed to sneak into the stands. The stadium filled to the brim with boisterous Bills fans, creating an electrifying atmosphere for their team to thrive on as they strived to maintain their momentum. During ESPN’s 30 for 30’s documentary ‘Four Falls of Buffalo’, Steve Tasker jokes “I’ve met 1.2 million people who say they were in the stadium.” The exaggeration of the number in attendance became a running joke amongst the players and supporters alike for years to come.Embed from Getty Images
Slippery When Wet
Those who were witnessing this incredible contest most likely believed Buffalo would complete their comeback on their first drive of the quarter. After all, the home side managed to find the endzone in their last four possessions, with Houston having no answer to Frank Reich and his fellow offensive teammates. Montgomery’s weak punt at the end of the third quarter also added to these expectations by giving the Bills excellent field positioning to start their assault. However, the Western New York side was unable to continue their scintillating form. After shifting their defensive positioning from Zone coverage to Cover 1, the Oilers finally managed to stop their opponent’s onslaught. Making this change allowed a free linebacker to lurk in the backfield to limit Reich’s passing game. Despite successfully containing their opponents during the drive, the formation alteration inadvertently cost the Texas team an interception. During third down, Reich’s terrible pass attempt appeared as if it would sail right into the hands of a well-positioned Cornerback Steve Jackson. However, the free Linebacker, Al Smith, would also attempt to intercept the pass, resulting in the two players colliding and the ball falling into the dirt.
Following the home team’s first punt of the half, it was Warren Moon’s time to redeem himself after a miserable third quarter. Perhaps due to overconfidence, the Houston offence abandoned their ‘Run-and-Shoot’ attack that was successful in the first half. Instead, Moon attempted longer, riskier passes, 16.8 yards on average, compared to the first half, which was only 10.6 yards., which led to a disastrous output from the Offence. After returning to their original gameplan, Moon once again began fluidly connecting with shorter passes. While only averaging 8.7 yards per pass, this tactic’s production was far higher than in the one used in the third quarter. The switch allowed Moon to exploit a weakness that Buffalo’s Defensive Coordinator foresaw. In the Bills’ original Dime formation, the Defensive Backs who were occupying the Linebacker position could, in theory, keep up with the rapid Houston Receivers. Switching to their 3-4 structure was undoubtedly the correct call, evidenced by their third-quarter performance. However, the slower Linebacker’s were now having a tough time competing against the Oilers’ pace.
Houston managed to reach the Redzone for the first time since the second quarter. Although, they almost made a perilous error during the drive. After misreading the coverage, Moon’s pass from the 50 yard-line glided into Buffalo’s Linebacker Carlton Bailey’s hands for an interception. Unfortunately for the home team, the officials judged Bruce Smith to have committed a roughing the passer penalty during the play, negating the turnover. With a shorter field to work with, Marv Levy’s struggling linebackers could neutralise their opposition’s passing game due to having less ground to cover. The away side would end up stalling on the 14-yard line. In ordinary circumstances, a field goal from this range should have been easy to convert and would have put Jack Pardee’s men seven points ahead. However, the treacherous weather would once again come to the Bills’ aid. As the rain started to crash down in Orchard Park, Al Del Greco called for the snap for his kick attempt. Greg Montgomery, who was the designated holder, was unable to handle the wet ball. After slipping out of his hands, the Pro-Bowler would fumble the ball whilst attempting to salvage the play. Daryll Talley sent the home fans into hysteria by recovering the ball before returning it 70 yards. The officials would dampen the celebration by deeming the College Football Hall of Famer down by contact on his 26-yard line.
Buffalo’s next drive proved to be the turning point of the game. After the bizarre botched kick attempt kept them within one touchdown of the lead, the Bills offence knew they had to capitalise on this opportunity. It appeared that the Houston defence had continued their form from earlier in the quarter, forcing Frank Reich and his unit into a crucial third-and-four situation, but they would make one disastrous mistake. Anticipating a pass, Defensive Coordinator Jim Eddy instructed his player to line up in a Dime defence with two Safeties deep in the backfield. Noticing a potential opportunity, Reich called his second timeout of the half. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Quarterback asked his Head Coach if they would go for it on fourth down if they were to fail to gain the yards needed. After Levy said they probably would, Reich said” ‘If we’re going for it, why not try to run? They won’t be expecting it.'” After deliberating about which run to attempt, it decided they would line up in the Shotgun formation and try a counter run. The rationale behind this choice was that, in theory, this play should catch their opponent’s pass-ready Defence off guard, allowing Davis to earn enough yards to continue the drive if the blockers do their job correctly. This play turned out to be more successful than they may have predicted. Two fantastic blocks by Guard Jim Ritcher and Offensive Tackle Will Wolford created the gap that Davis needed to blitz down the field. The TCU graduate gained a monstrous 35-yards, with only a last-ditch diving tackle by Steve Jackson just-barely stopping him from taking it to the house.
