September 30, 2010
Both the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos had won two of their first three games of the 1990 season prior to meeting at Rich Stadium on September 30. The host Bills, under Head Coach Marv Levy, had won the AFC East title the previous two years, although with only a 9-7 record in ’89. The talented club had been mired in controversy in 1989, and had underachieved. Denver, coached by Dan Reeves for the preceding nine seasons, was the defending AFC champion, although the Broncos had been badly beaten in the Super Bowl by the 49ers.
The Broncos scored on the first possession of the game, going 80 yards in 12 plays with RB Bobby Humphrey running for a touchdown from a yard out. The teams traded fumbles, but there was no further scoring in the opening period.
The Bills blocked a 49-yard field goal attempt by David Treadwell early in the second quarter, but came up empty when Scott Norwood’s 47-yard attempt hit the right upright and bounced away. In their next possession, Bills QB Jim Kelly was intercepted by FS Steve Atwater, giving Denver good field position at the Buffalo 30 yard line. The Broncos capitalized as QB John Elway completed a 25-yard pass to WR Vance Johnson and two plays later RB Steve Sewell scored on another short touchdown run. Buffalo finally got on the board just before the end of the half on a 37-yard field goal by Norwood, but it was Denver leading comfortably by 14-3 at the intermission.
Buffalo got a break in the third quarter when DE Bruce Smith sacked Elway, forcing a fumble that LB Darryl Talley recovered for the Bills at the Denver 10. After Kelly was sacked for a two-yard loss, RB Don Smith ran for a 12-yard touchdown, but the extra point attempt failed. However, the Broncos extended their lead to 21-9 later in the period after a fumbled handoff to RB Thurman Thomas gave Denver the ball on the Buffalo 19. Following an Elway pass and a penalty on Bills LB Shane Conlan for a late hit, RB Sammy Winder ran for a three-yard touchdown.
With Denver seemingly in control in the fourth quarter, the game took a dramatic twist. The Broncos appeared set to score again, having driven to the Buffalo six yard line, but Treadwell’s field goal attempt was blocked by CB Nate Odomes – LB Cornelius Bennett (pictured at top) picked up the loose ball at the 20 and returned it for an 80-yard touchdown. Instead of being down 24-9, the Bills had cut the Denver margin to 21-16.
On the second play of Denver’s ensuing possession, an Elway pass was deflected at the line by DE Leon Seals and intercepted by safety Leonard Smith, who returned it 39 yards for another Buffalo TD. While Norwood missed the extra point attempt, the Bills had gone from being down by 12 points to up by one at 22-21. And it wasn’t over.
An illegal block on the kickoff return by the Broncos put the ball on the Denver five yard line. On the first play, Elway fumbled the snap and Cornelius Bennett recovered at the two. It took just one play for RB Kenneth Davis to run for a two-yard touchdown; this time the PAT attempt was successful and the Buffalo lead was now 29-21. The Bills had scored a total of 20 points in just 1:33 of playing time.
The shaken Broncos had to punt on their next possession after Bruce Smith again sacked Elway, this time for a ten-yard loss on a third-and-12 play. Buffalo moved into Denver territory, but Norwood’s 48-yard field goal attempt was wide to the right.
Now with under four minutes remaining, it looked as though the Broncos were finished when Elway threw three straight incompletions, but on fourth-and-ten he connected with WR Ricky Nattiel for a 20-yard gain to midfield. Suddenly, Elway was passing Denver downfield with four more completions that included a seven-yard TD to Nattiel - with the successful conversion, Buffalo’s lead was narrowed to one point. However, the onside kick was recovered by the Bills who were then able to run out the clock. The final score was 29-28 in favor of Buffalo.
It was a stunning win for the Bills, who were outgained by the Broncos, 410 yards to 197. Buffalo gained just 64 yards on the ground, to Denver’s 208. Bobby Humphrey (pictured above right) had an outstanding day running the ball, gaining 177 yards on 34 carries with one TD. John Elway completed 15 of 28 passes for 221 yards with a touchdown, but also with two interceptions (part of five overall turnovers by the Broncos). Ricky Nattiel was the club’s leading receiver with four catches for 62 yards and the TD.
Buffalo’s offensive performance was not strong. Reflecting the low rushing total, Thurman Thomas gained just 36 yards on 13 attempts – he caught four passes for 25 more yards. WR James Lofton also caught four passes, and led the Bills with 57 receiving yards. Jim Kelly completed 18 of 34 passes for 167 yards with no TDs and one interception.
The big defensive plays – including the one on special teams – made the difference in the outcome. Bruce Smith (pictured at left), with five tackles in addition to the two key sacks and the forced fumble, was recognized as the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Week, although there were several other members of the unit who played significant roles in the dramatic win.
The Bills won their next six games and 10 of 12 to finish the regular season at 13-3, winning a third straight AFC East title and this time advancing to the Super Bowl where they lost to the New York Giants by one point - the previous year’s underachievers broke through to a higher level, even if they fell short of the pinnacle. Denver, meanwhile, went in the opposite direction, losing 9 of the remaining 12 contests to end up at 5-11 and at the bottom of the AFC West.