January 3, 1993.
AFC Wildcard Playoffs.
Live from Rich Stadium where the Houston Oilers at the Buffalo Bills. It should have been just your regular wildcard playoff game between these two original AFL teams with their original AFL owners.
It was anything but.
What happened that day in many ways has continued to haunt both franchises to this very day.
The Houston Oilers were up 35-3 in the third quarter and looked to be heading to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers.
Instead Frank Reich led the Buffalo Bills to a 32-point comeback in what would become the greatest comeback in NFL history.
But in order to fully understand and appreciate what happened on the field that day and what transpired, one must know the history of events that led up to this game and the fallout of events years after it.
Buffalo Bills – The Buffalo Bills started to turn the franchise around under Head Coach Marv Levy in 1988 when they won their first AFC East Division Title since 1980. They defeated the Houston Oilers 17-10 in the Divisional Playoffs to make it to the AFC Championship game only to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals 21-10.
In 1989, the Bills had a somewhat down year, known to many then as the “Bickering Bills”, but still managed to win the AFC East with a 9-7 record but lost to the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional Playoffs 34-30 when Fullback Ronnie Harmon dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone. Jim Kelly was intercepted by Clay Matthews on the very next play.
In 1990 and 1991, the Bills completed back-to-back 13-3 seasons in which they won the AFC East on their way to two of their four straight Super Bowl appearances. They lost 20-19 to the New York Giants when Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field goal attempt went wide right in Super Bowl XXV and the Washington Redskins beat the Bills 37-24 in XXVI.
The 1992 season the Bills lost the division to a tiebreaker with the Miami Dolphins with identical 11-5 records due to the Dolphins having a better conference record. The Dolphins, Bills and division winners Pittsburgh Steelers and San Diego Chargers all had 11-5 records, but the Bills ended up as the 5th seed.
Houston Oilers – The Houston Oilers started their climb in 1987 under Head Coach Jerry Glanville when they made the playoffs for the first time since 1980 with a 9-6 record during the strike season. They beat the Seattle Seahawks 23-20 in OT during the Wildcard Round only to lose to the Denver Broncos in the Divisional Round 34-10. This would be the first of seven straight playoff appearances for the Oilers.
In 1988, the Oilers brought their 10-6 record into Cleveland and beat the Browns 24-23 in the Wildcard Round but lost to the Buffalo Bills in the Divisional Playoffs 17-10.
In 1989, the Oilers lost in the Wildcard Playoffs to the Pittsburgh Steelers 26-23 in OT. The loss would cause Bud Adams to fire Jerry Glanville and hire Jack Pardee.
In 1990, under the Run N’ Shoot offense of Jack Pardee, he lead the Oilers to a 9-7 record, just like Glanville did in 1989. But the Oilers were blown out by the Cincinnati Bengals 41-14 in the Wildcard round again.
Things started to turn around for the Oilers in 1991. They put together an 11-5 season to win their first ever AFC Central title. The Oilers finally won their first playoff game since 1988 when they defeated the New York Jets 17-10, earning a trip to Denver to take on the Broncos. The Oilers were up 24-23 with the Broncos pinned on their own 2-yard line with 2:00 remaining and no timeouts left. John Elway led what would be known as “The Drive II”, completing two crucial fourth downs. The first was a 7-yard run on a 4th and 6 from the Broncos 28 and the other was a 44-yard completion to Vance Johnson on a 4th and 10 when he rolled out, acted like he was going to run with it and threw it at the last second. That helped set up a 28-yard field goal by David Treadwell with 16 seconds remaining.
The Oilers blew a 21-6 lead, only adding a field goal in the second half.
Remember the end of this game for later.
In 1992, the Oilers managed to go 10-6 with Warren Moon only playing 11 games due to injury. Backup Cody Carlson led the Oilers to a 4-2 record in Moon’s absence.
THE SET UP GAME
December 27, 1992, the last game of the season on Sunday Night Football pitted the Buffalo Bills at the Houston Oilers. The Bills got on the board early with a 40-yard field goal from Steve Christie. The rest of the game was all Oilers. Warren Moon came back in the middle of the game as Moon and Carlson both threw touchdown passes en route to a 27-3 victory. During the game the Bills quarterback Jim Kelly suffered a knee injury on a tackle by Ray Childress. The victory meant that the Oilers will now go to Buffalo to face the Bills again in the Wildcard Round. It was a game that looked to be another Oilers victory on paper.
It turned out to be anything but.
THE AFC WILDCARD GAME
The Buffalo Bills fans were known for sellouts and a raunchy and loud home field advantage. However, the game did not sell enough tickets and the game was a blackout and not televised anywhere in Western New York. The closest city to watch the game was Syracuse.
For Bills fans, you were either at the game or you listened to the radio broadcast by Van Miller. Warren Moon now fully healthy faced the Buffalo Bills minus Jim Kelly who was out with a knee injury, so the Bills would have to rely on backup quarterback Frank Reich. The winner of the game would travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in the Divisional Round.
