The Buffalo Bills were at 1-1 and struggling as they traveled to Houston to take on the Oilers, also 1-1, on September 24, 1989. Head Coach Marv Levy’s team was coming off of a 12-4 division-winning year in ’88 and much was expected. The offensive nucleus of QB Jim Kelly (pictured above), RB Thurman Thomas, and WR Andre Reed was back, but Buffalo had problems with turnovers the previous week in a loss at home to Denver. The defense likewise had outstanding performers in DE Bruce Smith, LB Cornelius Bennett, and FS Mark Kelso.
Houston was coached by brash Jerry Glanville and went 10-6 in 1988. QB Warren Moon was a highly productive passer coming off of consecutive Pro Bowl years and he had a good group of receivers available. The defense had talent, too, and was very aggressive, but could also give up big plays. Still, they had been nearly impregnable at the Astrodome, which had come to be nicknamed “The House of Pain”.
There were 57,278 fans in attendance at the Astrodome. The Bills took the opening kickoff and advanced 55 yards in six plays. The big one was a pass from Jim Kelly to WR Flip Johnson for 36 yards to the Houston 30. The visitors picked up another five yards before Scott Norwood kicked a 43-yard field goal.
Houston responded with an eight-play, 70-yard scoring drive. Warren Moon completed two short passes before connecting with WR Drew Hill for a gain of 48 yards to the Buffalo one. Two plays later Moon went up the middle for the remaining yard and a touchdown. Tony Zendejas added the extra point and the Oilers were ahead by 7-3.
The Bills reached Houston territory on their next series but had to punt, although they got the ball back shortly thereafter when SS Leonard Smith intercepted a Moon pass and returned it 22 yards to the Oilers’ 23. It took four plays to reach the end zone as Thurman Thomas ran twice for 14 yards, Kelly passed to Andre Reed for three more, and then Thomas caught a pass for a six-yard TD. Norwood converted and Buffalo was ahead by 10-7, which remained the score at the end of the opening period.
Early in the second quarter, Moon had another pass picked off, this time by Mark Kelso (pictured at left), who ran it back 43 yards to the Houston 31. Thomas ran for 19 yards on the next play, but the drive stalled at the eight and Norwood kicked a field goal from 26 yards to extend the Buffalo lead to 13-7.
The Oilers came back with a long drive of 81 yards in 18 plays that ran 10:16 off the clock. Moon completed seven passes along the way, two of which converted third downs, each team was penalized twice, and Buffalo CB Derrick Burroughs had to be carried off the field on a stretcher (it would prove to be a career-ending neck injury). Zendejas kicked a 26-yard field goal to narrow the margin to 13-10.
The Bills got the ball back with 57 seconds left and had to punt from deep in their own territory. Houston had called its three timeouts during that series and regained possession at the Buffalo 39 following a 14-yard punt return by safety Kenny Johnson with the clock now down to 27 seconds. Moon completed one of three passes to move the Oilers ten yards closer, but the field goal attempt by Zendejas was blocked by LB Darryl Talley and Kelso returned it 76 yards for a touchdown. The Bills took a 20-10 lead into halftime.
Houston had the first possession in the third quarter and punted. The Bills extended their lead when Kelly fired long for WR Don Beebe on a third-and-eight play and it covered 63 yards for a TD. Norwood again added the extra point and the visitors were now up by a formidable 27-10 tally.
The Oilers responded by going 75 yards in 11 plays. Moon completed two passes and had a 12-yard scramble, although he was also sacked for a loss of 12 yards. RB Alonzo Highsmith twice converted third downs with runs of 13 and six yards, and it was Highsmith running for a four-yard touchdown. Zendejas converted and it was a ten-point game of 27-17.
The Bills were forced to punt on their next series, and now it was Houston’s turn to make a big special teams play. Kidd’s kick was blocked by rookie SS Bubba McDowell and CB Cris Dishman recovered and ran seven yards for a TD. Zendejas added the extra point and it was suddenly a three-point game at 27-24 with 27 seconds remaining in the period.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Kelly extended Buffalo’s lead by throwing to Reed for a 78-yard touchdown. Norwood made good on the PAT and the score was 34-24. Houston came back with a 76-yard drive in eight plays. Moon completed passes to WR Haywood Jeffires for 14 yards and WR Ernest Givins for 15, and finished off the series with another pass to Givins that was good for a 26-yard TD. Zendejas added the point after and the Oilers were just three points behind at 34-31.
