by Scott Kindberg
January 3, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: Twenty-seven years ago today, the Buffalo Bills overcame a 32-point deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park. With the Bills scheduled to meet the Houston Texans in a wild-card playoff game on Saturday, it was deemed appropriate to relive that epic victory from a generation ago through the reporting — on this page and on Page B3 — of Post-Journal sports editor Scott Kindberg, who watched it all unfold from the press box at One Bills Drive.
ORCHARD PARK — The Buffalo Bills, for all intents and purposes, were clinically dead.
And Houston Oilers’ safety Bubba McDowell had seemingly administered the last rites.
Just 81 seconds into the second half of Sunday afternoon’s AFC wild-card playoff game, McDowell intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown.
The Oilers, a team that had a long history of playoff failures, were blowing out Buffalo for the second straight week. Their quarterback, Warren Moon, had already completed 19 of 22 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns in the first half and now McDowell was adding the knockout punch on Buffalo’s first possession of the third quarter.
When Al Del Greco tacked on the extra point, Houston led, incredibly enough, 35-3.
For some of the 75,141 fans at Rich Stadium, the idea of watching the injury-riddled Bills endure further humiliation was too much to bear, so they packed up and went home.
And the rest of the Western New York faithful, which had been listening to the radio or watching via satellite dish, could have been excused if they decided to take down Christmas decorations, play with the kids or run to the mall to exchange some gifts.
The game was over.
Even Buffalo head coach Marv Levy was resigned to such a fate.
“Did I think we still had a chance?” Levy asked. “Well, there was a lot of time left and a glimmer of hope, but it’s about the same chance of winning the New York lottery.”
The Bills bucked the odds.
Led by quarterback Frank Reich, who was filling in for the injured Jim Kelly, Buffalo recorded the greatest comeback in NFL history, erasing a 32-point deficit and posting a miraculous 41-38 victory. Steve Christie’s 32-yard field goal with 3:06 remaining in overtime finally ended the 3-hour, 25-minute epic, sending the Bills into Saturday’s divisional playoff game at Pittsburgh.
The improbable rally was reminiscent of the one Reich engineered at the University of Maryland in 1984. With the Terrapins trailing 31-10 to Miami at halftime, Reich led them to a remarkable second-half comeback and a 42-40 victory, the greatest come-from-behind win in college history.
“When we were in at halftime, (backup quarterback) Gale Gilbert came up to me and really encouraged me and reminded me of it,” said Reich, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 289 yards and four touchdowns. “He said, ‘Hey, you did it before in college. There’s no reason we can’t do it again now.”’
But things were to get worse before they got better for the Bills, who were already playing without Kelly, Cornelius Bennett and Thurman Thomas, who sat out most of the second half with a hip pointer.
On Buffalo’s first possession of the second half, Reich tried to hit Keith McKeller with a pass near the Houston bench, but the ball bounced off the tight end’s hands and into the waiting arms of McDowell, who raced 58 yards for the touchdown.
“After the interception, I was standing there talking to Gale, talking to Jim (Kelly) and talking to (quarterback coach) Jim Schofner and I looked at them and said, “Just one play at a time. That’s all we can do.”’ Reich said.
And that’s just what the eight-year veteran did.
On their next four possessions, the Bills scored touchdowns. Kenneth Davis, who was playing for the injured Thomas, scored first on a 1-yard run. Reich followed with touchdown passes of 38 yards to Don Beebe and 26 and 18 yards to Andre Reed. Beebe’s touchdown was set up on Christie’s beautifully executed on-sides kick and recovery that gave the Bills possession at their 48-yard line. Reed’s 18-yard scoring pass on fourth-and 5 came after Buffalo strong safety Henry Jones intercepted Moon and returned the ball to Houston’s 23.
The 28 points in the third quarter broke the postseason record for points in a third quarter, previously held by the Chicago Bears, who scored 26 points in their 73-0 NFL Championship victory over Washington in 1940. More importantly, it pulled the Bills to within 35-31.
And then Buffalo’s suddenly inspired defense forced a punt on the Oilers’ next possession late in the third quarter and was the beneficiary of a fumbled snap from center on Del Greco’s 31-yard field goal attempt early in the final period.
The Bills took possession at their 26-yard line and Reich needed seven plays to give his team its first lead of the game when he connected with Reed for a 17-yard touchdown.
“I think Frank did a good job of looking off (the defensive back),” said Reed, who had eight catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns. “He came back to me and drilled it in there. He made a great play.”
With three minutes remaining, the Oilers took over needing a field goal to tie, and Moon directed them from their own 28 to the Buffalo 9. Del Greco came through, connecting on a 26-yarder with 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime.
Houston won the coin toss, but Moon, who completed 36 of 50 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns, was intercepted by Nate Odomes at the Oilers’ 38-yard line. The Bills’ cornerback returned the ball to the 35 where Haywood Jeffires was penalized 15 yards for grabbing the facemask. That gave Buffalo a first down at Houston’s 20. Davis ran twice before Christie came on for the game-winning, 32-yard field goal.
“Being down 35-3 and Frank getting us back in the saddle to even have that opportunity to kick it is just unbelievable,” Christie said.
Added nose tackle Jeff Wright: “When I looked at the Oilers’ faces after Steve Christie kicked the field goal, I went up to (Houston defensive tackle) Ray Childress and said, ‘I can’t believe this.’ He goes, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”’
And probably nobody will again.