What can you say about the greatest comeback in National Football League history?
You could say it was unbelievable -- or, better yet, un-BILL-ievable -- and you'd be right.
In the wildest of wild-card playoff games, the Buffalo Bills beat the Houston Oilers in overtime Sunday, 41-38, before a non-sellout Rich Stadium crowd of 75,141 and a national television audience that didn't include Western New York.
It came down to a 32-yard field goal by Steve Christie 3:06 into the extra period, but that was actually the smallest of the Bills' accomplishments. What got them to that point was overcoming odds so big that they boggled the mind.
The Bills won despite falling behind, 35-3, early in the third quarter . . . despite being without starting quarterback Jim Kelly the whole game . . . despite being without linebacker Cornelius Bennett the whole game . . . despite being without running back Thurman Thomas for most of the second half . . . despite an almost flawless performance by the Oilers through the first 32 minutes.
"This is one in a lifetime," said Ralph Wilson, the Bills' 74-year-old owner and president. "Naturally, when you're down by as much as we were, you just hope that you score a couple of times and make it respectable. You never expect a team to come back like the Bills did today. Anybody who does is dreaming."
Ditto for the many fans who had left the stadium at halftime or shortly thereafter and, because their tickets didn't permit re-entry, tried climbing over the fences to get back in and witness perhaps the most improbable comeback in recent sports history. No NFL team has ever rallied from that far behind. Only two other clubs -- San Diego and Miami in 1981 -- have combined for as many points in a playoff game.
Having played their only post-season game at home, the Bills now begin preparing for a divisional-round playoff battle against the Pittsburgh Steelers Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Three Rivers Stadium. That winner will face the winner of the next day's San Diego-Miami game for the AFC championship Jan. 17.
The list of heroes from Sunday's epic was so long, the Bills awarded game balls to the entire team. But there were some exceptional performances:
Quarterback Frank Reich, making the first playoff start of his eight-year NFL career, had the game of his life. The same man who 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 Sunday for 289 yards and four touchdowns.
Wide receiver Andre Reed, a non-factor through the final 10 games of the regular season, caught eight passes for 136 yards and three touchdowns, equaling his regular-season total for scoring catches.
Running back Kenneth Davis, taking over after Thomas left for the day early in the third quarter with a sore hip, ran 13 times for 68 yards and a touchdown. His 35-yard carry on a third-and-4 off-tackle play from the Bills' 32 set up Reich's 17-yard, go-ahead TD pass to Reed with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter.
The Bills' defense, which, after playing as if it had never seen a football in the first half, held the Oilers to three points in the final 30 minutes.
Cornerback Nate Odomes intercepted Houston quarterback Warren Moon, who finished with an NFL playoff-record 36 completions, to set up the winning field goal in OT.
"A kicker dreams of an opportunity to be able to kick that last field goal, and I just can't be more happy than I am right now," said Christie, whose last game-winning kick came in 1990, his rookie year with Tampa Bay. "The conditions were slick and everything, but Frank has good hands and I have confidence in him. Adam (Lingner) is a great snapper, and the line protected well, and all I had to do was swing my leg and put it through."
Through the first two quarters, Moon completed 19 of 22 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns to give the Oilers a 28-3 halftime lead.
"Warren came out throwing darts," linebacker Darryl Talley said. "He was a surgeon. He could have been a plastic surgeon today and given nine million face lifts."
Walt Corey, the Bills' defensive coordinator, did some carving of his own while addressing his troops during the intermission.
"What I said at halftime, I can't repeat half the words," Corey said. "The more I talked, the louder I got. The thing that bothered me was their (his defenders') 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."
If the plug to the Bills' 1992 season hadn't been pulled at halftime, it certainly seemed that way after strong safety Bubba McDowell intercepted a pass that bounced off tight end Keith McKeller's hands and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown to put the Oilers in front, 35-3, 1:41 into the third quarter.
"You could have probably scraped me off the carpet at that point, because I was pretty low," nose tackle Jeff Wright said.
"We were down, 35-3, and that's very tough," Reich said. "Your thought is to take it one play at a time and don't try to force anything. I wasn't thinking in terms of winning. I was just thinking of taking it one play at a time."
The Oilers helped start the Bills' rally when Al Del Greco botched an attempted squib kickoff. The ball bounced off the foot of Mark Maddox, who recovered at midfield.
Reich proceeded to engineer a 10-play drive that featured his 24-yard pass to tight end Pete Metzelaars and 16-yard throw to Reed, and a 5-yard Davis run on fourth and 2 from the Houston 7. Davis finished the march with a 1-yard touchdown run to make it 35-10.
Christie then recovered his own onside kickoff at the Buffalo 48. Four plays later, Reich found Don Beebe for a 38-yard touchdown pass. 35-17.
"At that point, I said, 'If we score here, we're back in this ballgame,' " center Kent Hull recalled. "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."
Meanwhile, the Bills' defense, which had tried to combat the Oilers' run-and-shoot offense with mostly dime and nickel coverage in the first half, shifted to its basic 3-4 scheme.
"I figured, if we're going to get beat," Corey said, "we're going to get beat with bigger and stronger people on the field."
After Beebe's score the Oilers went three and out, and a 25-yard Greg Montgomery punt started the Bills at their 41, Reich got the offense humming again, connecting with James Lofton on an 18-yard pass on first down and with Davis on a 19-yard screen pass. That set up Reich's 26-yard scoring throw to Reed to pull the Bills to within 11 with 4:21 left in the third quarter. 35-24.
Now, it was starting to get interesting. The fans, who had been subdued for most of the first half, began roaring louder and louder. Bills players on the field and the sidelines flailed their arms to incite them even more.
On the first play of the Oilers' next possession, Moon was picked off by strong safety Henry Jones, whose 15-yard return put the Bills at the Houston 23. Faced with a fourth-and-5 at the 18, Bills coach Marv Levy made a gutsy call by deciding to go for it rather than kick a field goal. Reich then delivered his second TD pass to Reed. 35-31.
"I told the other coaches if we hit a fourth, we're going for it if it's anywhere near reasonable distance for the first down," Levy explained. "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 (35-27). 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."
The teams exchanged possessions into the fourth quarter when Houston drove to the Buffalo 14, but Montgomery fumbled the hold to abort an Oilers' field-goal try. Again the Bills got going and, after Davis' 35-yard dash into Houston territory, Reich's third touchdown pass to Reed, a 17-yarder, put the Bills in front for the first time. 38-35.
The Oilers managed to put together a 12-play, 63-yard drive that ended with a 26-yard Del Greco field goal to tie the game with 12 seconds left in regulation, then won the coin toss for overtime. But on third and 3 from his own 27, Moon, pressured by Wright, threw a pass that flew directly into Odomes' hands. Odomes' 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 kicked the winning points.
"That interception was a classic combination of pass-rush and coverage," Odomes said. "We just played a soft zone trying to bait him into throwing a play like that, and it was very successful. Anytime a cornerback can get the opportunity to look at the football like that, it's a dream come true."
"No matter if we won or lost today, we weren't going to give up," Wright said. "We weren't just going to roll over and let someone score 60 points on us. It's amazing what you can do if you just try and bust your butt."
Someone asked Oilers cornerback Cris Dishman how it felt to be part of the greatest collapse in NFL history.
"You mean the greatest choke in history," Dishman said. "Collapse is just being nice."