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Buffalo Bills vs. Indianapolis Colts: Rivalry History

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The Buffalo Bills have played a lot of opponents this season, most of whom have been either AFL originals or recent expansion teams, but this time they’re neither. Buffalo has a lot of history against this team: an original 1953 NFL team, and former AFL-NFL merger division rival, The Indianapolis Colts. The two teams have experienced most of their memorable moments in the past few seasons (which we will get into). But, for this story, we must start at the beginning.

Buffalo-Baltimore Begins, Badly (1970-83)

These two first met in 1970, as the then-Baltimore Colts were moved from the new NFC to the AFC. They weren’t happy about that particular change, as the AFL was widely understood to be the inferior league. The move was considered an affront, but only the bottom NFL teams were elected to move to the AFC. This insult spurred them to greatness in quick succession.

Shockingly, that first game between the two franchises was a 17-17 tie, but if we thought we’d earned their respect we were wrong. They would finish as world champions over the Cowboys in Super Bowl V that very winter. Meanwhile, Buffalo won only eight games in the span of the next three seasons. We lost the next five games in the series, including a three-game shutout streak and a fourth game where we only scored seven total points. It was a dominant stretch by one of the best teams in the AFC against one of the worst. It was just further proof of the talent disparity between the original NFL and AFL teams at the time.

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Buffalo won the five matchups to follow, as the talent on teams from both conferences levelled out and the NFL we know today began to take shape. Buffalo didn’t truly find greatness during this era, but they found mediocrity, a step important unto itself. At this point, the Colts fell back to earth. These two teams became locked in a constant, fierce battle. Neither team truly won as the seasons rolled by with few playoff appearances for either side. Tragically, hard times fell on Baltimore as the Colts failed to fill their stadium from the early ‘70s up until their 1983 season. Things had to change.

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Big Changes

The strike-shortened 1982 season, in which the Colts went 0-8-1, was the final nail in the coffin for Baltimore. At the conclusion of their 1983 season, they relocated to Indianapolis permanently. The move was supposed to be controversial, but the Colts’ popularity had waned to the point where they no longer risked losing a fanbase if they moved. And so, the league changed shape again, as it had done a thousand times in a thousand ways before.

The Buffalo Bills were undergoing a change of their own, as they had started the process of becoming a perennial Super Bowl contender. Those legendary ‘Golden-Age’ Bills began to litter the roster. They didn’t know it yet, but these teams were about to hit some of the most memorable stretches in NFL history. As Buffalo climbed to the top of the AFC, the Colts had just one playoff berth during their first 11 seasons in Indianapolis, and no playoff wins.

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December 18, 1988

The Buffalo Bills went on a dominant stretch after Jim Kelly’s return from the USFL, and they were ready to make a Super Bowl run in 1988, but were hampered by a talented, persistent Indianapolis team. The 11-1 Bills lost two of their last three games going into the final week of the regular season, and the Colts needed a win to keep Buffalo from securing home field advantage.

The game opened with an Indy field goal. But, in a brutal defensive struggle, the Bills took a two touchdown lead thanks to Andre Reed’s second and fourth quarter scores. At 14-3, they had all the momentum, but Gary Hogeboom and company wouldn’t stay down. A long drive led to a Matt Bouza receiving touchdown. A quick recovery of the ball meant Indianapolis was in the driver’s seat. With just over a minute left in the game, the Colts took the lead, as Albert Bentley hauled in the game’s final score. Buffalo narrowly missed out on the top seed. As a result, they traveled to Cincinnati for the AFC Championship against the Bengals. They lost out to a dominant Bengals defense. They would have to wait two more years for their first crack at the Super Bowl.

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In 1996, the Bills and Colts traded overtime wins, each one by a score of 13-16, and each one featuring a fourth quarter comeback to force the overtime period.

September 21, 1997

Speaking of comebacks, let’s talk about the legendary showdown between these franchises early in the 1997 season. It was Week 4. Jim Harbaugh’s team travelled to Orchard Park to take on their ancient foes. In front of a sold out home crowd, the Buffalo Bills found themselves being booed quickly. You see, the Colts had kicked the door down on Rich Stadium. Opening the game with a short drive and punt, Buffalo thought things were starting off right… But the punt return was fumbled. The Colts took a 7-0 lead right after recovering it, then made it 14-0 off their third drive, before Buffalo fumbled another kickoff (but recovered the ball), putting themselves in a bad spot. A short punt gave the visitors good field position, and they forced three more turnovers en route to four straight field goals, putting Buffalo down 26-0 right out of the gate.

