For last week’s rivalry history, against the Kansas City Chiefs, click here.
The Buffalo Bills continue to exorcise historical demons, having walloped the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs in consecutive weeks. Next up is the Tennessee Titans, another team the with whom the Bills share a deep history. While the all-time regular season series has been lopsided (Titans lead 28-17), the trademark of this rivalry has been its postseason contests. (The Bills are 2-1 in those games.)
Two AFL Ancients
From the moment these two teams met, sparks began to fly. The two franchises both emerged from the the founding of the AFL with chips on their shoulders. Neither city had been deemed good enough to host an actual NFL franchise, and they took that scorn with them through their early years. The pair amassed a total of four AFL Championships between them, two each, until the AFL-NFL Merger in 1970 tore the pair apart.
|Hou 24-25 Buf||Buf 23-31 Hou||Buf 22-12 Hou||Hou 28-16 Buf||Hou 28-23 Buf|
|Buf 14-17 Hou||Hou 31-20 Buf||Buf 14-28 Hou||Buf 48-17 Hou||Hou 10-24 Buf|
|Hou 19-17 Buf||Buf 29-18 Hou||Hou 20-27 Buf||Buf 42-20 Hou||Hou 20-3 Buf|
|Buf 3-10 Hou||Hou 30-7 Buf||Buf 6-35 Hou||Hou 17-3 Buf||Buf 14-28 Hou|
Clearly, they had terrorized the league for too long. The Bills would help form the five-team AFC East, with the New England Patriots, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and Baltimore (eventually Indianapolis) Colts. Meanwhile, the Oilers would join the AFC Central, alongside the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns. As things often do for expansion and merger teams, things simmered down for a while. Until the beginning of the Bills golden age, that is.
|Hou 20-14 Buf||Hou 21-9 Buf||Hou 13-3 Buf||Buf 10-17 Hou||Hou 13-30 Buf|
|Hou 0-20 Buf||Buf 7-16 Hou||Hou 3-34 Buf||Hou 10-17 Buf||Buf 47-41 Hou|
1989 Divisional Round
Buffalo has a storied postseason history against the Oilers/Titans, and it starts back at the 1988-89 season. Buffalo was 12-4 and believed to be even better than their record, but so were the 10-6 Oilers. Houston snuck past the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card Round to earn the right to visit Buffalo in the Divisional Round. They wouldn’t capitalize on that opportunity. Defense would reign supreme, as both Jim Kelly and Warren Moon would have mediocre days with no passing TDs whatsoever. A second quarter Robb Riddick rushing TD would give Buffalo a 7-0 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
In a dominant defensive performance, featuring five force fumbles and an interception, Buffalo allowed only a single field goal all the way up until a late garbage-time TD made it 17-10. It wasn’t the game fans had expected, but on a cool January night, the Bills were the victors. The two teams wouldn’t have another game of any real importance until the 1992 season.
The Comeback (January 3rd, 1992)
Setting the Stage
In Week 17 of the 1992 season, Buffalo traveled to Houston to make the formality of ending the season when the postseason was already a guarantee. Though already injured heavily going into the game, Buffalo could secure a bye week as the #1 overall seed with a win, so they started Jim Kelly and crew against a vicious Oilers defense. It would not pay off, as Kelly would be injured in the contest and his backup, Frank Reich, would fail to impress in what was a one-sided loss.
Furthermore, Buffalo now had to manage injuries to Cornelius Bennett, Bruce Smith, Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Darryl Talley, and Don Beebe to name a few. For their efforts against us to close the year, Houston earned the right to play as the Wild Card, traveling right back to Buffalo to put a beaten and battered Bills team to bed.
A Game for the Ages
Things got ugly, fast. Reich’s play had been subpar, to say the least, though perhaps it was the Oilers’ defense that made plays. Regardless, we were down 28-3 at the half, with no sign of stemming the bleeding. Houston didn’t let up to start the third quarter either, scoring six on a pick just under two minutes in. Houston had their infamous 32-point lead. The only way to go was up for Buffalo.
They didn’t waste any more time. As fans exited the game in droves, Houston made their first fatal mistake. A mishandled kickoff sent a line-drive kick into Mark Maddox, who jumped on it to secure great field position to start the next Buffalo drive. Reich, who engineered the greatest college comeback of all time at Maryland, had a chance to make history repeat itself. They would take advantage as Kenneth Davis put Buffalo back on the board. Then came the famous ‘Suicide Onside’. Steve Christie rolled the ball exactly ten yards, then hopped on it to recover the possession himself.
