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26 years ago: The Bills' historic comeback vs. Oilers

This piece was originally published on Jan. 3, 2013, as part of a 20-year commemorative edition of the Bills' 41-38 victory over the Houston Oilers in what still holds as the greatest comeback in NFL history.

Whether it was the quiet strength of Frank Reich, the passion of Darryl Talley or the fire of the fans in Rich Stadium, the Bills found a spark after falling behind by 32 points in the third quarter and rallied past the Oilers in a wild-card game victory for the ages.

Frank Reich began the greatest day of his football life in pretty mundane fashion. Reich walked to his car in the early-morning cold outside the Bills’ team hotel and found that he didn’t have an ice scraper.

So Reich turned on the defroster, leaned back and contemplated the challenge that lay ahead of him. In a few hours, at Rich Stadium, he would start a wild-card game against the Houston Oilers. It would be the first playoff start of his NFL career.

The Bills’ quarterback popped a song into the tape deck called “In Christ Alone,” which he had been listening to over and over to prepare him for the biggest game of his life.

“Something compelled me to pull out our playbook and write down the lyrics,” Reich recalled. “I said, ‘Win or lose today, whether I play good or bad, I need to share this song with someone today, because it gave me the strength and courage to walk out there, not knowing what would happen.' ”

The lyrics were simple enough: “In every victory let it be said of me, my source of strength, my source of hope, is Christ alone.”

Reich, a deeply religious man, said he wasn’t asking God to help him win, but to carry himself with a spiritual dignity, to show the world that there are many ways to define victory in this life. His faith was tested soon enough.

Reich, who got the starting job when Jim Kelly hurt his knee against the same Oilers the week before, was soundly outplayed in the first half. Warren Moon, a future Hall of Famer, threw for four touchdowns as the Oilers surged to a 28-3 halftime lead.

Maybe this was the objective, for Reich to stand tall and show personal strength after the most humiliating loss of his career. In his heart, he didn’t expect the Bills to come back. As they sat in a dispirited halftime locker room, many of his teammates figured the team’s two-year Super Bowl run was likely coming to an end.

“I remember walking in, thinking, ‘I bet my wife has left the stadium and she’s packing for the offseason,’ ” said Mark Pike, the former special teams ace.

But these were the Bills, remember. They had come back many times before, despite injuries. Kelly was out. So was Cornelius Bennett. Thurman Thomas had started the game, but gave way to Kenneth Davis after aggravating a hip-pointer early in the second half. Bruce Smith played, but was compromised by bruised ribs.

They might have been down, but there was still an essential spark of belief in that team. That spark flared in different corners of the locker room during halftime, reminding everyone that this game wasn’t over yet.

“Elijah Pitts [the late running backs coach] told me, ‘They’re better than you are right now,’ ” Davis said from Dallas, where he works as a high school athletic director. “I said, ‘Coach Pitts, no, they’re not better than us right now.’ He said, ‘Then let me see you prove it.’ ”

Walt Corey, the defensive coordinator, ripped into his players at halftime. Corey wasn’t a vociferous leader by nature, but he was furious after their first-half no-show. He accused them of playing timid.

That was not what Darryl Talley needed to hear. Talley, as tough and emotional a leader as ever played in Buffalo, was his typically volatile self at halftime, bouncing from man to man like a madman, exhorting his teammates to keep battling.

“Everyone was sitting at their lockers, dead silence,” Pike said. “Darryl was the last one in. He was ranting and raving, saying we were going to kick their ass in the second half, all this macho, gusto stuff. He was high-fiving, slapping everybody.”

Pike laughed at the memory. “You could feel the guys thinking, ‘Darryl, shut up. You’re stupid, we’re getting killed.’ I remember thinking, ‘We’re done.’ But Darryl never stopped the whole halftime. It was constant. But as it went on, guys collected themselves and said, ‘Why can’t we come back?’ "

Talley did quiet down long enough to hear Corey’s rant. When it was over, his defensive teammates asked him what they should do. He said safety Mark Kelso agreed they should go back to their base 3-4 defense. They had played six defensive backs in the first half, but Moon had shredded them.

“I said, ‘Let’s just line up and knock the snot out of them,’ ” Talley said. “I told the linebackers, ‘I don’t care if we win, but they’ll hurt too bad to play next week.’

“Everybody looked at me. I told the defense, ‘Let’s just turn this into a damn street fight.’ ”

Gale Gilbert, the backup quarterback that day, quietly reminded Reich that he had led the greatest comeback in the history of Division 1A college football, leading Maryland out of a 31-0 hole against Miami in 1984.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Reich said. “I was sitting at my locker and Gale said, ‘I know you were part of a comeback like this in college, so you know it can be done.’ ”

Coach Marv Levy didn’t predict any miracles. He simply told his players they had 30 minutes left in their season (he didn’t anticipate overtime). “The only thing I said at halftime,” Levy said, “was you’re the two-time defending AFC champions. When you walk off the field, don’t let anyone ever say you quit.”

