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Milt's Memories: Championship game in Buffalo in 1991 was worth the wait

Milt's Memories: Championship game in Buffalo in 1991 was worth the wait

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Jim Kelly celebrates during the AFC Title game on Jan. 20, 1991, when the Bills beat the Los Angeles Raiders 51-3 to move on to Super Bowl XXV.

Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame member Milt Northrop has seen a lot in his 52-year career at The Buffalo News, and even before that. Occasionally he will recount some of the events that have left a lasting impression on him. Here, he shares his memories of the AFC Championship Game in the 1991 NFL playoffs.

Only once before, the 1988 season when they lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Bengals in Cincinnati, were the Bills as close to going to the Super Bowl as they were on Jan. 20, 1991. This was different, though. This time, the conference championship game was in Orchard Park.

For those of us who had gone through the drama of Chuck Knox taking off for Seattle, Joe Cribbs leaving for the World Football League, Jim Kelly choosing the Houston Gamblers over the Bills and the 2-14 seasons, it seemed an impossible dream had come true.

Buffalo would be the focus, or one of the two, of the pro football world. We were used to seeing that happen in places such as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Miami, Irving in Texas, and even Cleveland and Cincinnati. But not Buffalo.

It all was happening so fast, it seemed.

Obviously, the 1990 Bills were a special team. After an ugly loss in Week 2 at Miami, they had run off eight wins in a row before a losing a showdown against the Oilers on a Monday night in the Houston Astrodome. Over a nine-game stretch, they averaged 29 points a game with the K-Gun offense. 

Then, they scored a hard-earned win against the New York Giants in the New Jersey Meadowlands on a gray Saturday afternoon in December, but lost Kelly in the process. That's when Frank Reich took over in a 24-14 victory over the Dolphins, which the Bills needed to clinch the AFC East championship and No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Without that win, the Bills would have been a wild-card with little chance of playoff games in Orchard Park.

Despite all that, who expected a 51-3 cakewalk over the vaunted Los Angeles Raiders? These were still the Raiders with the Al Davis mystique. "Just win, Baby."

The Raiders were a team to be respected. They had started the season 4-0 and in Week 5 were leading the Bills 24-14 in the fourth quarter in Orchard Park before Jim Kelly passed 42 yards to James Lofton for a touchdown. Then, on their next possession, Steve Tasker blocked a punt and rookie defensive back James Williams scooped up the ball and took it 38 yards to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown in a 38-24 victory.

The Raiders lost only three more games the rest of the season, once to Depew native Don Majkowski and the Packers in Green Bay and twice to the Kansas City Chiefs. Coach Art Shell's team went into the playoffs with five straight wins.

Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame member Milt Northrop has seen a lot in his 52-year career at The Buffalo News and even before that. Occasionally he will share some of the events that have left a lasting impression on him. First up, Buffalo Bills’ quarterback Joe Ferguson and a rookie named Dan Marino dueling it out at the

The week before, the Raiders had defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 20-10 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with quarterback Jay Schroeder passing for touchdowns to Mervyn Fernandez and Ethan Horton. There was another important development in that game: Running back Bo Jackson of the Raiders suffered a hip injury and was assisted off the field after a 34-yard run on the opening series of the second half. Not only did the injury keep Bo out of the title game with the Bills, it turned out to be his last play in the NFL.

Even without Bo, the Raiders had load of talent, including three Hall of Fame players  running back Marcus Allen, receiver and return man Tim Brown and defensive end Howie Long. Long was injured and out when the Raiders met the Bills in the regular season. Receivers Fernandez and Willie Gault were good enough that the Raiders cut Lofton after the 1988 season.

None of us could believe what we were seeing when the Bills' no-huddle offense traveled 75 yards in nine plays  taking only 3 1/2 minutes after the opening kickoff – for a 7-0 lead. Nobody expected that coordinator Dave Adolph's Raiders defense would be so unprepared for the rapid-fire attack that it needed a timeout after the Bills had reached the Raiders' 20 in only five plays on gains of 12, 14, 15, five and nine yards. 

“I don’t think anybody could have stopped them,” Long told reporters. “You could have brought back the Steel Curtain and it wouldn’t have mattered.”

The Raiders responded with a field goal to make it 7-3, but the Bills' onslaught just continued. It was 21-3 after Daryl Talley intercepted a Schroeder pass and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown with 3:09 to play in the opening quarter. Three more sustained drives for touchdowns made it 41-3 at halftime, including Lofton's second touchdown reception of the game. 

“I think we surprised a lot of people,” Kelly told reporters after the game. “We knew we had it. And we just surprised Los Angeles a little bit.”

The 51 points remain a Bills postseason record. 

The Bills' core five of Hall of Famers – Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and Lofton – are best remembered, but the 1990 team had the deepest treasury of talent of any Buffalo teams.

Besides the Hall of Famers, the team included Will Wolford, Howard Ballard, Kent Hull, Jim Ritcher, Cornelius Bennett, Shane Conlan, Nate Odomes, Steve Tasker and special teams standout Mark Pike. That's just scratching the surface.

Others who made major contributions were overshadowed. Jamie Mueller caught the last-minute pass that avoided an upset loss to the Jets. Kenneth Davis and Don Smith backed up Thomas superbly. The third wide receiver was Al Edwards after Don Beebe suffered a broken leg in the next-to-last regular season game. Kirby Jackson started 11 games at cornerback when No. 1 draft pick Williams could not hold the job. John Hagy started 11 games at safety when Mark Kelso was out with concussion issues. Leonard Smith started all 16 games at strong safety.

It seemed as though The News' entire reporting staff covered the game. Sports Editor Larry Felser, of course, was the lead man as the resident NFL expert. It was the last time I wrote the lead game story on the Bills. Besides myself, Vic Carucci, Jerry Sullivan and Mark Gaughan covered various aspects of the game. But, as I recall, news reporters Gene Warner, Tom Buckham and Dan Herbeck had assignments, too, as did TV columnist Alan Pergament. Bob DiCesare was in San Francisco that day covering the NFC championship between the 49ers and Giants.

Many of us were off to Tampa just a few hours after filing our game stories on a media flight chartered by the NFL. We were checked into the media hotel in Tampa before midnight. That's because there was only one week instead of two between the conference championship games and Super Bowl XXV.

It's been reported, erroneously, that the schedule was changed because of Operation Desert Storm, which was going on at the time. Actually, the date for the postseason games had been published in the 1990 NFL Record Manual and Fact Book, which came out at least seven months before the game.

I don't believe the NFL received any advance notice that U.S. military forces were going to invade Iraq six months before it happened.

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