Jackson’s tackle prevented the Bills from completing their improbable comeback on that play. However, he was only delaying the inevitable. According to Davis, the fans in a now packed Rich Stadium were powering the players throughout the quarter. The Running Back told USA Today that “We were the Energizer bunnies, but they were the batteries in us. I don’t know if people realise how passionate we were about the fans, and how they could change a game.” With the offence feeding off the Buffalo faithful’s electric atmosphere, they believed it was time to complete the comeback.
Despite the belief, the Buffalo attack once again found themselves in a precarious third-down situation 17-yard from the goal line. Seemingly unfazed by the pressure and expectations, Reich once again knew what play to make. In a near-replica of their final touchdown of the third quarter, the Quarterback directed Andre Reed to run a seam route through the middle of the field, with tight End Pete Metzelaars tasked with keeping the seam open for the Receiver. Houston’s pass rushers tore through the Offensive wall, giving Reich a minuscule window to release the ball. Somehow, he managed to provide the perfect pass. Steve Jackosn was supposed to be covering Reed, but the Cornerback was too busy looking into the Bills’ backfield to notice the Hall of Famer sprinting passed him. Although Jackson made a feeble attempt to make up for his error by trying to intercept the pass, the ball flew right over him before landing in the hands of Reed in the endzone. They had done it. From thirty-two points down, the Buffalo Bills had taken the lead for the first time in this contest, with Reed’s 17-yard touchdown and the resulting extra point making the score 38-35. Every person not affiliated with the Houston franchise in the stadium, in the Western New York area and even the few that travelled to Canada were in a state of euphoria. Their team may have possibly accomplished the greatest comeback in the history of the NFL, but there was still three minutes left on the clock.
A Shot In The Dark
It seemed like everything was going against the Houston Oilers. Their Defence had completely disintegrated since the turn of the half; a horrible referee call cost them both points and the momentum in the third quarter and even the weather seemingly wanted them to lose. The only glimmer of hope the Texas-based team had was that their Offence was finally firing again. If anyone could salvage this game for the away side, it would be Warren Moon. The attacking unit had 3:06 left on the clock to drive down the field. They knew a field goal would be enough to send the game into overtime. However, their Kicker Al Del Greco was in no condition to take to the field. The man who holds the record for the most points scored by an Oiler/Titan suffered a head injury during his last, disastrous kick attempt. Del Greco told NFL Films, “I don’t know who it was that grabbed me but they kind of tackled me to the ground and my head hit the turf. I didn’t know where I was for about five minutes after that.”
Houston’s star Quarterback once again looked to exploit the lack of pace their opposition’s Linebackers possessed compared to his Receivers. Managing the clock was also an essential part of their attack. The limited-time left meant that any Offensive member who received the ball would have to aim for the touchline to stop the clock. The Oilers short passing game was reasonably successful in taking their team into Buffalo territory, with Moon only having one incompletion to his name. However, they would struggle to keep their momentum going as the drive went on. At the Bills’ 34 yard line, the away side’s turn to face a crucial fourth-down situation. A field goal attempt from this range would be from around 51-yards, which was out of the likely concussed Del Greco’s range even if he was healthy. With only 1:48 left on the clock, Jack Pardee’s men had to go for it. They knew that the game would be all but over if they were to fail during this play.