Reich told his teammates they simply had to go one play at a time. Then the Bills ran out for the second half. On the fourth play from scrimmage, Reich’s pass went through the hands of tight end Keith McKeller to Houston’s Bubba McDowell, who returned it 58 yards for a touchdown.

That’s when most people, including the Oilers, figured the game was over.

“Honestly,” said special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, “when they ran that interception in, I remember thinking, ‘I wonder what I’ll do on Monday? Maybe I’ll go see a movie.’ ”

On the sideline, Talley turned to Pike and Eddie Abramoski, the head trainer, and said, “Don’t worry, I have these suckers right where I want them. I said to Cornelius, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll play next week.’ You should have seen their faces.”

Reich says he has often joked that that interception turned the game around. “The more I say it,” Reich said, “the more I think it’s true. It was the key to the game.”


Oilers backed off

The Oilers, who had blown a playoff game to the Broncos the year before, let up at that point. Maybe it was because they had beaten the Bills badly the week before. Or perhaps they took their cue from all the Bills fans who streamed out of the stadium.

Bill Polian, who was on his way out as general manager, remembers the fans leaving the stadium, some after bidding him a harsh farewell.

“I sat in a front press box in a temporary booth, an auxiliary radio booth,” Polian said. “There was no glass. It was outside. Toward the end of the first half, a group of guys in front of us started saying some derogatory things. It was sort of funny, actually.

“Since I knew I was leaving at the end of the season, it would have been a bad way for my Bills career to end,” he said. “John Butler [who would succeed Polian as GM] was getting upset. They were saying, ‘This team stinks, we’ve had it, we’ve had enough. Let’s go.’ And they left.”

It was about that time that the fates began to turn. Some felt there was divine intervention that day. There was a gusty wind, and a light rain later in the day. Whatever the reason, there were a number of little things that went the Bills’ way.

Still, everyone involved with that team felt it was their resilient character, their strong competitive bond, that pulled them through. The Bills’ indomitable character allowed them to hang in long enough to instill doubt in a Houston team that had never won a truly big game.

“Like any game like that, it was as much them shutting it off as us turning it on,” said Steve Tasker. “It went in stages. We said, ‘Let’s keep playing. Let’s keep our self-respect.’ We had been to two Super Bowls. We had a lot of pride. We might go out, but we didn’t want to go out like that. We said, ‘Let’s score 10 or 14 points and make it respectable.’ ”

They did a lot more than that, scoring 28 unanswered points in an astonishing third-quarter run after the McDowell interception TD. It is still hard to fathom in retrospect, that it went from 35-3 to 35-31 in just 6:52.

A fortunate gust of wind caused Houston kicker Al Del Greco to mishit the kickoff after the McDowell TD, giving the Bills possession at midfield. Reich hit tight end Pete Metzelaars with a 24-yard pass that sailed through the hands of linebacker Eddie Robinson (yes, the future Bill).

Davis, who was spectacular in relief of Thomas, picked up a crucial first down on fourth and 2. Davis scored the first TD on a sweep around left end. That made it 35-10. The fans began to stir. The Oilers were a bit slower. They were unprepared as the Bills recovered an onside kick.


Fans want to return

Polian had predicted the onside kick from his booth. He told Bob Ferguson, his pro personnel director, that the Bills would win if they recovered it. Ferguson told him he was crazy. It was around that time that Polian got a call from his security people. There was a rule prohibiting fans from re-entering the stadium. But people were clamoring to get back inside.

“The security people said, ‘People are storming the gates, it’s getting crazy out here!’ ” Polian recalled. “We had a little confab. We said, ‘OK, open the gates. Let them back in.’

“Well, the same group of guys came running back up the aisle. Lo and behold, boom, we score. They turn around, they’re high-fiving each other, saying this is the greatest team ever. Those are the two things I remember most.”

After getting the onside kick, the Bills scored on a 38-yard pass from Reich to Don Beebe, who was wide open along the left sideline. Replays showed that Beebe had stepped out of bounds. Today, a booth replay would have reviewed the play and likely overturned it.

The Houston offense, which had sat through a halftime and three scores without seeing the field, went three-and-out. Greg Montgomery had his first punt of the day and shanked it into the wind. Reich was in rhythm now against a reeling and confused Oilers secondary.

Davis made a sensational run on a screen pass for 19 yards. Then Reich found Andre Reed wide open on the left for a 26-yard touchdown, making it 35-24. Reed was uncovered because of a communications breakdown between Houston cornerback Steve Jackson and safety Marcus Robertson.