Buffalo got some momentum back, stealing 10 points from under their opponents as the first half expired, but they weren’t in great shape. Things started off slow after such an exciting first 30 minutes, but the action didn’t take long. A failed fourth-down conversion gave the Bills decent field position, which they turned into a 66-yard touchdown drive punched in by Antowain Smith. They fell short once more on a two-point conversion that would’ve made it a one-score game. Still, things were looking up. The defense stood tall to withstand a red zone drive from the leaders. On the ensuing drive, Buffalo got another touchdown, this one to Quinn Early.

Buffalo’s next drive went three plays to the endzone, featuring a 43-yard jaunt by Early and a one-yard gut punch from Smith, as Steve Christie’s extra point gave us the narrow lead. We then forced a fourth-down stop once more as Harbaugh and the Colts offense failed to keep their heads above water. As we tried to salt the game away, Antowain took the first play all the way to the house, scoring quickly and taking an eight-point lead. Indy wouldn’t bow out. Harbaugh got hurt on the next attempt, but his backup Paul Justin proved capable, leading them on a hurried touchdown drive. However, his two-point conversion to tie the game was unsuccessful. They recovered the onside kick, but their Hail Mary attempts were forced incomplete, then intercepted to seal the victory. It wasn’t the greatest comeback in Buffalo Bills history, but it was close.

1999-2001

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The Doug Flutie era in Buffalo ended when the Rob Johnson-led Bills leaned on Eric Moulds to inexplicably trounce Peyton Manning’s Colts at the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season. An affront which they gladly repaid with their 2001 slaughter, beating us by 16 points on two separate occasions. With that last laugh from Indianapolis, the divisions were rearranged, and the hatred that had once fueled these storied rivals dissipated.

Since You’ve Been Gone

These two teams each sat at the opposite ends of a rather broad spectrum at the time of their divorce, and the gap would only widen. Indianapolis would follow Manning to two Super Bowl appearances and one win, whilst Buffalo went through an 18-year playoff drought that tarnished the image of a once-proud franchise. The lone series bright spot of those early years was in 2008, when Buffalo played spoiler during the opening game in Lucas Oil Stadium, beating the Colts during the preseason.

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January 2, 2010

One of the most memorable games of the entire rivalry history took place on January 2nd, 2010. Memorable for Buffalo Bills fans, at least. Indianapolis was 14-1, having had their undefeated season ruined by the New York Jets (of all teams) the previous week. They fielded their starters to try and get some rhythm back ahead of their playoff run. A cold, snowy day in Orchard Park turned dangerous as conditions on the field worsened, and both teams had to adjust to run-heavy game plans as winds picked up. A quick three-and-out had Buffalo starting poorly, but only three plays later they would pick Peyton Manning off.

(Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

The offense would run through Fred Jackson on that bitter winter afternoon. The first points on the board came with his 11-yard touchdown reception from Ryan Fitzpatrick. The Colts responded well with a 13-play drive of their on to even things up, but the game slowed down. Manning would come out of the game after the first quarter, and his backup would be shredded by both the frigid conditions and the defense opposite him. Jackson ran circles around Indy, setting up a 21-yard touchdown to Lee Evans, before a forced fumble and an interception by the Buffalo defense preceded a booming 41-yarder to Terrell Owens and an eventual Rian Lindell field goal, respectively. They closed out the half comfortably, leading 24-7 over the visitors.

Indianapolis was known for making good adjustments, but they failed to do so in this one, turning the ball over on downs to open the second half. Buffalo followed up with two more successful field goal drives before both teams called it quits, punting back and forth in the cold and snow as Jackson ended the season as the NFL’s leader in all-purpose yards.

