Not too long ago, the National Football League looked completely different. It featured two conferences comprised of 15 teams each spread between three divisions: East, Central, and West. Big changes were coming, but the old format still had some gems in store. This story is one of those gems: The 1993 Bills-Oilers Wild Card game. Let’s get the lay of the land by looking at the final standings of the 1992 NFL season:
|AFC East||NFC East|
|Miami Dolphins (11-5)*||Dallas Cowboys (13-3)*|
|Buffalo Bills (11-5)+||Philadelphia Eagles (11-5)+|
|Indianapolis Colts (9-7)||Washington Redskins (9-7)+|
|New York Jets (4-12)||New York Giants (6-10)|
|New England Patriots (2-14)||Phoenix Cardinals (4-12)|
|AFC Central||NFC Central|
|Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)*||Minnesota Vikings (11-5)*|
|Houston Oilers (10-6)+||Green Bay Packers (9-7)|
|Cleveland Browns (7-9)||Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)|
|Cincinnati Bengals (5-11)||Chicago Bears (5-11)|
|AFC West||Detroit Lions (5-11)|
|San Diego Chargers (11-5)*||NFC West|
|Kansas City Chiefs (10-6)+||San Francisco 49ers (14-2)*|
|Denver Broncos (8-8)||New Orleans Saints (12-4)+|
|Los Angeles Raiders (7-9)||Atlanta Falcons (6-10)|
|Seattle Seahawks (2-14)||Los Angeles Rams (6-10)|
‘+’ = Wild Card
The NFL was gearing up for yet another exhilarating bout of postseason football. With just one week of regular-season action left, it all went horribly wrong for the Buffalo Bills.
If only Buffalo had seen it was a doomed endeavor from the start. The Bills rolled into the Houston Astrodome to take on their final opponents of the year, the Oilers. This was all but a formality as two of the NFL’s most complete rosters prepared for their playoff runs.
Cornelius Bennett had been struggling for some time with an injury and was declared out before the game. Bruce Smith had been having trouble as well but elected to play through his rib injuries to help cement their positioning atop the AFC.
It was shortly after kickoff that things went downhill. After leading a drive to open the scoring with a Steve Christie field goal, Jim Kelly would leave the game with strained ligaments in his knee. In went backup QB Frank Reich, and the game turned into a fiasco. He was eaten alive by the Oilers’ defense, being sacked six times and throwing two interceptions for under 100 yards in a miserable loss.
Nearly every remaining cornerstone of the Bills roster was hurt in under two hours. Former league MVP Thurman Thomas, LB Darryl Talley, and WR Don Beebe all took major lumps but stayed in the game. They lost the AFC lead and the AFC East, as the Dolphins beat the Patriots in their game. The seemingly indomitable Bills, coming off two consecutive AFC Championships, looked dead in the water.
A Brutal Beatdown
In fact, to any and all outside observers, they probably WERE dead in the water. No one was surprised to learn that Jim Kelly wasn’t going to play in the Wild Card round. His visible frustration at getting hurt rang painfully with fans as they watched their playoff aspirations wash away down the drain. Who could have faith in Frank Reich after the game he just had against that very same defense?
The hope wasn’t to beat the Oilers as much as survive them in this second round of punishment. Houston was ranked a dominant third in the league in yards on both sides of the ball. They had the top passing offense behind nine-time Pro Bowl QB Warren Moon. After the way it had gone down to end the year, things were bleak.
Moon fired a three-yard TD to wide receiver Haywood Jeffires on the opening drive to set the tone immediately. Steve Christie made a kick from 36 yards out that sounded hollow, like the opening points of Week 17. And Houston did little to quell that reminder.
Next, Moon threw a seven-yard TD to Webster Slaughter to take a two-score lead. Then, they really started piling the points on. Warren Moon appeared to be every bit as advertised, carving the usually consistent Bills secondary into pieces. On their next two drives, he demolished the Buffalo defense, with consecutive touchdowns to both Curtis Duncan for 26 yards and the sequel from 27 yards for Jeffires. Fans left their seats before the teams made it to the locker rooms for halftime, and most people weren’t just getting more refreshments.