“Oh, they were done,” Reed said. “They were so discombobulated, they didn’t know what they were doing. They were messing up easy coverages they were doing all game. They say we gave it to them? No, they were back there talking stuff to each other and messing it up.”

“They were just trying to hang on,” Tasker said. “I was surprised. If it had happened to our team, Darryl or Jim or Thurman would have got in guys’ faces and said, ‘Turn it back up.’ Warren [Moon] was never vocal at all. He was not a vocal leader. He was a great quarterback, a Hall of Fame player, but not one of those guys, and the Oilers needed one of those guys.”

On the next series, Moon made his worst throw of the day, a high pass from deep in his own territory that deflected off the left hand of Webster Slaughter and was intercepted by Henry Jones. Jones, who led the NFL in picks that season, ran it back to the Oilers’ 23.

Four plays later, the Bills faced fourth and 5. There was 2:05 left in the third quarter. They were down by only 11. But Levy knew the Bills would be going into the wind in the fourth quarter. A field goal would cut the deficit to only eight. There was no two-point conversion in those days.

Levy takes gamble

Levy wanted to go. Reich called timeout with the play clock running down. He wanted to be sure. “Marv had made the decision to go, but now there was a discussion about it,” Reich said. “Believe me, Marv was the man all the way.”

“Frank said, ‘I think I know the play,’” Levy said. “I took a deep breath and said, 'Go for it, Frank.’”

“I knew exactly what play to run,” Reich said. “It was Bull 65. We were going to run four receivers on four vertical routes. If they play Cover 2, I have a chance to get Andre down the middle.”

Reich hit Reed down the middle for the TD. “Probably the biggest gamble in Marv’s career,” Reed said. “It gives me chills just thinking about it. I remember in the huddle, we didn’t say, ‘We have to make this or else.’ It was, ‘Let’s make this and go get the ball back.’”

The Oilers regrouped somewhat in the fourth quarter. Moon led a drive deep into Bills territory. But the Bills’ defense, using their bigger players in the 3-4, played tougher in the second half. Jeff Wright and Phil Hansen made big plays on that drive and the Oilers stalled at the 14.

That’s when fate intruded again. Rain began to fall at about that time. The wind was blowing. The Oilers lined up for a routine, 31-yard field goal and the snap sailed through the hands of Montgomery, the holder.

“The crowd was going nuts,” said Wright, who had two sacks. “You saw there weren’t so many empty seats anymore. It was pretty awesome.”

Operating in the rain, the Bills marched to the go-ahead score in the fourth. The key play was a counter run by Davis, who rambled 35 yards and nearly went all the way. Reich said he almost failed to get the ball into Davis’ stomach in time.

“I sit there and sit there,” Davis said with a laugh. “I’m saying, ‘Frank, the hole is going to close! I got to go, I got to go!’ Then he finally got the ball in there and I was able to take off. It was great, because it gave the hole more time to develop.”

The Bills scored the go-ahead TD a few plays later, when Reich threw his third TD pass, a 17-yarder to Reed. Reich was especially proud of that play. He said the Oilers played sound defense. But he looked off the safety just enough to create room for a low throw to a sliding Reed.

Bailey stops Moon

That put the Bills ahead, 38-35. The Oilers drove the ball inside the Buffalo 20 on their final possession of regulation. But Carlton Bailey stopped Moon on a scramble at the 9-yard line and Houston had to settle for a game-tying field goal by Del Greco.

Polian said he had forgotten the Oilers tied the game to force overtime. And there was a sense of inevitability. Early in OT, Nate Odomes intercepted a Moon pass and Christie kicked a 32-yard field to win it.

Davis, who truly cherished being a football player in Buffalo, felt the crowd had lifted the team to victory. Everyone involved agreed.

“They willed us to victory,” Davis said. “They’re the ones who gave us the energy. See, we didn’t know where the energy was. We were the Energizer bunnies, but they were the batteries in us. I don’t know if people realize how passionate we were about the fans, and how they could change a game.”

“The hair stands up on my arm as I think about the crowd,” Talley said. “It was electric, almost spellbinding.”

There was a general sense of euphoria in the stands and in the locker room afterward. Reich remembers how exhilarated all the players were.

Then Scott Berchtold, the PR director at the time, told him it was time for the press conference. Reich headed toward the tunnel, then stopped in his tracks.

Reich went back to his locker and grabbed the lyrics to the song. On the walk to the interview room, he told Berchtold the media might not like what he had in mind. He had referred to his faith before in front in press conferences and heard the click of the cameras being turned off.

“Frank,” Berchtold said. “You just led the greatest comeback in NFL history. You can say anything you want!”

Reich began his remarks by reading the lyrics, which were essentially a song about belief.

“I didn’t hear one click,” he said. “I didn’t see one camera turn down. I don’t want to say I was vindicated. It wasn’t about me. It was about the message the song was sharing. I’ve been sharing that message for 20 years.”

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