As fans began to re-enter the stadium, Reich threw touchdowns to Beebe and Reed on consecutive drives. Then, Henry Jones stole a high pass off the fingertips of Webster Slaughter to gift us another possession.
The game slowed down, finally, after one of the most incredible quarters in NFL history. A pair of unsuccessful drives from both sides gave the Oilers a moment to breathe, but it didn’t last long. A missed field goal by Houston led to Andre Reed’s third receiving TD and Buffalo’s first lead of the game. Al Del Greco sent the game to overtime with a last-second field goal. Nate Odomes would call game, picking of Warren Moon to gift Steve Christie the chance at the game-winner, which he nailed. ‘The Comeback’ was complete, and a monumental piece of NFL history was in the record books.
For my full length re-telling of this epic comeback story, click the link below!
Interlude: From Houston to Nashville
|Buf 24-27 Hou||Buf 3-27 Hou||Hou 38-41 Buf||Hou 7-35 Buf|
|Buf 15-7 Hou||Hou 28-17 Buf||Buf 14-31 Ten||Buf 16-22 Ten|
In 1997, The Oilers’ owner’s 16-year long barrage of threats to move the team came true, and the team ended up in Tennessee. After two seasons as the Tennessee Oilers, they would rename themselves the Tennessee Titans in 1999.
Music City ‘Miracle’ (January 8th, 2000)
They were still, however, the same franchise we’d pulled off the greatest comeback of all time against, and that kind of slight doesn’t fade when you move house. After the absolute debacle seven years previously, perhaps the Bills were due their comeuppance.
A QB Change
With the 1999 NFL season pretty much over and the final game of the season meaningless, the Buffalo Bills chose to rest starting QB Doug Flutie during the final week of the season, amongst other starters. Backup QB Rob Johnson, who had been awful in his four games to start the season, would play a great game to win the season finale. The story should have ended there. Instead, shortly before the game, coach Wade Phillips would name Johnson the starter, seemingly without prompt. Despite Flutie’s excellent play elevating the roster to playoff contention, and taking them from Johnson’s 1-3 start to 9-6, he had been benched.
The first quarter was scoreless, as both offenses floundered. The sudden exchange of quarterbacks would cause a bevy of problems for Buffalo, as Johnson would be sacked in the end-zone for a safety to open the scoring. Steve McNair was ineffective for the Titans at QB as well, but his one-yard rush gave Tennessee a two-score lead. More poor play from a bewildered offense left the Bills scoreless at the half, as Al Del Greco hit a 40-yard field goal (after a Buffalo penalty on his 45-yard miss the play before) to make it 12-0 as the half expired. Still, Johnson was under center, and Flutie was on the bench.
Buffalo found their footing in the second half, but it wasn’t because of better QB play. Antowain Smith’s 44-yard run and subsequent four-yard touchdown would get us into the game once more. Further ineptitude on offense and aptitude on defense would result in the rest of the third quarter remaining scoreless beyond that drive. But the score was close and a single play could change the game. Enter Eric Moulds. His 37-yard reception, combined with a convenient 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, put us in scoring position. Then, Antowain Smith punched it in again. The two-point conversion failed as WR Kevin Williams dropped the pass in the end zone, but Buffalo had a 13-12 lead.
The Titans would secure solid field position after a mediocre punt and a good return late in the game, and Buffalo would concede a shaky Del Greco field goal to shed their lead with under two minutes remaining. Tennessee was up 15-13. Rob Johnson finally remembered how to play QB, engineering a 37-yard drive to put Buffalo on the opposing 24-yard line with 20 seconds left. Buffalo’s Special Teams Coordinator, Bruce DeHaven, wanted to run one more play to take time off the clock and potentially make for an easier kick attempt, but was overruled by Wade Phillips in favor of trying to take the points right then and there. Steve Christie and the kicking team would take the field, putting a 41-yarder through the uprights with a lowly 16 seconds remaining. They should have listened to DeHaven.
