comeback was one for the books
Down by 32
points with 28 minutes remaining in the game, the Buffalo Bills staged
the biggest comeback in the history of the NFL. Here is an inside look
at the events that transpired on January 3, 1993, a game that will not
be forgotten by the Bills
or the defeated Oilers.
In the wildest
of wild-card games, the Buffalo Bills, their toes hanging over the brink
of playoff elimination, came back-and back, and back-to defeat the Houston
Oilers 41-38 in overtime. The issue was settled by Steve Christie's 32-yard
field goal 3:06 into the extra period, but that kick was among the least
notable of the Bills' accomplishments on January 3, 1993. The odds they
overcame just to reach that point were so mammoth, so impossible, they
boggle the mind.
that, besides falling behind 35-3 early in the third quarter, the Bills
were without starting quarterback Jim Kelly and big-play linebacker Cornelius
Bennett for the whole game, and without star running back Thurman Thomas
for most of the second half. Consider, too, that the Oilers-and especially
their quarterback, Warren Moon-had been almost flawless through the first
many people broadcast forever to get a signature game?" asks Todd
Christensen, color analyst for NBC, whose coverage wasn't seen in the
Buffalo area because the game didn't sell out. "[Play-by-play man]
Charlie Jones was saying later that he wished we'd made a defining statement
at the end, something like Al Michaels's 'Do you believe in miracles?'
But to me, the action said it all."
when you're down by as much as we were, you just hope that you score a
couple of times and make it respectable," Bills owner Ralph Wilson
says. "You never expect a team to come back like ours did. Anybody
who does is dreaming."
the dream came true, thanks to a long list of Buffalo heroes.
Making the first playoff start of his eight-year NFL career, backup quarterback
Frank Reich had an incredible game. The same man who had led the University
of Maryland to the greatest comeback in NCAA Division I-A history (over
the University of Miami in 1984) completed 21 of 34 passes for 289 yards
and 4 touchdowns.
After seeing his role diminished through the final 10 games of the regular
season, wide receiver Andre Reed came to life with 8 receptions for 136
yards and 3 touchdowns, equaling his regular-season total for scoring
Taking over at running back after Thomas left for the day with a sore
hip, Kenneth Davis carried 13 times for 68 yards and a touchdown.
After a half of playing as it if never had seen a football, Buffalo's
defense held the Oilers to 3 points through the final 30 minutes. Cornerback
Nate Odomes made the defensive play of the day, intercepting Moon in overtime
to set up the winning points.
took it one play at a time," says Reich, who got the start after
Kelly suffered a knee injury against the Oilers seven days earlier. "When
you're down by thirty-two points, you don't really feel a lot of pressure.
And as a football player, you gear your mind to not thinking how far you
are behind. We're geared to the game not being over until the final whistle
This is another
look at a football miracle, through the eyes of those who made it happen.
where they left off in a 27-3 victory over Buffalo the week before at
the Astrodome, the Oilers raced to a 28-3 halftime lead. Moon was phenomenal,
completing 19 of his first 22 attempts for 218 yards and 4 touchdowns.
He was 6 for 7 on each of the Oilers' first two drives.
never seen us be so effective, so efficient," Houston wide receiver
Ernest Givins says.
Moon threw up was caught," Bills nose tackle Jeff Wright says.
the opening kickoff, we were backpedaling the whole time. They were hitting
screens on us, they were doing draws on us. They were just moving on us,
and there was nothing we could do. You sit there and think to yourself,
'How can we turn this thing around and not be totally embarrassed?'"
came out throwing darts," Buffalo linebacker Darryl Talley says.
"He was a surgeon. He could have been a plastic surgeon that day
and given nine million facelifts."
the Bills' defensive coordinator, did some carving of his own when he
addressed the members of his unit during intermission. He made his point
in a colorfully phrased, two-minute tirade.
hollering the same things the fans were hollering at me when we left the
field," Corey says. "I can't repeat the words, but the more
I talked, the louder I got. The thing that bothered me was their approach.
To me, they looked timid. They looked like they were going to get in the
right spots, but they weren't going to make anything happen afterward.
