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Kelly vs. Marino: Rivalry History

Kelly vs. Marino was one of the best rivalries back in their prime. This week, we take a deep dive into what made this rivalry so special.



For last week’s rivalry history, against the Tennessee Titans, click here.

For the second time this season, the Buffalo Bills take on the Miami Dolphins as part of one of the more interesting rivalries in NFL history. During our first matchup against this season, we covered the Buffalo-Miami story so far, dating all the way back to their first matchup in 1966. There was, however, one spot in this lengthy tapestry that we didn’t get to talk about. In the single greatest era of Bills history, one legendary AFC rivalry loomed above them all, even if it was a little one-sided. This is the Kelly-Marino story.

The 1983 NFL Draft

One of the most legendary quarterback classes in NFL history was introduced to the league in 1983 at New York’s Sheraton Hotel. The first-round selections as a whole would feature 15 men who made the Pro Bowl and seven Hall of Fame inductees, but the story was always about the signal-callers under center. Buffalo selected tight end, Tony Hunter, with their first-rounder, at 12th overall, then used a pick traded from the Cleveland Browns to select Jim Kelly at 14th; A pick that, strangely enough, they owed to O.J. Simpson. Read about it here. Dan Marino would be selected by Miami at 27th, the second-last pick of the first round.

From here, their paths would diverge, though both players were selected in the brand-new USFL draft (Marino as the first-overall, Kelly at 163rd in the 14th round) as Marino signed with the Dolphins and sat behind David Woodley.

Kelly was persuaded to sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers; His lack of faith in Ralph Wilson to build a championship team, as well as unwillingness to play in cold weather, was a huge factor. While Kelly gambled his career with the Gamblers, Marino made his first career start against the Bills in October. As an individual, Marino blew the doors off the league that day, but his Dolphins fell short to Wall of Fame QB Joe Ferguson in the best game of his career. Kelly would return to the NFL after the USFL’s collapse in 1986, but his play had impressed. Finally, the two men could go head to head.

Rivalry Roots

They met on the field on October 12th, 1986, and the story began. The crowd didn’t know just what they were witnessing the beginning of, as the cold day featured little in the way of elite quarterback play, but Miami was the victor in the end. The second game was another tough loss for the Bills, but Kelly was a bright spark giving this team life on a terrible team. Then, things changed for the better. You see, Miami had beaten the Bills 20 consecutive times from 1970 to 1980 and only lost twice in the years between then and 1987. It didn’t take long to flip the script.

When these two quarterbacks next met, in 1987, they’d deliver us one of the greatest games in Bills history. It had been a poor start to the game for Buffalo, as Kelly and company had struggled to move the ball, and Marino was dealing darts to our defense. Three touchdown passes opened the game for Miami, with the Bills unable to answer; We were in the hole early. By the time the first half had begun to close, Marino’s Dolphins were comfortably up 21-0, the shutout only broken by a half-ending Scott Norwood field goal from 41 yards out.

Kelly came out after halftime a new man and put the team on his back. He brought Buffalo to the one-yard line, then handed the ball off to Robb Riddick to punch it in for six. The defense finally got a stop, and Kelly responded with another great drive, feeding the ball to Chris Burkett on a 14-yard touchdown to draw his team back within four. The momentum had swung in Kelly’s favor, and he wouldn’t wait long before striking again. Marino got the Dolphins into field goal range to secure a seven-point lead, but there were still 12 minutes on the clock.

Kelly slung the rock, hitting TE Pete Metzelaars and WRs Chris Burkett and Andre Reed to get to the one-yard line, letting Robb Riddick take care of the rock from there. It was a tied game, but Marino wouldn’t stay down for long, and the Bills knew it. On the next Buffalo drive, Riddick was once again the beneficiary of Kelly’s incredible game, picking up a 17-yard touchdown reception to put the boys in blue up by seven.

The Miami counterpunch was quick and effective, as Marino’s fourth touchdown of the day would bring things level once again, with only a minute remaining. Overtime loomed, but Jim Kelly loomed larger, engineering a brilliant field-goal drive to win the game as the two QBs would combine for 662 passing yards and six touchdowns on the day. Buffalo went 7-8, beating Marino twice en route to their best season in four years, and they didn’t stop there.