The Play of the Game
A mass of injuries to Buffalo, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, meant that their kickoff unit was playing severely undermanned. Lorenzo Neal would field the kick, before handing it to Frank Wycheck. The coverage team would break their return lanes to chase the carrier, but Wycheck would throw the ball down the line across the field to Kevin Dyson. He had blockers in front of him and only one Bills player who hadn’t broken formation to rush after the returner: Steve Christie. Christie did all he could, fighting through blockers to try and make the tackle, but he was only one man, and didn’t stand a chance. Dyson’s ran the down the sideline to the endzone for the victory. That famed and infamous throw looked like a forward pass in the real-time broadcast and would be controversial for a long time after the game was over.
Here’s the original television broadcast, so you can decide the legitimacy of the play for yourself.
Buffalo let victory slip away, and wouldn’t return to the postseason for another 18 years, on the backs of Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, and some help from the Cincinnati Bengals.
|Ten 13-16 Buf||Buf 26-28 Ten||Ten 30-29 Buf||Buf 17-41 Ten||Ten 23-17 Buf|
|Ten 35-34 Buf||Buf 14-13 Ten||Ten 12-13 Buf||Buf 14-7 Ten||Buf 16-42 Ten|
Tuesday Night Football (October 13th, 2020)
The Titans had 24 players and staff test positive for Covid-19 in the weeks leading up to this game. It was the worst outbreak of the season – bar none. The NFL did everything it could in 2020 to get Tennessee to play, instead of further rescheduling, despite ruining the Bills’ schedule for two full weeks in order to pull it off. Tennessee could have simply played unmanned, as per the protocols lined out before the season, but the Commisioner’s Office ruled otherwise.
They didn’t want to lose the revenue of a big game between two teams contending for the AFC crown, nor did they want to admit that the Covid-19 pandemic was forcing them into something drastic, so the league opted to repeatedly and randomly move the game until the Titans outbreak was ‘contained’. Tennessee was suspected, at the time, of breaking the league’s Covid protocols, and they would have been subject to forfeiture of the game and worse if found guilty, but the NFL wouldn’t probe into this until far too late to matter.
Regardless of the entire scenario, when we woke up on game day, we still weren’t sure if we’d even be playing. Sadly, it didn’t get better from there. The offense took the field after the opening kickoff was brought out to our 20-yard line, and Josh Allen’s first pass attempt ricocheted off the hands of Andre Roberts and into the arms of the Titans’ Malcolm Butler. He returned it to the Buffalo 16, where the Titans punched it in to take the lead after only two plays.
Buffalo would respond with a long drive culminating in a short TD on a flip pass to Isaiah McKenzie, and the game was level once more. A quick punt followed from Tennessee, then one from us; A punt which Kalif Raymond would return all the way to our 30-yard line. For the second time this game, the Titans were awarded incredible field position, and the battle was being lost consistently on special teams.
They punched in a Derrick Henry TD from the one-yard line, before we responded with a long drive which Tyler Bass put through the uprights for three more points. At 14-10, things looked manageable. Until they didn’t, that is. Another set of exchanged punts, and we finally put our opponents in bad field position. It didn’t matter. Tennessee would march 90 yards for a late touchdown score to close the half, and we’d go into the locker room 11 points in the hole, desperate for a way out.
Forcing a punt to start the second half was a good step, but an ill-advised throw to Gabriel Davis would cost us a would-be red zone possession, and the 68-yard return would put us on the back foot once again, with the ball sitting at our own 12. The Titans would gain a commanding lead with a Jonnu Smith touchdown, and sit pretty at 28-10. Buffalo had the ball again, with miserable field position, but managed to sling together a 14-play touchdown drive which featured three third down conversions of various lengths when we absolutely had to have them.
The 2020 offense was incredible, but it didn’t get a chance to try and win this one in the end. Tennessee’s ensuing possession would go for a TD, and a muffed kickoff return would put them right back on our doorstep. Down a shocking, painful 42-16, Buffalo threw in the towel, and the backups took the field with under two minutes remaining.
It’s been one heck of a year since then, and the embarrassing loss to the Titans is inarguably one of the few remaining blemishes on one of the greatest seasons the Buffalo Bills ever had. We’ve corrected the injustices of the AFC Championship game, returned our defense to the form of that 2019 squad, and have but a single ‘Titan’ left to slay before our bye week. Don’t forget to tune in to Monday Night Football.
Check back after the bye week for the next edition of rivalry history as we tackle the Miami Dolphins once more!