Behind The Scenes
In the locker room, the two teams were getting distinctly different treatments. A cool, relaxed Oilers team was resting comfortably, dreaming of their impending divisional-round matchup, but only one player felt like they still might have a storm coming. The man of the hour, Warren Moon, made his rounds throughout the locker room with a stern and sobering reminder of previous blown leads. “Remember Denver last year? We didn’t play the full 60 minutes. Don’t let it happen again. We can’t relax, we can’t relax”, he told his men.
In the Buffalo locker room, however, chaos reigned. A former special teamer, Mark Pike, remembers the scene:
“Everyone was sitting at their lockers, dead silence. [Darryl Talley] was the last one in. He was ranting and raving, saying we were going to kick their ass in the second half, all this macho, gusto stuff. He was high-fiving, slapping everybody. You could feel the guys thinking, ‘Darryl, shut up. You’re stupid, we’re getting killed.’ I remember thinking, ‘We’re done.’ But Darryl never stopped the whole halftime. It was constant. But as it went on, guys collected themselves and said, ‘Why can’t we come back?’ “– Pike tells Buffalo News in 2013
Talley wasn’t the only one who was vocal, as Defensive Coordinator Walt Corey uncharacteristically tore into his men. After he was done and the dust settled, the team decided to return to their base 3-4 defense, having watched Moon shred their 6 DB scheme. As always, Marv Levy cleared the air with a few powerful words, and the team was ready, for another half of football.
“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 damn well better have a reason to feel good about yourselves, regardless of how this game turns out”.– Marv Levy
The Second Half Stumble
By the time the Bills came out of the tunnels, it was a far less crowded atmosphere. You could cut the miserable tension with a knife, which Houston was more than willing to hold.
Buffalo’s opening drive made it almost halfway up the field before misery struck. Frank Reich’s pass was dropped by TE Keith McKeller directly into the hands of Oiler DB Bubba McDowell, who ran it back for a 58-yard touchdown. Following this play, Darryl Talley, ever the optimist, turned to his teammates and said “Don’t worry, I have these suckers right where I want them”. Somehow, they found a way to doubt him. It just seemed the football fates were lined up against Buffalo. Their lone remaining offensive hope, Thurman Thomas, left the game injured and wouldn’t return. Somehow, it seemed things would get even worse.
Turning The Tides
As fans exited the stadium in droves, Houston mishandled the kickoff, which went directly into the body of Mark Maddox before bouncing back towards Houston. Reacting quickly, Maddox threw his entire body towards the loose ball at midfield, arm outstretched, colliding with heaps of Oilers at full speed. Even the announcers had thought it was the Oilers’ ball. That was until the scrum came apart to reveal our #55 holding the ball above his head as if to say “We’re not dead yet”. Finally, with some good field position, Buffalo was alive. Barely.
Reich was brought back to his days as the backup QB for Maryland, where, in 1984, he engineered the single greatest comeback in the history of college football, toppling Miami after trailing 31-0 at the half. It may have been in college, but having a chip on your shoulder is a skill that translates to the pros.
Immediately, Reich found Pete Metzelaars up the sideline to put them in field goal range for the first time since the first quarter. Then, he overcame a bad sack by sneaking a pass to Andre Reed for a difficult first down to get them into the red zone. Kenneth Davis stepped into the hole left by Thurman Thomas and converted a fourth-and-two to get them on the goal line. He would punch in Buffalo’s first TD of the day. It was a long way to go, but they had made their first dent in the seemingly insurmountable Oiler lead. Then, Levy made a call.
A “Suicide Onside”
Steve Christie lined up for the kickoff, then proceeded to trickle the ball 10 yards before recovering the onside attempt himself. The stadium was in awe. The Bills had momentum, possession, and field position out of nowhere. The stadium was rocking again, but with so few people in the stands, things were starting to get out of control. Call it buyer’s remorse, but the fans who bought themselves an early ride out to avoid traffic had realized they might be missing something spectacular.