This is an attitude game. Sometimes you start playing and you're afraid
to make things happen or afraid to make a mistake."
every word that came out of Walt's mouth, he reached a new temperature
level, until he finally just exploded," Wright says. "He had
every right to say the things that he said. We were embarrassing him,
we were embarrassing ourselves, we were embarrassing Buffalo Bills fans."
spoke, it was head coach Marv Levy's turn.
'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
reason to feel good about yourselves, regardless of how this game turns
in the Oilers' dressing room, Moon was stressing caution to his teammates.
was definitely an air of confidence in there," Moon says. "I
didn't think anyone was getting overconfident, but there were a few guys
smiling. Not laughing, but they had a look of comfort on their faces.
And that's when I started saying, 'Remember Denver last year [when the
Oilers wasted a 21-6 lead on the way to playoff elimination]? We didn't
play the full sixty minutes. Don't let it happen again. We can't relax,
we can't relax.' It wasn't that I was scared, but I just wasn't totally
comfortable that the game was out of reach. I knew the explosiveness of
Buffalo, and I knew what happened to us before."
Back in the
Bills' dressing room, Reich received an insightful message from Gale Gilbert,
the Bills' third-string passer.
came up to me and told me what I needed to hear," Reich recalls.
"He said, 'Hey, you did it in college [guiding the Terrapins from
a 31-0 deficit to a 42-40 victory]. There's no reason why you can't do
into the second half, there suddenly was a good reason why Reich wasn't
likely to do it that day. He threw a pass that bounced off the hands of
tight end Keith McKeller and into the arms of strong safety Bubba McDowell.
Fifty-eight yards later, McDowell was high-stepping into the end zone
with the Oilers' fifth touchdown.
headed for the exits. They were convinced the season was over.
I had been a fan, I would have gone home, too," Bills wide receiver
Don Beebe says. "Obviously, you're thinking that this just isn't
meant to be."
I think we still had a chance?" Levy says. "Well, there was
a lot of time left, so there was a glimmer of hope. But it was about the
same chance as you have of winning the New York Lottery."
warning, the Oilers turned their thoughts to the next round of the playoffs.
Bubba's interception was icing on the cake," cornerback Cris Dishman
says. "I knew they would come back on us, but I never thought they'd
35, Bills 3.
13:19 3RD QUARTER
had decided to give up the wind to start the third quarter because they
wanted to have it at their backs in the fourth. With gusts at 17 miles
per hour, Al Del Greco tried to squib the kickoff down the middle. But
the ball hit the leg of Mark Maddox, who was on the front line of the
Bills' return team, and the young linebacker recovered at the 50.
later, Davis ran 1 yard around left end for a touchdown.
35, Bills 10.
8:54 3RD QUARTER
Levy had instructed his special-teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, to try an
onside kick down the middle of the field the first chance he got. The
Bills had practiced the play for the first time just two days before.
Christie had been practicing the squib kick by himself for the previous
a kick that works when they've only got five guys up front and they're
not in an onside return mode yet," DeHaven says.
Just as Christie's
bouncing kick reached the Oilers' Rick Graf, Buffalo's Mark Pike crushed
him with a tackle. The ball squirted free and Christie recovered-just
as the play is designed-at the Buffalo 48.
later, Reich found Beebe wide open down the left sideline for a 38-yard
touchdown pass. Beebe had been pushed toward the sideline by Oilers cornerback
Jerry Gray, and both of Beebe's feet had been out of bounds before he
came back in play to catch the pass. Expecting deep help from McDowell
that never came, as well as an official to negate the play because Beebe
had stepped out of bounds, Gray let up. Beebe kept going. No call was
that point, I said, 'If we score here, we're back in this ball game,'"
Buffalo center Kent Hull says. "The crowd really got into it, and
momentum shifted our way at that point. You could just feel it. I mean,
we felt if we got the ball, we were going to move it. And we did."
35, Bills 17.
7:56 3RD QUARTER
remaining in the third quarter, Houston's offense finally got on the field,
at its own 31. And it was here that the Bills made their first defensive
stand of the day.
Corey had decided to scrap the Dime defense that Moon had shredded in
the first half, and go with a basic 3-4 alignment the rest of the way.