Two years later, another legendary battle between these two came down to the wire. This game was one of the most tightly contested showdowns in team history and a prime example of Kelly’s grit and determination. Finishing the previous season first in the AFC East, the Bills had firmly supplanted the Dolphins as the best team in the division, and the 1989 season opener was Miami’s best chance to change that. Both teams came out to a sluggish start, with the only score of the first 24 minutes belonging to a Scott Norwood field goal, but, before the half, the Floridian Fins found pay dirt. Forcing a touchdown to make it 7-3, Miami quickly recovered the ball and scored a field goal to close out the first half, and Buffalo was down again. With Kelly under center, you could never count the Bills out.

The second half’s opening drive was a testament to that fact. We drove down the field, handing the ball off on the two-yard line to Larry Kinnebrew for the game-tying touchdown, and things looked to be back on track. Unfortunately, anything can happen between the whistles and the blocked punt, which Miami returned for a touchdown quickly put them back up by seven. The game would stall over the next 18 minutes, with the only score being a Norwood field goal to close things up a little.

Marino was too good to be kept out of the end zone, and with only about four minutes left in the game, he flipped an eight-yard touchdown pass to Andre Brown, putting Miami up 10. Things looked bleak, but Kelly’s toughness reigned supreme as he marched the offense down the field in less than a minute and a half for a 26-yard throw to Flip Johnson in the endzone, putting us within striking distance again.

Marv Levy’s call to kick the full field was controversial, but the game had been hard-fought by the defense, and he believed in them to make the plays needed to get the ball back. Nate Odomes answered that call, hauling in an interception at midfield with just under two minutes to go. Kelly put the team on his back, driving to the two-yard line, knowing a field goal wasn’t enough, completing all five of his passes (not counting an incompletion when he drew Miami offside), but we were out of time. With two seconds remaining, he had one play to get the ball two yards into the endzone.

Iestyn T Harris on Twitter: “It’s Dolphins week once again, and as a Bills history guy, I wanna remind everyone about week one, 1989. #BillsMafia / Twitter”

It’s Dolphins week once again, and as a Bills history guy, I wanna remind everyone about week one, 1989. #BillsMafia

The stadium was silenced, and the Dolphins stormed off the field in a rage, as the Bills and what few Buffalo fans were in attendance down in Florida screamed at the top of their lungs. The win streak continued in unlikely fashion, and we had another Kelly-Marino game we wouldn’t soon forget.

Bowl-Bound Bills

Still, the Buffalo Bills hadn’t had enough. There was more left in the tank than anyone had bargained for, and the battle raged on. The 1990-91 AFC Divisional round, the first meeting of these two in the playoffs, was one for the record books.

Jim Kelly ripped the game open with a 40-yard touchdown pass to Andre Reed, and they didn’t slow down until the final whistle. Marino was in for a good day, but the team around him was already struggling; Right after they snuck a long-distance field goal through the uprights, we put up two of our own and then opened the second quarter with a Thurman Thomas rushing touchdown to make in 20-3.

The Buffalo defense was making quick work of the limited talent surrounding Kelly’s favorite rival, but you could always count on Dan to break through eventually. He slung a whopping 64-yarder to Mark Duper, bringing the Dolphins back within two scores, and the two offenses would carve each other’s defenses apart again, trading touchdown drives to close out the half. Dan Marino’s two-yard goal-line scamper as the half drew to a close felt eerily similar to Kelly’s own one two years previously.

A quiet third quarter ensued, as the two sides slowed one another’s efforts, and the battle became one of field position, not points. It wouldn’t stay that way for long, as the Marino got the ball rolling again, navigating an excellent Buffalo defense with ease before passing a two-yard touchdown to his offensive lineman, guard Roy Foster. It was a three-point game, and the offense needed to secure points to put it all away. Kelly led the team down the field again, going 63 yards in ten plays.

By way of a conversion on fourth down and a timely eight-yard scramble, Kelly put us in a position to score, and Thurman Thomas punched it in. On the kickoff, linebacker Hal Garner forced a fumble, which Scott Norwood recovered, and we had the ball in Miami territory again. In only two plays, Kelly connected with Reed for his second touchdown catch of the day. Up 44-27 with ten minutes remaining, Buffalo sat on their haunches, played consistent defense, and allowed only one garbage-time touchdown as the game drew to a close, with snow gathering across the field. Miami had been knocked out of the playoffs, and it wouldn’t be the last time Buffalo did it to them.

“I don’t know how it got started, it was a long time before I got here, but these two teams don’t like each other. It’s like the Game of the Year every time we play them.”