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The Snow Bowl (December 10, 2017)

Strangely, that 2010 blizzard bowl wasn’t even close to the snowiest things have been between these two sides. During the 2017 drought-breaker season, players and fans alike could hardly see five feet in front of their faces. The Buffalo Bills were making a late playoff push, and needed to keep winning to stay in the hunt. The Colts season was almost done, with a loss officially knocking them out of playoff contention, but they weren’t about to roll over and play dead.

ORCHARD PARK, NY – DECEMBER 10: Buffalo Bills warm up in the snow before a game against the Indianapolis Colts on December 10, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Lake-effect snow had flooded the scene, and Nathan Peterman was starting in place of the injured Tyrod Taylor. Similar conditions had forced the relocation of a game between the Bills and Jets in 2014. However, due to the late hour in which the snow started to fall, the game proceeded at scheduled. The show must go on, after all. We won’t lie to you, the game was only as good as it was largely because of the absurdity of the whole thing. Unable to throw, unable to run, unable to kick, and unable to catch, the two teams had to creatively manage their game plans to move the ball, and it was largely ineffective.

As hard as it is to use the infamous Kelvin Benjamin and the word ‘excellent’ in the same sentence, that’s exactly what his first half touchdown catch was. Using his size to his advantage, he came down with a toe-tapper to finish Buffalo’s best drive of the game. At 7-0, and with conditions getting no better, the stadium was booming. However, by the time the second half came on, the crowds had already started to disperse.

The freezing conditions are tough to play in, but the players were accompanied by 60,000 fans stuck in their seats getting buried under more and more snow with each passing moment. Some of them simply opted for cozier abodes. The game grew less lively as the teams came out of the tunnel. As the third quarter drew on, everyone in the stadium stopped to appreciate a snowman built in the stands, as the sides punted back and forth for a while. Peterman left the game injured, but the passing game was largely a non-factor until that point anyway. Suddenly, as the fourth quarter crept ever closer, fullback Mike Tolbert burst through the line for the Bills, streaking up the field for what could well have been a breakaway touchdown, but fumbled at midfield to give the Colts a hefty advantage.

In that weather, chances like this were hard to come by, and Jacoby Brissett attempted to convert a fourth down from our 30-yard line out of necessity. He failed, and Buffalo returned to it’s war of attrition, which it had been winning. It didn’t stay that way for long. Indy was about to execute a drive that would have been legendary on any other Sunday. As the weather finally began to clear, the Colts converted two third downs and two fourth downs, marching 77 yards over the course of 20 plays, and nearly ten full minutes, to score a touchdown with only a minute to go.

They converted the two-point attempt to take the lead as the stadium was being vacated by most of the remaining home fans. Many of those fans didn’t realize that there was a late flag on the play, wiping away the conversion as the Colts were forced into a long PAT attempt. Adam Vinatieri barely curved it through the uprights to even the game up, and Buffalo had one minute to score any points for the win. They threw an interception instead, but Vinatieri swung the should-have-been game-winner wide in the waining seconds of regulation.

We started overtime with the ball, but a cowardly punt call on fourth and one in opposing territory gave it back to the Colts. They would return the favor, and Buffalo was awarded possession for the last time. Joe Webb connected with Deonte Thompson for a huge 34-yard reception to take the wind out of the defense. LeSean McCoy followed that up by streaking right through the line to the pylon for the walk-off touchdown.

Ultimately, the win kept the Bills alive on their journey to return to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Check out this short video to relive the exhilarating experience from the comfort of wherever you are now. Presumably it’s a little warmer than it was in the stands.

January 9, 2020

Finally, our most recent meeting is likely a favorite, when the Buffalo Bills played host to the Colts in the 2020-21 Wild Card round. Buffalo entered the game coming off a six-game win streak where they’d outscored their opponents 229-110, winning each game by a minimum of 10 points. That dominant stretch was a confidence booster, with both the team and fans setting their sights on Super Bowl LV. But, in order to make it, they had a few games to win first. They first one came against the Colts.

There was a lot of weight on the shoulders of Allen, who had taken the previous season’s Wild Card loss to the Houston Texans particularly hard. To shed that shame and prove to the NFL that he, alongside the rest of the franchise, was here to stay, was everything.