He sat down the two extra defensive backs and replaced them with linebackers
Carlton Bailey and Marvcus Patton.
if we were going to get beat, we were going to get beat with bigger and
stronger people on the field," Corey says.
down, Patton nailed Webster Slaughter after a 3-yard catch. Then defensive
end Phil Hansen stuffed running back Lorenzo White, followed by free safety
Mark Kelso's brilliant play to break up a deep out pass for Curtis Duncan.
That set up a punt by Greg Montgomery, which, in the face of a stiff wind,
traveled only 25 yards.
took over at their 41. Five plays later, Reich hit Reed on a 26-yard touchdown
pass down the left sideline.
before that play that [wide receiver] James [Lofton] had run a post pattern
and they jumped on him pretty hard," Reich says. "So I called
a play where we put James on a post and Andre on an out-and-up, and sure
enough, they jumped on James hard again and Andre was wide open. That's
when I thought it was within reach. If the defense kept playing the way
it was playing, and we kept executing on offense, there was plenty of
time to come back and win this football game."
crowd was in a frenzy-that is, the fans who had stayed past McDowell's
Many of those
who had left and were listening to the game on the radio turned around
and headed back to the stadium. Because their tickets didn't permit re-entry,
they began climbing over the fences to get back in. Security guards tried
to stop them at first, but they eventually relented.
35, Bills 24.
4:21 3RD QUARTER
remaining in the third quarter, Moon threw his first bad pass of the game,
over the middle and far above the head of Slaughter. Henry Jones, the
Bills' young and opportunistic strong safety, intercepted and returned
the ball 15 yards to the Houston 23.
later, the Bills faced fourth and 5 from the 18. Reich called time out
to talk to Levy about whether to attempt a field goal or go for the end
zone. Levy opted to try for the touchdown, which the Bills scored on another
the other coaches if we hit a fourth [down], we're going to go for it
if it's anywhere near a reasonable distance for the first down,"
Levy says. "I didn't know that we'd get a touchdown on the play,
but the reasoning was that if we made the field goal, we were still down
by eight. That quarter was nearly over, and we'd be going into the wind
and you'd have to get very close to try a field goal in the fourth quarter."
Kenny Davis was going to be the primary receiver, just to pick up the
first down," Reich says. "But the coverage they were playing
dictated that I could hit Andre over the middle. They were in man coverage
underneath but a two-deep zone behind, and the safeties were kind of wide.
Andre was able to split the middle."
35, Bills 31.
2:00 3RD QUARTER
exchanged punts into the fourth quarter before Moon guided the Oilers
on a 13-play, 76-yard drive to the Buffalo 14. As Houston lined up for
a field goal, there was a sudden cloud burst, to go along with the gusting
wind. The snap sailed right through the hands of Montgomery, Del Greco's
wind blew the ball and I tried to grab it, but I couldn't," Montgomery
says. "I'd never seen a wind blow like that. The ball was wet, but
you've got to get the job done in that situation."
took over at their 26 with 6:53 left. On third-and-4 from the Buffalo
32, Reich again called time out.
to know whether we were going to go for it on fourth down if we didn't
make it," Reich says. "Marv said we probably would. So I said,
'If we're going for it, why not try to run? They won't be expecting it.'"
a handoff on the counter play, and guard Jim Ritcher and tackle Will Wolford
led the way for his 35-yard gain.
later, Reich hit Reed over the middle for 17 yards and a touchdown. Reich
looked left for tight end Pete Metzelaars on the play, freezing Oilers
safety Marcus Robertson and allowing Reed to get open.
a real good feel that whole series for what they were going to do on first
downs," Reich says. "I knew right away I wanted to go to that
play. It was just a question of looking the free safety off. As I dropped
back my first two or three steps, I looked at Pete. All I needed was to
hold him there a second to keep the seam open."
38, Oilers 35.
3:08 4TH QUARTER
to pull out one more drive. With 3:00 left, he used 11 plays to move the
Oilers from their own 28 to the Buffalo 9. With 12 seconds left, Del Greco
kicked a 26-yard field goal, sending the game into overtime.
real worried at that point," Bills guard Ritcher says. "I was
standing on the sidelines thinking, 'Well, Lord, you let us come this
far. Surely you're not going to let us lose it now, are you?'"
