September 1, 2010

1991: Kelly & Thomas Lead Bills to Win Over Miami

The Buffalo Bills, defending AFC Champions, opened the 1991 season by hosting the division rival Miami Dolphins at Rich Stadium on September 1. Under Head Coach Marv Levy, the Bills had utilized a quick-striking offense and solid defense to win the AFC East for the third consecutive year in ’90 with a 13-3 record and came within a missed field goal of winning the Super Bowl. Two of the key players on offense had been QB Jim Kelly (pictured at right), in his prime at age 31, and RB Thurman Thomas.

Head Coach Don Shula’s Dolphins finished right behind Buffalo with a 12-4 tally in 1990, qualifying for a wild card playoff spot and losing to the Bills in the divisional round. Entering the new season, the passing of ninth year QB Dan Marino was still central to the offense, while fumble-prone RB Sammie Smith had suffered a knee injury during the preseason; unheralded Mark Higgs was the opening day starter.

The Dolphins took the early advantage. After Scott Norwood missed a 25-yard field goal on Buffalo’s opening drive, Miami struck quickly with a 43-yard touchdown pass from Marino to WR Mark Clayton on a flea-flicker play. On their next possession, the Dolphins drove 65 yards in 10 plays, capped by Higgs scoring on a three-yard TD run, and were staked to a 14-0 lead.

The Bills came back as Kelly connected with WR Andre Reed on a 54-yard touchdown pass play, and that was it for the first half scoring. The Dolphins had passed the ball just nine times while Higgs (pictured at left) had gained 80 yards on 15 carries.

Miami led off the scoring in the third quarter as Charlie Baumann kicked a 21-yard field goal. Kelly had to briefly leave the game due to injury on Buffalo’s ensuing possession, but backup QB Frank Reich completed both of his passes, including a three-yard touchdown throw to TE Butch Rolle that narrowed the Miami margin to 17-14.

The Dolphins were forced to punt on their next series, and Kelly returned to the contest and passed to Thomas for a touchdown play that covered 50 yards and put the Bills ahead for the first time at 21-17.

Miami went three-and-out but got a break when DE T.J. Turner recovered a fumble by Buffalo WR Don Beebe at the Bills 44 yard line. Seven plays later Marino hit Clayton with a pass into the end zone from five yards out, and the Dolphins were back in front at 24-21 early in the fourth quarter. The quick-striking Bills came back with a six-play series that ended in a one-yard TD run by FB Carwell Gardner.

The key turnover of the game came on Miami’s next possession as Buffalo FS Mark Kelso recovered a fumble by Higgs near midfield. The Bills scored seven plays later when Thomas ran in from seven yards. While Marino threw another touchdown pass, this time to WR Mark Duper for three yards, it was too little, too late as Buffalo held on to win by a score of 35-31.

It was an impressive display by the Bills offense, which rolled up a club record 593 yards. Jim Kelly completed 29 of 39 passes for 381 yards with two TDs and one intercepted. Thurman Thomas ran the ball 25 times for 165 yards and a TD and also gained another 103 yards on 8 pass receptions that included another score. However, it was Andre Reed, another significant member of the offense, leading the team in pass receiving with 11 catches for 154 yards and a TD.

In defeat, Dan Marino had been successful on 17 of 28 passes for 267 yards with three touchdowns and none intercepted. Mark Higgs gained an impressive 146 yards on 30 carries with a touchdown, but also suffered the key fumble. Mark Clayton caught 6 passes for 138 yards and two TDs.

Buffalo again went on to win the AFC East with a 10-6 record and appeared in the Super Bowl for the second straight year, losing convincingly to the Washington Redskins. Miami finished at 8-8 and in third place in the division, just missing out on a wild card spot due to having been swept by the Jets in the season series, who also finished with the same record.

Jim Kelly led the AFC in passing with a 97.6 rating, and topped the NFL in touchdown passes (33) and percentage of TD passes (7.0) while finishing third with 3844 yards through the air. Thurman Thomas (pictured below) was the AFC’s top rusher with 1407 yards on 288 attempts and the NFL’s all-purpose yardage leader with 2038.