Richmond Webb, Miami OL, 1992-93

The next time they met in the playoffs, the stakes were even higher. The 1992 NFL season was all but over, and there were only a few games left to be played. Notably, the Bills were visiting the Dolphins once more in Joe Robbie Stadium. The weather was clear- perfect passing weather- as those in attendance anxiously awaited yet another great bout between two of the NFL’s elite signal-callers. They didn’t get what they asked for. The men would throw a combined four interceptions and two touchdowns in a game that was as dull as it was important.

By 13 minutes into the game, the crowds were relatively quiet, the score only 3-3 after Steve Christie’s field goal was answered by one from Pete Stoyanovich. The Bills broke the deadlock right away, taking under three minutes to score on a screen pass to Thurman Thomas, and they didn’t look back even once. Only two minutes later, Buffalo has secured the ball again and kicked a second field goal.

The game was slowed than most had expected, and seats began to empty out in Miami as the third quarter began with yet another two-minute scoring drive, ending with a Kenneth Davis rushing touchdown. Marino finally had a bad game, and the Bills scored another two field goals. They moved the ball well, getting right down to the goal line before nearly every kick; After five kicks on the day from Christie, his average distance was under 29 yards per make. Marino’s late surge was far too little too late, and the team had clearly deflated as the game wore on, energy matched by what little was left of the Miami crowd. Kelly’s Bills would go on to their third consecutive Superbowl appearance.

Kelly’s Last Laugh

By this point, you may be wondering: Was this even a rivalry? It seems that the Buffalo Bills beat down on Miami at every turn. It’s true. The rivalry was won by Kelly time and time again. Still, Marino didn’t have the same support that Kelly had (it turns out Ralph Wilson could assemble a team after all), though his play was arguably some of the best from any quarterback in NFL history. Still, the boys in Western New York were kryptonite to the Floridians, and, in one of their final matchups, Kelly would have the final say.

For the final time, Jim Kelly would play playoff host to the Dan Marino Dolphins in the 1995-96 Wild Card round. To say that Marv Levy had the Dolphins figured out would be an understatement of massive proportions. The offense used their consistent favorable field position to take an early lead, one they wouldn’t relinquish.

In eight minutes, we’d led two scoring drives, ending in a Thurman Thomas rushing touchdown and a Steve Christie field goal, and Marino couldn’t get Miami going. As the Dolphins stalled out over and over again, Buffalo leaned on their effective rushing game to keep the ball out of the opposing QB’s hands as best they could to limit possessions. After a 21-yard run by Darick Holmes and a 37-yard touchdown pass to Steve Tasker, Buffalo held a commanding 24-0 halftime lead. Miami came out swinging but couldn’t connect on meaningful plays, and by the end of the third quarter, the Dolphins were down 27-0.

We modified our defense to force them to play in-bounds, letting us control the clock, and Marino could finally open it up. Passing for 422 yards over his 33 completions wasn’t enough, as a breakaway Tim Tindale rushing touchdown and a final field goal allowed Buffalo to sit comfortably with our lead. Dan Marino’s 64 pass attempts were tied fourth-most in NFL history at the time and are still only 6 shy of the record to this day. After their careers, Kelly’s Bills led Marino’s Dolphins 16-8 when they were both on the rosters. In all three playoff games that these two battled out, Marino’s Dolphins didn’t own a lead for even a single second.

Saying Goodbye

Unfortunately, the end came for these legends before either one of them could secure the ever-elusive Superbowl title. Kelly had the chances but fell short against a scary-good NFC East each time, and Dan Marino didn’t get the opportunities you would expect from a player of his caliber due to Buffalo tripping them up at every turn. Their teams would fall to the wolves shortly after both of their respective retirements, and they’re fondly remembered for their ability to command an offense and the indomitable will they both possessed.

The two men would be voted in as first-ballot Hall of Famers, joining an elite class of players within the Hall to make it on their first year of eligibility. They turned out to be quite good friends once they stopped meeting on the field; Dan visited Jim when he was battling cancer, and the pair always find each other at events and gatherings to this day. They were each other’s greatest enemies and most respected rivals, on and off the field.

Look forward to rivalry history next week as we take on the Jacksonville Jaguars!

One of the owners The Sports Wave, and a Journalist at Buffalo Fanatics, I'm an English immigrant living in Canada. A huge Buffalo Bills fan, I also love my Boston Celtics, Toronto Blue Jays, and Queens Park Rangers.