THE FIRST HALF
With the winds a blazing the Oilers took the opening kickoff and marched down the field quickly. Moon was on his game already, throwing quick strikes to Curtis Duncan, Webster Slaughter and Haywood Jeffires on a 31-yard pass play. Then the Oilers went for it on 4th and 2 from the 27-yard line. Lorenzo White took the handoff to the left side and was stopped for an apparent loss by Kurt Schultz, but bounced off him and broke off a tackle by Nate Odomes to turn the corner for the first down. After connecting on a 5-yard pass to Jeffires, Moon took the snap, pumped to the right, rolled out to his left and found Haywood Jeffires in the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown pass.
The Bills would respond their opening drive with a 36-yard field goal by Steve Christie at the end of the first quarter.
On the Oilers next drive, Moon connecting on a 24-yard pass to Ernest Givens, moving down the field with ease once again before Moon threw his second touchdown pass to Webster Slaughter from 7-yards out.
After the Oilers got the ball back with less than four minutes in the half, Moon threw what may have been his best pass of the game when he threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Duncan between Mark Kelso and Clifford Hicks.
The Bills drive stalled and the Oilers got the ball back with under a minute to go in the half. Moon hit Jeffires on a 14-yard pass. On third down and eight with 20 seconds to go in the half Moon once again hit Haywood Jeffires for a 28-yard touchdown pass right before halftime.
Warren Moon had one of the best half’s of football as anyone ever had, completing 19 of 22 passes for 220-yards and four touchdowns.
THE SECOND HALF
The Bills got the ball to start the opening half hoping to get something going. But Frank Reich threw a pass towards the right sidelines that went off the hands of Keith McKeller and into the hands of safety Bubba McDowell who raced down the sidelines and went 58-yards for the touchdown.
Up to this point in the game, including the regular season finale, the Oilers outscored the Bills 62-6.
To make matters worse for the Bills, Thurman Thomas injured his hip and was forced to leave the game. But Thomas wasn’t the only one who left the game. The fans started to leave as well, the stadium that wasn’t sold out in the first place just got a lot emptier.
The Radio Announcer for the Houston Oilers then said the following “The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they’ve been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now.”
If the Bills were going to comeback now, it would be up to backup quarterback Frank Reich and backup running back Kenneth Davis.
On the ensuing kickoff just before Al Del Greco went to kick the ball the wind swirled up and the kick became an unintentional squib kick that the Bills recovered with great field position.
This first break for the Bills would start a chain reaction of what would follow. From the 50-yard line Reich completed a pass to Pete Metzelaars that went right through the hands of Oilers Linebacker Eddie Robinson.
Then on 3rd and 15, Reich completed a 16-yard pass to Andre Reed. Two plays later, Kenneth Davis took the handoff and raced to the left side of the end zone.
On the ensuing kickoff the Bills got their second break when they recover the onside kick off the hands of Oilers Rick Graft. The Bills third break would come when Reich would then throw to a wide-open Don Beebe for a 38-yard touchdown on a broken coverage.
But the replay shows that Beebe’s foot stepped out of bounds while running his pattern, the ref was not looking and what should have been a penalty for an ineligible receiver. Instead the touchdown stood.
The Oilers who could do no wrong on offense finally got the ball for the first time in the second half and promptly went three and out. The Bills got their fourth break when Oilers Punter Greg Montgomery first punt of the game went only 25-yards and gave the Bills the ball at their own 41-yard line.
On a blown coverage by the Oilers Reich found Andre Reed 26-yards for the touchdown.
At this point in the game two things started to happen. The Oilers started to collapse on defense, making error after error, blown coverage, blown assignment, you name it. They literally self-destructed before their own eyes.
For the Bills, the fans that left the game after it was 35-3 heard the game on their radio and many made their way back to the stadium. Stadium rules prohibit re-entry into any games once you leave. So the fans started climbing the fences to get back in the game, with little that security could do.
The tables have been reversed for these two teams. The Oilers held the ball for 21:12 in the first half. In a span of 10 minutes in the third quarter the Oilers offense only had the ball for 3 plays to the Bills 18 plays and 21 points later.
The Meltdown for the Oilers continued when the Bills got their fifth break of the game when ensuing possession, Moon’s high pass went off the hands of Webster Slaughter and into the hands of Henry Jones and returned it to the Oilers 23-yard line. The Oilers defense finally held the Bills on a 4th and 5, instead of attempting a field goal knowing the Bills had all the momentum they went for it and Reich hit Reed again for an 18-yard touchdown, beating Oilers cornerback Steve Jackson.
When the Oilers got the ball back, their offense remained out of sync. Moon was sacked by Bills linebacker Darryl Talley and fumbled the ball, but Houston recovered, but was forced to punt the ball. Again, Montgomery’s kick only went 24-yards, giving the Bills great field position at its 48-yard line.