GM Bill Polian fielded a call from stadium security, warning him of potential danger. Fans were not permitted to re-enter the stadium once they’d exited, but they were coming back in force. They had begun to storm the gates, many fans climbing the walls and fences to get back to what was quickly turning into an actual football game. Polian made the call right there on the phone. For everyone’s safety, and with a measure of fanatical satisfaction, the gates would open, and the people of Buffalo, once again, flooded Rich Stadium.
In just a few short plays, Reich found Don Beebe alone on the left sideline for a 38-yard TD to cut the score to 35-17. With 18 points still separating the sides, Buffalo needed three more TDs to take the game back (there were no 2-point conversions in 1993). Moon and the Oilers took the field for the first time in three scores, but they didn’t stay there long, punting after an ill-advised deep shot into double coverage fell incomplete.
Reich was rifling passes across the field with abandon, hitting comeback routes and screens before slinging the big one 26 yards to Andre Reed in loose triple coverage. All game long, the QB play for Buffalo had been generally subpar. However, with the return of a strong arm, Reed was once again one of the deadliest wideouts in the NFL. He would go on to make that abundantly clear.
Henry Jones would gift Buffalo another possession in great field position, taking a rare high pass from Moon off the fingertips of Webster Slaughter back to just outside the red zone at the 23-yard line. After a trio of unsuccessful plays, Marv Levy made another call: to skip the field goal and go for all the marbles. They didn’t need a first down, they needed a touchdown. Reich stepped up on fourth-and-five to deliver a beautiful 18 yard TD to Andre. As Reed rose from the play, the Oilers realized that there wasn’t just blood in the water; it was thick with it.
They knew they had to stem the flow. And the Houston offense seemed to regroup, battling excellent play from Talley on their next drive, who blitzed off the edge to force a fumble. They finally stopped Buffalo’s offense. And, one drive later, Moon and company got it done, marching to the red zone despite incredible play from both Phil Hansen and Jeff Wright. Still, they stalled out at the 14-yard line. Their field goal attempt to make it a seven-point lead once more was stopped as though by fate itself. The suddenly poor conditions made things slick and the snap flew straight through the hands of the holder.
Kenneth Davis, who excelled in his new role, took a late handoff right up the gut for a huge gain that almost went all the way. Buffalo took their momentum right back. They worked down to just inside the 20 before Reich placed the ball perfectly into Reed’s gut for the hat-trick. Following their extra point, Buffalo had their first lead of the game at 38-35. Inside the stadium, pandemonium reigned, with only a few more tempered spirits keeping an eye on the clock. Houston was still deadly, and a three-point lead is far from secure.
The Houston Counter-Offensive
Houston reminded us of that fact, deftly forcing the ball downfield in short, precise, and cold-blooded rigor. They converted a late fourth-down and push their way to Buffalo’s 12-yard line as time ran short. Warren Moon took matters into his own hands as the Bills coverage was too tight, scrambling to the nine-yard line on third down. This set up the OT-forcing field goal. Houston managed to escape regulation without blowing the largest lead ever to be blown, but only by the skin of their teeth. Additionally, Buffalo narrowly avoided falling short, as the defensive stop couldn’t have come at a better time.
Overtime had come, but Houston was still on the back foot. The stadium was rocking and the Bills were playing some of the best football of their lives. Moon and the Oilers’ offense were given the first crack at the ball. It wouldn’t last long. A Nate Odomes interception would give Buffalo the ball again, and Steve Christie would take one of the most highly anticipated field goals of his career. It went right down the middle from 32 yards away and Buffalo would seal the victory.
The Bills would move on to claim their third consecutive AFC Championship, a record yet to be broken. Frank Reich would go down in NFL history as the engineer of the greatest comeback of all time. Buffalo’s players and coaches largely credit their victory to the crowd that day, who regained their faith in the team and forced their way back to support them.
“The hair stands up on my arm as I think about the crowd, It was electric, almost spellbinding.”– Darryl Talley