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Milt's Memories: Playoff thrills from Chuck Bednarik to Bill Simpson, John Elway to Mitch Frerotte

Milt's Memories: Playoff thrills from Chuck Bednarik to Bill Simpson, John Elway to Mitch Frerotte

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Kelly fist pump

Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly celebrates the 29-23 win over the Oakland Raiders in the AFC divisional playoff game at Rich Stadium, Saturday, Jan. 15, 1994.

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. Here, he provides some of his fondest memories of covering the NFL playoffs and the Bills and their opponents.

It was just before the Christmas holiday season in 1992 when the summons came for jury duty at the Village Court in Williamsville. It soon was obvious this would be a long trial, with court sessions every Friday evening and Saturday morning to conclusion. It would mean missing the National Football League playoffs, my favorite events to cover each year.

To my relief, I was excused from a trial that lasted until early spring.

Playoff football gave me some of the most memorable events to cover in a a sports reporting career that began in the fall of 1956 reporting on the University of Connecticut freshman soccer team for the Connecticut Daily Campus. I had landed a spot on the sports staff with the encouragement of a fraternity brother, Mike Tobin, who was the assistant sports editor. Mike happened to be a cousin to New York Yankees Hall of Fame pitcher Whitey Ford.

What was special about playoff football? First, it was a change from the usual routine and it took you to some different locales to see different teams and away from the noise in this region surrounding those Buffalo Bills postseason drives between the 1988 and 1999 seasons. There have been 32 postseason games in Bills' history. I covered 12 of them, including the four Super Bowls. Beyond that, I have covered 12 other playoff games and 12 Super Bowls that did not involve the Bills.

Those games provided some terrific memories.

My first NFL postseason experience was the 1960 championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers at Franklin Field in Philadelphia. The game was played on a Monday, the day after Christmas. The Eagles won 17-13. It was the only postseason game Vince Lombardi lost as a coach in the NFL. It also was the last game for Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin. The game ended with Hall of Fame linebacker Chuck Bednarik tackling Packers back Jim Taylor, another Hall of Famer, and not letting him off the ground until the final second had ticked off the clock.

When the game ended, Philadelphia fans rushed the field, attempting to tear down the goalposts. They were turned back by Philadelphia's Finest, who then were pelted with snowballs and pieces of ice.

Working in the press room at Weightman Hall at one end of Franklin Field, I added a paragraph or two to my game story to make note of the confrontation. Bland copy. That's when I got a lesson in writing. At a nearby table in the press room, the great Red Smith was laboring, as he always seemed to do, on his syndicated column. 

This is how Smith began his account of the confrontation between the fans and cops:

"As the national professional championship returned to this city of sweet fraternity after 11 years, the gallant minions of Philadelphia law sallied forth to do or die in defense of the Ivy League lumber. Brass buttons agleam on blue heroic abdomens, the constabulary rushed across the thawing meadow to meet fans who were pouring out of the seats and through the soupy bog of the running track, eyes fixed covetously upon the east goalposts."

My first Bills postseason game was that heartbreaking loss by coach Chuck Knox's 1980 team to the Chargers in San Diego. With quarterback Joe Ferguson playing on a injured ankle, the Bills had built a 14-3 lead over favored Air Coryell. Buffalo was still clinging to the lead 14-13 when the Bills came up short of first-down yardage on a Joe Cribbs run late in the fourth quarter and punted. The ending seemed inevitable because Fouts passed for 314 yards, while the hobbled Ferguson and the Bills managed only 244 against a defense led by Fred Dean, Louie Kelcher and Brad Edwards.

With 2:08 left, backup receiver Ron Smith found himself matched against Bills safety Bill Simpson. Smith ran a streak down the field, took in Fouts' pass and scored on a 50-yard play for a 20-14 victory to end the Bills' dream season, which had begun with a win, at last, over Miami in the opener. After the game, I remember interviewing the man who called the winning play, the Chargers' offensive coordinator, who would go on to more success as a head coach and a NASCAR owner, Joe Gibbs.

The next season, on a gray day at Shea Stadium in New York, the Bills won their first playoff game in 16 seasons. Simpson, who was victimized the year before, saved the 31-27 victory over the Jets when he intercepted a Richard Todd pass at the 1-yard line with two seconds to go. Before that, Gang Green looked about to come back from a 31-13 deficit.

Another bitter loss was to the Browns in Cleveland, 34-30, on Jan. 6, 1990. It was during the frantic comeback attempt when the Bills discovered how effective their K-Gun offense was going to be. A 90-yard kickoff return, perhaps the costliest special teams failure of Marv Levy's Buffalo years, had put the Browns on top 31-21 in the third quarter.