The momentum continued to remain with Houston as a Kelly pass was intercepted by CB Steve Brown on the next possession and returned 41 yards to the Buffalo seven. Four plays later, RB Lorenzo White ran for a one-yard touchdown and, with Zendejas adding the PAT, the home team was now ahead by 38-34.
The Bills started their next series with 4:40 left in regulation and Kelly immediately hit on passes of 15 yards apiece to Johnson and TE Pete Metzelaars. Following a penalty on the Oilers, Thomas (pictured at right) caught a pass for five yards and then ran for another nine before Kelly threw to Reed for 14 yards to the Houston 20. Following an incomplete pass, Kelly was sacked by DE William Fuller for a six-yard loss, but the Bills scored when Kelly connected with Thomas for a 26-yard TD. Norwood’s conversion put the visitors up by three at 41-38.
The Oilers got the ball back following the kickoff at their own 13 with 1:52 left on the clock. Moon was sacked on first down but, digging out of the hole with a pass to Jeffires that initially appeared to have been fumbled, converted a fourth-and-three situation with a throw to Duncan for nine yards. Four more passes got the ball to the Buffalo 29, but a false start moved Houston back five yards. Zendejas came through with a 52-yard field goal to tie the score at 41-41 and send the game into overtime.
The Oilers had the first possession in OT and a third-and-ten pass from Moon to RB Alonzo Highsmith gained 32 yards to the Buffalo 49. A 17-yard run by Moon and a completion to Highsmith for 11 got the ball to the Buffalo 19, but a loss on a running play and a penalty backed the home team up. Still, it looked good for Houston when Zendejas came in to try for a 43-yard field goal, but his kick was blocked by LB Ray Bentley. The Oilers got a break when the Bills were called for being offside and Zendejas tried again, this time from 37 yards. The kick wasn’t blocked, but it wasn’t good either, missing wide to the left.
Now it was Buffalo’s turn. Kelly threw to Reed for 13 yards, Metzelaars for 21, and TE Keith McKeller for six yards to reach the Houston 40. Kelly ran for 13 yards and, two plays later, his pass to Reed, who spun a way from a defender, went 28 yards for the game-winning touchdown. With 6:18 left in overtime, the Bills came out on top by a final score of 47-41.
The teams combined for 888 yards, with Buffalo holding a 449 to 439 edge. The Oilers led in first downs (33 to 22) and time of possession (43:11 to 25:31). Houston also turned the ball over twice, to one by the Bills, who were penalized 13 times at a cost of 84 yards to 11 flags for 64 yards thrown on the Oilers.
Jim Kelly completed 17 of 29 passes for 363 yards and five touchdowns while giving up one interception. He also ran for 43 yards on three carries. Andre Reed had five catches for 135 yards and two TDs and Flip Johnson also had five receptions, for 86 yards. Thurman Thomas topped the Bills with 58 rushing yards on 12 attempts and also contributed three catches for 37 yards and two touchdowns.
For the Oilers, Warren Moon (pictured below) was successful on 28 of 42 throws for 338 yards and a TD with two interceptions, and ran five times for 36 yards and a score. Alonzo Highsmith ran for 55 yards on 14 attempts that included a touchdown and added 47 yards on four catches. Curtis Duncan and Haywood Jeffires had six pass receptions apiece, for 69 and 57 yards, respectively.
“Long after my career is over, I’m sure this is one that will come to my mind when I think of a handful of special games,” said Coach Levy of the Bills. “It was thrilling. It was tremendous.”
“It was a game of big plays and they made more than we did,” said Warren Moon. “I thought we had it won in overtime, but we didn’t get the field goal.”
The Bills won six of their next nine games before losing three straight and finishing up at 9-7, which was still good enough to again finish first in the AFC East. They lost to the Browns in the Divisional playoff round. Houston also ended up with a 9-7 record to place second in the AFC Central and secure a Wild Card postseason slot. The Oilers lost to Pittsburgh in the Wild Card round.
Jim Kelly missed three games with a shoulder injury and ended up passing for 3130 yards and 25 touchdowns. Thurman Thomas rushed for 1244 yards and picked up another 669 yards on 60 catches to lead the NFL in all-purpose yards with 1913. He was selected to the Pro Bowl, as was Andre Reed with his 88 pass receptions for 1312 yards (14.9 avg.) and nine TDs.