With 100 years of the NFL to look back on, there’s bound to be a great moment or two to stir our spirits and light a fire in the hearts of fans everywhere. The game gives as good as it gets and it gets good with miracles and misses, catches and drops, highs, lows, and everything in between. Crushing last-second defeats and heroic comebacks are scattered throughout league history in spades, but one such comeback stands above all the rest.
The Stage Set
In the midst of their quadruple Super Bowl appearances, the Buffalo Bills found themselves down 35-3 against the Houston Oilers in the 1993 AFC Wild Card game. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly was out for the game, suffering a strained ligament in his right knee during the final week of the season, where they lost to the very same Oilers team 27-3. Missing the soon to be 4-time AFC Champion was only part of their troubles, for they were without big-time linebacker Cornelius Bennett as well. Understandably, the Oilers smelled blood in the water from the moment they touched dirt at Rich Stadium (now New Era Field), and it showed in Warren Moon’s arm. The 9-time Pro Bowler took centre stage, firing a 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Haywood Jeffires on the opening drive. The game was 7-0. A Steve Christie kick for 3 did little to stem the flow of points Houston set out to deliver, as Moon launched a 7-yard TD to Webster Slaughter. The next two drives were devastating for the Buffalo Bills as Moon distributed touchdowns to Curtis Duncan for 26 yards and a second back to Jeffires for 27. It was 28-3 at the half (a familiar score for newer NFL fans).
The Houston Oilers took their rest with apprehension, but not an undue amount of glee. A comfortable lead and dominant performances on both sides of the ball, combined with the clear hole left by Kelly and Bennett on both sides of the ball, had many Oilers players smiling from ear to ear. Warren Moon was not ready to join the festivities just yet, preaching caution to his teammates. “Remember Denver last year? We didn’t play the full 60 minutes. Don’t let it happen again. We can’t relax, we can’t relax”. He was right, and referencing the 21-6 lead they’d lost likely sobered the veteran players, seeing as this wasn’t their first rodeo.
It was a tale of two locker rooms at halftime and the Bills felt the heat on the back of their necks, despite the frigid January weather in northern New York State. Their notorious defence, led by the NFL’s all-time sack leader Bruce Smith, had disappointed. It was no surprise that defensive coordinator Walt Corey had strong words for his men. No-one remembered the words he said in his outburst, but nose tackle Jeff Wright recalled the impact they had: “He had every right to say the things he said. We were embarrassing him, we were embarrassing ourselves, we were embarrassing the Buffalo Bills fans”. The revolutionary ‘K-Gun’ offence had fired only blanks, and backup-turned-starter Frank Reich thought back to his college days. Third-string QB Gale Gilbert recalled a timely comeback Reich had led playing for Maryland, and the sidelined Jim Kelly said “Maybe lightning will strike twice”. It took Buffalo head coach Marv Levy to come along with a cool head. “You’ve got thirty more minutes. Maybe it’s the last thirty minutes of your season. When your season’s over you’re going to have to live with yourselves and look yourselves in the eyes. You’d damn well better have a reason to feel good about yourselves, regardless of how this game turns out”.
Despite the strong words, 5 plays into the second half a pass bounced off the hands of Bills tight end Kieth McKeller and the ball was taken away by Oilers safety Bubba McDowell for a 58-yard TD return. Starting running back Thurman Thomas left the game injured, and the Bills were in the dumps. Down 35-3, a 32-point comeback seemed impossible.
As some Bills fans were exiting the stadium, the cool winter winds blew good favour Buffalo’s way. A breeze tipped the ball over as Houston’s kicker, Al Del Greco, made his approach. The unintentional squib kick was recovered at the 50-yard line, giving the Bills the best field position they’d had to start a drive all game. Their second-string running back, Kenneth Davis, showed up. Big time. His clutch 4th-and-2 conversion kept the Bills alive, and a beautiful pass by Reich (threaded through a needle) met tight end Pete Metzelaars’ hands. Davis’ 1-yard TD run put the Bills in the end zone for the first time all game. Down 25, it was 35-10.
With 8:52 left in the 3rd quarter, Levy called for an onside kick. In one of the greatest moments for a kicker ever, Steve Christie recovered his own kickoff, and a 38-yard TD reception by receiver Don Beebe put the Bills in a manageable position with 7:46 still left in the quarter. The speed with which they executed two scores put the Oilers on their back foot, and they weren’t slowing down. A quick 3-and-out, followed by a shanked 25-yard punt by the Oilers Greg Montgomery, gave the Reich-led squad only 59 yards to go for the score. Highlighted by a pass to WR James Lofton, a screen pass to Davis, and a perfectly placed TD to the incomparable Andre Reed, the Bills were back. The 3 scores took less than 10 minutes, and Houston was reeling.
Warren Moon was desperate to breathe a little life back into his team, but to no avail, as the next play from scrimmage was an ill-advised pass. It was tipped, flailing into the arms of safety Henry Jones, who returned it to Houston’s 23-yard line. Buffalo only managed 5 yards on their next 3 plays, and looked like their explosive performance was going to be put on ice. However, Levy wouldn’t let the season die. On 4th and 5 from the 18-yard line, he called a pass play. The TD Frank Reich launched in Andre Reed’s direction was perfect, and the Bills had cut the deficit all the way down to only 4 points. Linebacker Darryl Talley forced a fumble on the next drive, but it was recovered by Houston. Still, they were forced to punt, and the Bills got their second assist from Oilers punter Montgomery. His 24-yarder put Buffalo at their 48-yard line.
The Bills failed to take advantage though, punting the ball away once more. Moon began to resurrect the Oilers’ hopes of maintaining their lead and brought them on a long drive, capped off by a field goal attempt from the 14-yard line. It seemed the fates were on Buffalo’s side once more, as Montgomery fumbled the snap and the wind swept the ball away yet again. Talley recovered the ball and returned it for 70 yards, but was called down at the time of recovery. From their 26-yard line, Reich stepped to the plate once more, swinging for the hills, but handing it to Davis. His 35-yard run jump-started the offence once more, and Reich laid the ball up for two 17-yarders by Reed. His eclectic showing handed the team their 1st lead of the game, and the stadium erupted. But the game wasn’t over yet, and Buffalo knew just how quickly a lead could be blown.
With a 3 point lead and only 3 minutes remaining in regulation, Buffalo held it’s breath. Moon was not to be denied for long, as he marched downfield, overcoming a 4th-and-4 to get within field goal range. A 26-yard kick by Del Greco would send the game into overtime.
The Oilers had grown sombre: they were a long way from home, slugging it out in nasty weather in a last ditch effort to win a game they thought they’d won at halftime. The coin toss falling their way felt like a gift, but it didn’t stay that way. After 2 short completions put Houston at 3rd-and-3 deep in their own half, horror struck them: Moon overthrew his receiver and dropped the ball right into the arms of Bills defensive back Nate Odomes. His 2-yard return was enough, and Steve Christie launched an unforgettable 32-yard field goal to cap off one of the single greatest games of all time.