On a day when he became the second Bill to pass for 400 yards in a game  he had four touchdown passes and 403 passing yards, Jim Kelly led Buffalo back. The Bills were going for the lead when Kelly's pass to the left side of the end zone from the 11-yard line clanked off the hand of Ronnie Harmon with nine seconds left. Clay Mathews' intercepted Kelly on the next play to end it.

Overlooked was Thurman Thomas' 13 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns. The 13 receptions equaled the team record set by Andre Reed earlier that season. 

My last season as the Bills' beat writer was 1990, the first Super Bowl season. The Bills made quick work of Miami and the Los Angeles Raiders in the playoffs. Against Miami, they took the lead in the opening series on a 40-yard pass from Kelly to Reed. Going into the game, the question was how healthy was Kelly in his return to action after missing the last two regular season games with a knee injury suffered against the New York Giants in Week 15.

Same story in the rout of the Raiders. The Bills jumped to the lead on a 13-yard pass from Kelly to James Lofton after 3:30 had been played. I remember having no time to drink in the local celebration over Buffalo gaining its first Super Bowl berth because the media was whisked off to Tampa just a few hours after the game for Super Bowl XXV.

In the 1992 season, I spent the week in Pittsburgh covering the lead-up to the playoff game against the Bills. It followed the 41-38 overtime comeback game against the Houston Oilers. Frank Reich was at quarterback for the Bills in the Pittsburgh win. Buffalo's decisive victory began with a 1-yard touchdown pass to the late Mitch Frerotte, of all people. Mitch, who was from Western Pennsylvania, was a guard who was in the game as an extra tight end in the goal-line situation. It had to be his career highlight.

Aside from the triple-overtime Boston Celtics-Phoenix Suns NBA playoff game in 1976 (the Gar Heard Shot), two of the three most memorable playoff games I witnessed involved John Elway of the Denver Broncos.

One, of course, was The Drive against the Browns in Cleveland in the 1986 AFC Championship Game. Starting at its own 2-yard line with 5:32 to play, Denver had all three timeouts to work with when Elway drove the Broncos to the tying touchdown, on a 5-yard pass to Mark Jackson on third down with 37 seconds left. After Cleveland and Bernie Kosar went three-and-out in overtime, Elway took the Broncos 60 yards in nine plays for a 33-yard field goal by Rich Karlis.

On the tying drive, Elway ran 11 yards for a first down on second-and-7, passed 20 yards to Jackson on a third-and-18, and hit Steve Sewell for 14 on second-and-10 from the 28. After an incompletion, he ran 9 yards to the 5-yard line.

More amazing, though, was the trip he took the Broncos on five seasons later, in a divisional round victory over the Houston Oilers in the 1991 playoffs. 

There was only 2:07 left and the Broncos had no timeouts when they took over at their 2 trailing, 24-23. Elway took them 87 yards in 12 plays to a game-winning field goal by David Treadwell from 28 yards with 16 seconds left.

On this drive Elway came through twice on fourth down. He ran for 7 yards on fourth-and-6 from the Denver 28, then on fourth-and-10 from the Denver 35, he connected with Vance Johnson for 44 yards.

We left Mile High Stadium shaking our heads again over Elway's ability to come through in the clutch. He had to be the most popular, most sought-after person in Denver that Saturday night following the 26-24 victory that would send the Broncos to Orchard Park for the AFC Championship Game against the Bills.

Upon the recommendation of Mike Nolan, the former Channel 2 sports director who was working in Denver at the time, I visited an establishment near my hotel and not far from the Broncos' facility in Englewood. I figured if Elway was celebrating the dramatic victory, it would be privately with friends, away from the adoring public. To my surprise, the Denver quarterback and his backup, Gary Kubiak, and their families were celebrating where I was. Next thing I knew, I was standing next to Elway ordering a beer at the bar. I never got over how unique an experience that was.

The Bills defeated Denver 10-7 the next week to head to their second consecutive Super Bowl.

Two seasons later, I witnessed Joe Montana's last moment of glory as an NFL quarterback. Montana brought the Kansas City Chiefs from a 10-0 halftime deficit to a 28-20 win over Warren Moon and the Oilers in the divisional round in the Houston Astrodome. He completed 13 of 18 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. With less than four minutes remaining, Montana hit Keith Cash for a 41-yard completion on third-and-1. Marcus Allen ran 21 yards for the clincher with 1:55 left to play.

I was covering the NFC Championship Game between Dallas and San Francisco at Texas Stadium in Irving while the Bills were defeating the Chiefs the following Sunday. I still remember some media members openly rooting for the Bills to lose. They were bored with covering the Bills after three straight Super Bowl losses. Now, though, the Bills were back after a 30-13 win against the Chiefs.

I never have forgotten or forgiven the spoiled child act in the press box that day.

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