January 3, 2011
The Buffalo Bills, under Head Coach Marv Levy, had been AFC Champions in 1990 and ’91 and went 11-5 in 1992 to finish second in the AFC East (to Miami, due to the conference record tiebreaker). They had lost the Super Bowls following those previous conference titles, and their road to another shot required them to host the Houston Oilers on January 3, 1993 in the Wild Card playoff round.
The team’s veteran core was still intact. RB Thurman Thomas ran for 1487 yards and caught 56 passes for 626 more to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2113) for the fourth straight year. WR Andre Reed caught 65 passes for 913 yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fifth consecutive season. OT Will Wolford and G Jim Ritcher anchored a solid offensive line. Defensively, DE Bruce Smith, LB Cornelius Bennett, CB Nate Odomes, and SS Henry Jones all had Pro Bowl years. However, QB Jim Kelly had slumped toward the end of the season, and a knee injury in the last game forced him to miss the playoff contest against Houston – backup QB Frank Reich (pictured above) would be starting.
The Houston Oilers, who finished second in the AFC Central with a 10-6 record, were also not recent strangers to the postseason – they had qualified for the playoffs for the sixth straight year. However, they had not made it beyond the divisional round in any of those seasons, leading the club to gain a reputation for choking in big games. Coached since 1990 by the low-key Jack Pardee, they utilized a run-and-shoot offense that was run effectively by 36-year-old QB Warren Moon (pictured below left) and included three wide receivers that were chosen for the Pro Bowl in Haywood Jeffires, Curtis Duncan, and Ernest Givins. RB Lorenzo White ran for 1226 yards and caught 57 passes. But while they could run up points, the defense was prone to blowing leads – a factor that would come into play in classic fashion in the playoff game at Buffalo.
There were 75,141 fans present at Rich Stadium, and for the first half of the contest they had little to cheer about. The Oilers took the opening kickoff and drove 80 yards in 14 plays, culminating in a three-yard touchdown pass from Moon to Jeffires. Buffalo responded with a 10-play drive that led to a 36-yard field goal by Steve Christie and the score was 7-3 after one quarter.
Houston took control in the second quarter. They finished off another long, 12-play drive, again covering 80 yards, with Givins hauling in four passes along the way for 41 yards. It was WR Webster Slaughter finishing off the possession, however, as Moon threw to him for a seven-yard TD. Buffalo went three-and-out, and the Oilers again drove to a touchdown. This time it took only five plays to go 67 yards and Moon threw a 26-yard scoring pass to Duncan. It was 21-3 with just over four minutes remaining in the half.
Buffalo was able to put together a drive in its next possession, but after getting to the Houston 32, Reich threw an incomplete pass on fourth-and-four and the Oilers took over on downs. Moon capped an eight-play drive with his fourth touchdown pass of the day, covering 27 yards to Jeffires, and Houston took a big 28-3 margin into halftime.
The Bills received the second half kickoff, and four plays later Reich, throwing out of the shotgun formation, was intercepted by safety Bubba McDowell, who returned it 58 yards for another Houston touchdown. The score was now 35-3, and it seemed as though the Oilers had the game well in hand.
Buffalo put together a scoring drive, converting a third-and-15 situation (Reich pass to Reed for 16 yards) and fourth-and-two (RB Kenneth Davis running for five yards) along the way. Davis ran for a one-yard touchdown and the score was now 35-10.
The Bills executed a successful onside kick, and four plays later Reich threw to WR Don Beebe for a 38-yard touchdown that made it 35-17. Houston went three-and-out on its next possession, and following a short punt the Bills moved swiftly down the field on yet another scoring drive. Reich completed passes of 18 yards to WR James Lofton, 39 yards to Beebe, and 19 to Davis before hitting Reed for a 26-yard touchdown. Houston’s margin was now down to 35-24, and Buffalo wasn’t done yet in the third quarter.
The Oilers got the ball back, and Moon was intercepted by Henry Jones, who returned it 15 yards to the Houston 23. Reich threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Reed on a fourth-and-five play, and with yet another successful Christie PAT, it was now a four-point game at 35-31.
The reeling Oilers were unable to get anything going on their next possession, as Moon completed one of three passes and was sacked once (he fumbled, but Houston recovered). The decision by the Bills to abandon the six-defensive back prevent defense of the first half and return to their standard alignment was proving effective.
Having scored 28 points in the third quarter, Buffalo’s offense finally stalled to begin the fourth period and the Bills went three-and-out. Houston’s offense began to move, with Moon hitting on six passes, including one to Givins for 27 yards. An apparent interception was wiped out by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Bruce Smith, but after getting to the Buffalo 14, a field goal attempt was botched when Montgomery, the holder for placekicks as well as punter, fumbled the snap.
The Bills drove down field, going 74 yards on a possession that featured a 35-yard run by Davis. Reich again threw to Reed for a 17-yard touchdown, and Buffalo was ahead by 38-35, having scored 35 unanswered points since the interception return by McDowell early in the third quarter.
With three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Moon once more led the Oilers on a methodical drive that covered 63 yards in 12 plays. Al Del Greco kicked a 26-yard field goal with 15 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the score at 38-38 and send the game into overtime.
Houston won the toss for the overtime period, but on the third play Moon was intercepted by Odomes, who returned it to the Houston 35 (a facemask penalty on Jeffires moved the ball another 15 yards closer). Following two short runs by Davis, Christie kicked a 32-yard field goal at just over three minutes into OT and Buffalo, having made the biggest comeback in NFL history, came away with a 41-38 win.
Houston outgained the Bills (429 yards to 366) and had more first downs (27 to 19), but the inability to stop Buffalo’s attack in the second half and the interception in overtime sealed the Oilers’ fate.
Frank Reich completed 21 of 34 passes for 289 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. Andre Reed (pictured below) caught 8 passes for 136 yards and scored three of the TDs. Kenneth Davis led the Bills in rushing with 68 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown (Thurman Thomas, who left the game in the third quarter due to a hip injury, had 26 yards on 11 attempts).
Warren Moon went to the air 50 times with 36 completions for 371 yards and four touchdowns against two big interceptions. Ernest Givins caught 9 passes for 117 yards while Haywood Jeffires, Webster Slaughter, and Curtis Duncan all grabbed 8 apiece (for 98, 73, and 57 yards, respectively). Lorenzo White ran for 75 yards on 19 carries.
For Reich, the big comeback was not a first – playing at the college level in 1984, he had led Maryland to a 42-40 win over Miami after trailing 31-0 at halftime. Asked afterward if he thought back to that earlier comeback, he replied, “Many times. As a football player, you gear your mind to not thinking in terms of how far behind you are. We're so geared to the game not being over until the final whistle blows.”
“I've never seen momentum change like that in my life,” said a disappointed Warren Moon afterward. “We had control of this ball game like no other team has had control of the ball game.”
The Bills won their next two games, over Pittsburgh in the Divisional playoff and Miami for the AFC Championship; however, their futility in the Super Bowl continued as they lost by a 52-17 margin to the Dallas Cowboys.