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This day in Bills history: San Diego edges Buffalo in the Flutie-Johnson Bowl

For a three-year stretch in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Bills were embroiled in quarterback controversy.

In 1998, Buffalo welcomed a couple of new quarterbacks to the team in Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson. And for the next three years, the Bills teetered back and forth between entrusting Flutie (30 starts) and Johnson (18 starts) under center.

But following the 2000 season (2001 offseason), Buffalo had to decide which of the two to keep. The much-younger Johnson, who signed a big five-year contract in 1998, was the choice, while the released Flutie, 38 at the time, joined the Chargers.

That set the stage for Flutie's revenge, and he didn't have to wait long as Buffalo and San Diego squared off the ensuing season.

The Flutie-Johnson Bowl was played exactly 15 years ago on Oct. 28, 2001, at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. It was a high-scoring, thrilling game that both quarterbacks sparkled in. The incentive to win that day was clear for both — Johnson to prove he was the right choice, and Flutie to show the Bills they made a regrettable decision.

As it turned out, Flutie reminded Bills fans and former teammates alike of the dazzling plays he was capable of making and demonstrated he still had some of that famous Flutie magic left in him.

The 5-foot-10 quarterback scrambled 13 yards for the game-winning score late in the fourth quarter to lift the Chargers to a 27-24 win. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown in addition to the difference-making running score.

At the same time, Johnson had a day himself, finishing the afternoon 24 of 37 for 310 yards with a TD and an interception. He also rushed for 67 yards, but his effort was sealed as one in a losing cause when the Chargers blocked a game-tying field-goal attempt in the dying seconds.

Rob Johnson, left, tries to avoid Marcellus Wiley, a former Bill, in the 2001 Flutie-Johnson Bowl. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News file photo)

Rob Johnson, left, tries to avoid Marcellus Wiley, a former Bill, in the 2001 Flutie-Johnson Bowl. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News file photo)

News sports reporter Mark Gaughan covered the exciting Flutie-Johnson matchup, which lived up to the hype that was created by the abundance of drama that surrounded the two while they jockeyed for the No. 1 spot on Buffalo's depth chart. In the lead-up, Gaughan referred to the game as the "Bad Blood Bowl."

Fifteen years after "bad blood" spilled onto Qualcomm Stadium's playing surface, Gaughan reflected on the game and what made it so intriguing.

The big argument in Western New York in January 2001 was: Doug Flutie or Rob Johnson; what is the right decision? The answer turned out to be neither.

Johnson never had what it took to be a good starting quarterback in the NFL. Flutie surely did, but he was going to turn 39 years old in the upcoming season, and the Bills were staring at a rebuilding project becuase they had spent themselves into salary-cap trouble (in part because they had paid good salaries to both Flutie and Johnson).

As we all know, former Bills General Manager Tom Donahoe picked Johnson over Flutie. Many Bills fans gnashed their teeth, but who could blame him? The Bills needed to find out if he was their quarterback of the future, and an aging Flutie was not going to take the Bills to the Super Bowl. Flutie signed with San Diego, which also was undergoing a big rebuilding project.

All of this backdrop made the 2001 meeting between the Bills and the San Diego Chargers one of the more passion-charged games of the entire Bills 16-year playoff drought.

Johnson played one of the five best games of his entire career, but he was one-upped by Flutie, who led the Chargers to a late victory.

Ironically, Johnson would go on to start only two more games for the Bills before going down for the season to injury. He was relased after the season and lasted only 1 1/2 more years in the NFL before retiring. He made only two more NFL starts after leaving the Bills and finished with a 12-17 record as a starter.

Flutie went 5-11 as the starter for a poor Chargers team in 2001. But he spent four more years in the NFL, playing until age 43. The Bills probably would have won a couple more games with Flutie in 2001 (they went 3-13). But they needed to find their new quarterback. Who knew then that the search would last so long? Of course, Flutie's pro career exceeded Johnson's by light years. Flutie went 38-28 as an NFL starter and was 99-27 as a starter in the Canadian league.

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As a reminder, here is a quick primer of how the Flutie-Johnson hoopla played out during their three years together in Buffalo:

Flutie started the majority of the team's games in 1998 and '99, guiding the Bills to the playoffs both years. He was the last Buffalo quarterback to lead the Bills through a regular season that preceded a playoff appearance.

But the last Bills QB to start a playoff contest? That would be Johnson, who got the call for what turned into the Music City Miracle game in early 2000 against the Titans despite Flutie starting all but one game in the regular season, going 10-5.

Buffalo, of course, has been in a free fall since that era, which is to say it is in the midst of a 16-year playoff dry spell.

The decision to start Johnson over Flutie was highly questioned both before and in the aftermath of Buffalo's heart-crushing 22-16 wild-card loss at Tennessee.

It all made the 2001 Bills-Chargers clash a years-in-the-making affair.

Below is an excerpt from Gaughan's 2001 recap headlined, "Bills' pain is supersized: Chargers left standing after heavyweight clash":

It turns out Ralph Wilson called it last spring.

Sunday's Buffalo Bills-San Diego Chargers game WAS like a Super Bowl. In fact, it was better than most Super Bowls.

And it ended just like a Super Bowl for the Bills: It was a heartbreaker.

After a week of pregame hype that surpassed any prizefight, the Bills' 27-24 loss to the Chargers managed to exceed all expectations. It was a game that begged for grand comparisons.

The grudge match between quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie was like a heavyweight title fight. Each went toe-to-toe by making a barrage of great plays.

And the ending was painfully similar to the Music City Miracle loss to the Tennessee Titans the Bills suffered two years ago.

Just when Johnson looked like he was going to be the hero by leading the Bills to a 24-20 advantage with 1:30 to play, the Bills' special teams let the game slip away.

San Diego's Ronney Jenkins returned the ensuing kickoff 72 yards. Flutie made a dramatic scramble 13 yards into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Johnson brought the Bills back down to the Chargers' 27.

But San Diego blocked the 44-yard field-goal try by Jake Arians to preserve the win.

The Bills' locker room was devastated afterward.

"Games like this hurt so much," fullback Larry Centers said. "We should have won this game. This is one that got away."

"Disappointing. Heartbreaking. I don't know what else to say," said center Bill Conaty.

"It's very tough, it's hard to swallow," said a teary-eyed Peerless Price. "This is the toughest loss by far I've ever had."

The outcome kept the Chargers pointing toward the playoffs at 5-2 and dropped the Bills to 1-5.

For once, both Flutie fans and Johnson fans had to be satisfied with their favorites regardless of the result.

"Near the end of the game, I was thinking that this is what we had in mind when we went out and got these two guys for the Bills," said Chargers Assistant General Manager A.J. Smith, the former Bills pro scout. "It went haywire, of course, because of circumstance. But this was two very good quarterbacks out there going at it."

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