Moon’s stats in the second half at this point were 2-of-7 for 19-yards.
But the Bills could not take advantage of the great field position as the Oilers defense finally held and forced the Bills to punt for the first time since the first half.
The Oilers offense finally started to show some signs of life. With the Oilers at mid-field Moon’s pass was intercepted by Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey. But the interception was negated by a roughing the passer penalty on Bruce Smith.
The Oilers looked to finally get a break their way, leading to a field goal by Al Del Greco, but Montgomery fumbled the snap. Talley picked up the ball and returned it 70-yards but officials ruled him down at the spot of the recovery.
On a 3rd and 4, Davis took a delayed handoff and raced downfield for 35-yards before being tripped up by Steve Jackson. With 3:08 remaining in the fourth quarter Reed would burn Steve Jackson again on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Frank Reich to give the Bills their first lead of the game.
Moon and the Oilers had one final chance to get their act together and try to tie or win the game. Moon finally got the offense clicking like they had in the first half. Moon started firing passes down field to Slaughter, Duncan and again to Slaughter with seconds remaining when Al Del Greco kicked a game-tying 26-yard field goal.
Houston won the toss and got the ball at their own 20-yard line. But on Moon’s third pass of the drive the Bills got their sixth and final break of the game when the ball intended for Ernest Givens was picked off by Nate Odomes. Talley was not called for the hold on Givens. After two runs by Kenneth Davis, Christie kicked the game-winning 32-yard field goal.
Buffalo Bills – The Bills would go on to win at Pittsburgh and Miami en route to Super Bowl XXVII where they were blown out by the Dallas Cowboys 52-17. They advanced to their final Super Bowl XXVIII again against the Dallas Cowboys and despite leading 13-10 at the half, lost their fourth straight Super Bowl.
Houston Oilers – The very next day, the Oilers fired Defensive Coordinator Jim Eddy and Defensive Backs Coach Pat Thomas. The Oilers hired Buddy Ryan as their new Defensive Coordinator. Bud Adam’s gave the team an ultimatum, if they don’t win the Super Bowl in 1993 he’ll break up the team.
The Oilers started off 1-4, their last loss coming on Monday Night to the Bills in Buffalo 35-7. Then they would go on to win their next 11 games to go 12-4 and win their second AFC Central Title and #2 seed in the playoffs.
At the end of a Sunday Night Football game while beating the New York Jets 24-0, a sideline fight broke out between Buddy Ryan and Oilers Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gillbride.
The Oilers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Playoffs, a Chiefs team led by Joe Montana, a team in which the Oilers beat 30-0 in week 2 of the regular season.
The Oilers went into the fourth quarter of the game with a 13-7 lead. The Oilers collapsed in the playoffs for the third straight year as they lost to the Chiefs 28-20 and failed to advance beyond the Divisional Round for seven straight years.
After the 93’ season Oilers owner Bud Adams made good on his promise. Warren Moon was traded to the Minnesota Vikings and the Oilers went 2-14 in 1994. Jack Pardee was fired mid-season and replaced with Jeff Fisher.
Eventually the fans tuned out the Oilers and attendance dropped and despite Adam’s attempts at getting a new stadium built, he eventually opted to relocate the Oilers to Tennessee. They became the Tennessee Oilers for the 97’ and 98’ season before moving into their new stadium in Nashville and changed their nickname to become the Tennessee Titans.
One could make the argument that “The Choke” as it is referred to in Houston set off a chain of events that lead the Oilers to leave Houston for Nashville. The Bills sent the team into a tailspin that took them until 1999 to recover from.
THE CAUSE AND EFFECT
In 1999, the Houston Oilers are now the Tennessee Titans, led by Head Coach Jeff Fisher, guided his team to a 13-3 record in the AFC Central and would host the Buffalo Bills in the Wildcard game.
The Titans took a 12-0 halftime lead. But once again the Oilers, uh, I mean Titans blew the lead and the Bills came back and scored two touchdowns to go up 13-12, but failed the two point conversion. The Titans and Bills would trade field goals, the last being when Quarterback Rob Johnson led the Bills down the field, losing his shoe in the process to give the Bills a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds remaining. The Bills looked to have done it again to the Oilers/Titans Franchise.
Then, what happened was a miracle.
The Music City Miracle.
Steve Christie kicked the ball high and short, the ball was field by Lorenzo Neil at the 25-yard line, who quickly gave the ball to Frank Wycheck who threw the ball across the field to Kevin Dyson who ran into the end zone untouched for the touchdown.
The play was reviewed and upheld as a backwards lateral and the Titans won the game 22-16.
The Oilers/Titans franchise had finally lifted the curse from the Buffalo Bills. Losing only once to the Bills since.
The Buffalo Bills have not made playoffs since, the longest drought in the NFL.
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