The Houston Offensive wall gave Moon excellent protection, allowing the Quarterback time to wait in the pocket for a Receiver to break free from their coverage. Webster Slaughter did just that. The Pro-Bowler excellent route-running allowed him to lose his marker and occupy the open space between the Buffalo Linebackers and Safeties. A calm and composed Moon floated his pass perfectly over the Linebackers and into Slaughter’s gloves for an 18-yard completion, keeping the drive alive for the hopeful visitors. With the Oilers’ in the Redzone with the time still running and three timeouts left, it appeared that the clock might strike midnight on the Bills’ fairytale comeback. Walt Corey’s defensive unit’s had to produce results to keep their Super Bowl hopes alive during this last stand. Just like their previous drive, the home side used the shorter field to their advantage, giving their opposing Quarterback minimal passing options. After throwing the ball away on the first and Lorenzo White making a short gain on a running play on the second, Moon was forced to scramble on third down. The only man inducted into both the Canadian and Pro Football Hall of Fame needed five yards for a fresh set of downs. However, he came up short by two.
With 15 seconds left on the clock, a dazed and confused Al Del Greco was somehow permitted to enter the field for the game-tying 26-yard field goal attempt. With the modern-day concussion protocols, this would not be allowed to occur in an NFL game today. The Auburn alumni told NFL films he was not aware of the distance he would be attempting this crucial kick from, stating that “When I got home that night, I asked my wife, ‘How far was that last field goal?’ Thank goodness it was a relatively short field goal.” After their last kick attempt fiasco, the pressure was on Del Greco’s holder Greg Montgomery. With the intense weather not letting up, the Punter had to show mental resilience and composure to avoid making another disastrous mistake. As the two lined up the attempt, every Houston fan held their breath. The most crucial moment of the Oilers’ season came down to a man who did not know where he was and another who was having the worst game of his career. Remarkably, the kick went flawlessly. Montgomery had no issues catching the snap this time, allowing a woozy Del Greco somehow to guide the ball through the middle of the sticks. With the AFC rivals now tied at 38-38 at the end of regulation play, this incredible battle headed into overtime.
Right Down The Middle
Before a rule change in 2010, the team that initially received the ball during the overtime period only needed to convert a kick for the game to end. Nowadays, scoring a field goal during the opening possession would give the opposition a chance to respond, with a touchdown being the only way to finish the game during the first drive. The original rule gave a significant advantage for the side that won the coin toss. The winner of the toss won approximately 60% of overtime games. The NBC commentator for this AFC Wildcard contest, Charlie Jones, described it as “Perhaps the most important call of the day.” Jones’ broadcast partner, Todd Christensen, remarked how amazing it was that “after 60 fabulous minutes and two very different football games in the first and second half,” the game comes down to “the serendipity of heads or tails.” With the game potentially on the line, Houston called tails. The away side finally caught a break as the coin landed in their favour. To no one’s surprise, the Oilers elected to receive. This decision gave their Offence a golden opportunity to finish the game. All Warren Moon and company had to do was repeat what they did in their last possession. Unfortunately for Jack Pardee’s men, the officials’ second terrible missed call would derail their efforts.
After two short gains, Houston’s attack faced a third-and-three situation 27-yards from their own endzone. Moon predicted that the Bills’ would retain the defensive shape that brought them success during the second half. If he were right, his slot Receiver, Ernest Givens, would only have Linebacker Darryl Talley to beat to ensure the drive would continue. The current Oilers/Titans all-time receiving yards and receptions leader’s notable pace advantage should have allowed for a straightforward play. The plan almost worked exactly how the Oilers’ drew it up. However, they did not account for the referees missing a blatant holding penalty. Likely knowing he could not keep up with Givens, Talley carelessly grabbed onto the Pro-Bowler, illegally restricting him from running his route. Moon, unaware that the Linebacker was impeding his Receiver, floated the ball into the area where he expected Givens to be. With the space vacant, the ball flew further downfield than anticipated, landing in the arms of Buffalo’s Cornerback Nate Odomes for a game-altering interception.