38, Oilers 38.
:12 4TH QUARTER
as if Buffalo had run out of miracles when Houston got the ball at the
start of overtime. However, on third-and-3 from the Oilers' 27, Moon's
pass for Givins was intercepted by Nate Odomes. Givins had been legally
chucked by Talley and couldn't get to the ball.
to go to Ernest on a whip route, but it was such a close coverage,"
Moon says. "I had to put something extra on it, and it floated, it
sailed. We had control of the ball game like no team ever had control
of a ball game. Then, for me to throw the pick in overtime that caused
us to lose
I felt doubly rotten."
interception was a classic combination of pass rush and coverage,"
Odomes says. "We just played a soft zone trying to bait Moon into
throwing a pass like that, and it was very successful. Anytime a cornerback
has the opportunity to look at the football like that, it's a dream come
2-yard return, plus a 15-yard penalty on wide receiver Haywood Jeffires
for tackling by the facemask, put the ball at the Oilers' 20. Three plays
later, Christie, in the first playoff game in his three NFL seasons, booted
the winning points.
41, Oilers 38.
just goes to show you that if you fight for sixty minutes, anything can
you've just got to believe," Talley says. "My old
man told me that if you quit once, you'll quit again. That word, quit,
is not in my vocabulary."
As Moon made
the long walk off the field and up the tunnel, he thought about the impact
the game would have on his family-especially on his four children who,
ranging in age from 5 to 11, are increasingly sensitive to the high-profile
nature of their father's occupation.
a portable phone with me, and the first thing I did when I got on the
bus [carrying the Oilers to their chartered flight back to Houston] was
call home to make sure that my wife was okay-she gets very emotional and
she had been crying that day-and to make sure that my kids were all right.
the way back on the plane, I thought about whether we should send them
to school the next day because kids can really be cruel with their teasing.
At first I thought maybe we should go ahead and let them face the music,
which is just a part of being a celebrity's kid. It's going to be good
when we win and bad when we lose. But this was so different, so out of
the ordinary, we decided to just keep them home for a day and let some
of it blow over."
hours after the game, two Houston assistant coaches-defensive coordinator
Jim Eddy and secondary coach Pat Thomas-were fired. While the Bills will
be remembered for staging the greatest comeback in NFL history, the Oilers
will be remembered for suffering the mother of all collapses.
And the pain
lingers in Houston, which, in the aftermath of the loss, was subjected
to ridicule on a national scale. "Late Night With David Letterman"
even composed a Top 10 list of Oilers' excuses for the defeat, with number
one being: "Didn't want to go to Disney World."
fans had their feet pulled out from under them and they lost a major chunk
of themselves," says Dr. Larry Abrams, a Houston psychologist. "This
feeling will pass because people tend to repress painful memories. But
you'll be hearing about this for twenty years, I'm sure."
something like that happens, you fall back on your family to help you
out of it," the Oilers' Jeffires says. "But I'll tell you something:
That sure isn't anything I want to tell my grandkids about."
the other hand, will be re-telling the story for years to come.
question, it's the game of my life," he says. "I was pretty
emotional when I got to the locker room. I just couldn't hold the tears
It was Reich's
tremendous composure on the field that made the biggest difference for
is a person of high character," Levy says. "He's a well-rounded
family man who is deeply religious. Sometimes, the guy who has other things
in his life doesn't clutch up. It makes him able to retain an equilibrium."
always felt as though my whole stint in Buffalo has been a divine appointment,"
Reich says. "I have two little kids, and when I see my children playing
a game together I don't care who wins that game. I'm their father. What's
important to me is that there's character being built and they're learning
the lessons that come along with that activity. I think God looks at us
the same way. I think the football game is insignificant to Him. But what
is significant is that we learn what He wants us to learn out of that
game, win or lose."
of what took place at Rich Stadium on January 3, 1993, is simple: Never
give up, no matter how dark the gathering clouds, because something un-BILL-ievable
just might happen.
on the January 3, 1993 AFC Wild Card Game between the Buffalo Bills and
Houston Oilers is reprinted from the 1993 season preview issue of Team
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