Things didn’t start they way he’d wanted. After our defense forced a punt on the opening drive, a swift three-and-out put Indianapolis back in the drivers seat. The “Bend Don’t Break” ideology of Leslie Frazier’s squad stood firm, as the Colts drove to the goal line before being forced into a chip-shot field goal. Josh and the offense answered back fast. Their quick 85-yard touchdown drive was all in the arm of Allen, who hit his targets in stride for some of the most incredible plays of his early career.

The foes traded punts again, but Philip Rivers was not to be denied. In five and a half minutes, he took his teammates to the Buffalo goal line; a drive highlighted by a beautiful deep ball to Michael Pittman Jr. Jonathan Taylor punched the ball in from the one-yard line to take a 10-7 lead. Buffalo suffered a further setback as they had another three-and-out. The Colts took full advantage of their good field position, getting all the way down to the Buffalo four-yard line. What followed was a stalwart performance from a front seven on the back foot, keeping their opponents out of the end zone on the next three attempts, and Rivers narrowly overthrew a streaking Pittman for what would have been the lead-taking touchdown. Instead, Buffalo had the ball again, on their own four-yard line, with under two minutes left on the clock.

Gabriel Davis reminded us that he should have been in ballet, as two separate big-time catches displayed his undeniable talent with his toes against the sideline. At the Indianapolis 26-yard line, Josh Allen drew the Colts offside on fourth down, securing a first down on a picked off free play. His next attempt was nearly picked too, but luckily it hit the turf. Josh opted for a ‘safer’ option, deciding to rush the ball twice, and finding paydirt on a 5-yard charge through four defenders to take a 14-10 lead at halftime.

Tyler Bass put his foot through the ball on the first drive of the second half, extending the lead to 17-10. Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship couldn’t do the same. His miss, which hit both uprights before bouncing out, gave Buffalo the ball back on their own 23-yard line. They took the ball the length of the field, losing Zack Moss in the process. Then, Allen hit Stefon Diggs in stride for a huge 35-yard touchdown.

Things were looking good, and the Bills sat pretty at 24-10, but Indy was in the playoffs for a reason. Their next drive went for six points, though a two-point conversion failed, and we had to bring the lead back up whilst simultaneously wasting the clock away. The legendary leg of Bass put though a whopping 54-yard field goal to put Buffalo back up 27-16, and all they had to do was hold on to their lead to advance to the next round.

Indianapolis wouldn’t be held, and they ended a short drive with three huge plays to score a much-needed touchdown. The two-point conversion attempt was successful this time, and they’d shrunk our lead to only three points. As the visitors opted against the onside kick, Buffalo had an opportunity to move the ball up field and finish the game with the rock in their hands. They encountered trouble, as a rabid Colts defensive line swarmed Allen, and though they moved the ball they failed to take enough time off the clock. A punt gave Indy only two and a half minutes with no timeouts.

They got the ball rolling right away, but then swiftly encountered a fourth down. They converted on a short rush, but followed up with three more incompletions leaving them at fourth and 10. Rivers lofted the ball to Zach Pascal, who made the catch, got up, and was promptly forced to fumble by Jordan Poyer, who had timed his hit to ensure Pascal was off the ground to force the turnover. The referees disagreed, and ultimately ruled Pascal down, despite evidence pointing to the contrary. After that conversion three more incompletions, featuring a mix of end zone shots and first-down attempts, put the Colts in a difficult spot. They were out of time, out of downs, and in desperate need of a miracle.

They wouldn’t get one, as Micah Hyde rose from the pack to knock the Hail Mary to the ground. Buffalo secured their first playoff win in 25 years. The Buffalo Bills advanced to the divisional round to face off against the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile, the Colts became the first team in NFL history to lose a playoff game despite totalling over 450 yards of offense and without committing a turnover.

Where will this go?

After all this time, the Buffalo Bills hold a narrow lead over the Colts all-time at 38-32-1. They look to extend that lead on Sunday, as they go up against Carson Wentz, and plenty of familiar faces from last seasons thrilling postseason back and forth. Can they extend their latest win streak to two, or do the Colts remember how to beat their former division rivals?

If you’re enjoying this series, check out last week’s edition against the New York Jets. And come back next week to hear about the rivalry history of the Buffalo Bills and the New Orleans Saints.