Flags littered the field as the play came to an end. A furious Houston offence took exception to their opposition’s illegal tactics, resulting in the game’s second brawl. With most people watching the game expecting a holding penalty to be called, nullifying the interception, the officials inexplicably decided to ignore the obvious foul. However, they did award a personal foul against Haywood Jeffries for bringing Odomes down by his facemask. Whilst it was a correct decision to penalise Jeffries, it was inexcusable for this to be the only admonishment. This call gave the home side an extra 15-yard advantage to start their potential game-winning drive. To this day, Darryl Talley has never admitted he made an infringement during the possession. While talking to NFL Films, the Buffalo Wall of Fame member defended himself by saying “I got five yards in which to put my hands on the guy. I could beat you up and mug you and punch you, as long as I keep you right in front of me in that five-yard period.” Despite his statement, the video evidence confirms that Talley was holding onto Givens far further than the 5-yard mark. His teammate, Frank Reich, did not share the same sentiments. The Buffalo Quarterback admitted that “It clearly looked like Talley held Ernest Givens. Probably not much doubt about that. It’s a legitimate gripe on their part.” According to the New York Times, Houston’s Cornerback Cris Dishman believes the appalling refereeing decisions and lack of technology cost his team their Super Bowl dream. The current New York Guardians Defensive Back coach wondered “Why didn’t someone think of instant replay sooner? Then that greatest comeback never would have happened.”
An almost unbelievable amount of bizarre and highly questionable circumstances throughout the entire game led to this moment. After trailing by a near-insurmountable deficit in the third quarter, Buffalo was somehow one kick away from winning this historic Wildcard contest. The most important possession of their season thus far started on their opponents 20-yard line. Instead of electing to go for the kick right away, Marv Levy’s men would strive to give Kicker Steve Christie the best field position possible. Kenneth Davis managed to gain five additional yards on two consecutive runs. The Running Back’s efforts meant that the most significant field goal attempt in Christie’s career would be from 31-yards out. Levy elected to send his Kicking unit out on third down rather than attempting to shorten the range further. This decision was likely due to fear that his players would inadvertently repeat what their opponents did in the fourth quarter due to the slippery conditions. If any mishaps were to occur, they would have another chance at the attempt, assuming they recovered the ball.
As expected, Houston called a timeout before the snap, seeking to ice the Bills’ Kicker. The commentary team debated if this common tactic would affect a good player in this position like Christie. The Canadian put up fairly impressive numbers during the regular season, averaging an 80% success rate and scoring a career-record 115 points. However, a 32-yard attempt was not a formality for the Buffalo Sports Hall Famer as he was only successful 50% of the time between 30 and 40-yards. In addition to this, he had never faced a more pressurised situation in his career to this point.
The agony of a missed field goal attempt in the most crucial moment in the franchise’s history was still fresh in the home fans’ minds. The Western New York team was one kick away from finally being crowned the Super Bowl champions last season before ending in heartbreak. If they were to avenge this moment, they would have to conquer their past demons along the way. Quarterback Frank Reich, perhaps fittingly due to his heroics during this spectacle, would be on the field for this potentially deciding play as the placeholder. The stage was set. If Steve Christie could convert this field goal, he would confirm the greatest comeback in NFL history. As the ball was snapped, the Houston blockers charged forward, determined to salvage the game. Their efforts would ultimately be in vain. Reich set the ball down with no issues before Christie cleanly struck it. As soon as it left his right boot, there was no doubt. The Buffalo Bills had done it.
The noise inside Rich Stadium was deafening as the ball flew through down the middle of the uprights. One of the loudest renditions ever heard of the Bills’ signature celebration song ‘Shout’, an altered version of the The Isley Brothers’ 1959 hit record, was belted out by nearly every supporter in attendance. Anyone associated with the Buffalo franchise poured onto the field, embracing each other whilst entranced by the euphoric feeling their history-breaking performance created. Steve Christie, who never showed any fear in such a pivotal moment, was hoisted up in the air by his jubilant colleagues. As the home side revelled in their improbable accomplishment, the visitors begrudgingly left the field in complete silence. The distraught Oilers probably never believed that they would be watching their opponents celebrate at the end of the contest. As they headed to the locker room, the Houston squad tried to comprehend what had just transpired. Jack Pardee and his men knew that, despite the controversial and arguably unfair way the game played out, they would forever be known as the team that threw away a 32-point lead.
This game is consider to be the catalyst of the downfall of the Houston Oilers. You can read more about how they dealt with the fallout from this game and the events that followed by checking out The Aftermath of The Comeback – Houston Oilers HERE
Buffalo would go all the way to the Super Bowl and, unfortunately, make history by becoming the first team to lose the big game three consecutive times. To learn more about their Playoff journey and aftermath of yet another Super Bowl Failure, read The Aftermath of The Comeback – Buffalo Bills HERE