How the Bills pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history

NFL

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Steve Christie doesn’t turn off blowout football games as early as he used to.

Even when some leads seem insurmountable, the former Buffalo Bills kicker will leave the TV on and see how it ends. He’s seen too much, experienced the adulation that comes from winning the impossible.

“Because you never know, right? You just never know,” Christie said.

The Bills trailed the Houston Oilers 35-3 in the third quarter of a wild-card playoff game in the 1992 postseason before storming all the way back. Christie kicked the game-winning field goal in overtime to cap the biggest comeback in NFL history, a feat even the players on the field didn’t think was possible. Add in that the Bills were quarterbacked by a backup in Frank Reich, and the record is that much more impressive.

The Bills and Oilers, who moved to Nashville in 1996 and became the Titans in 1999, had met in the finale of the 1992 regular season with the Oilers winning, 27-3 in Houston. Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly injured his knee in the game, thrusting Reich into the starting role. In 1984 during his college career at Maryland, Reich led the biggest comeback in NCAA history at the time vs. Miami (31-point deficit) after coming in as the backup in the second half.

These Bills would advance all the way to Super Bowl XXVII and would lose their third of four straight Super Bowl appearances.

Decades later, the Bills are trying to make it back. Monday night they will face off against the Tennessee Titans (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) for a fourth straight season. But the history between those two teams goes far beyond that.

What led to that great comeback on Jan. 3, 1993 at Rich Stadium? How did the Bills hang in despite seemingly insurmountable odds?

“If we went down, we’d go down fighting,” former Bills coach Marv Levy said. “I just was immersed in the game itself. What should we do next? And the game isn’t over. [New York Yankees catcher] Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s not over till it’s over.’ And so, we kept plugging away.”

Here’s what it took.


Reich: “I felt prepared, but I felt the enormity of the moment. We had already been to two Super Bowls and lost. We know we have a great team and we’re on a quest for a Super Bowl and this is our third playoffs, and we’re trying to make a Super Bowl run, so when Jim gets hurt, there’s a lot of pressure.

The Oilers got off to a hot start behind quarterback Warren Moon’s four touchdown passes, despite less-than-ideal weather with winds as high as 24 mph. The game was blacked out on TV in Buffalo because it wasn’t a sellout. The Bills were booed into the locker room at halftime.

Halftime score: Oilers 28, Bills 3

Bills tight end Pete Metzelaars: “What are we doing? We couldn’t stop them on defense, they were just kind of dinking, dunking up and down the field with all the run n’ shoot stuff, and we couldn’t get anything going on our offense. That was just like, ‘What in the world is going on?'”

Bills special teams ace Steve Tasker: “We were at halftime, [wide receiver] Don Beebe and I were talking, I was asking Don when he was leaving town. … We were talking about how fast he was going to get out of town after the season was over.”

Oilers safety Bubba McDowell: “We had everything going and never in our mind thought that it would turn for the worse the second half that bad.”

Metzelaars: “The defense, they were yelling and screaming and going crazy and jumping up and down and yelling at each other … The defense was more animated, but the offense, we were just like, ‘Guys, we got to take care of business, we got to execute way better than what we’ve been doing.’ … The attitude was ‘let’s go out and make this thing respectable, this is embarrassing.’ I don’t think we really had an attitude that we were going to win.”

Tasker: “[Levy] goes, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to come back and win this game, but I’ll say this: when it’s over, don’t let anybody say that you quit.’… I think he appealed to our manhood, to our pride as professionals and to the love we had for each other.”

Levy: “At halftime, I walked over to Frank, sitting in front of his locker, very downcast. I said, ‘Frank, I understand you led the greatest comeback in college football history. Today you are going to lead the greatest comeback in pro football history.'”

Reich: “I don’t want to say I thought he was joking, we were losing by a lot of points. It was no joking matter, but that was vintage Marv Levy, to be able to be both serious and just striking. When he said it, you just know that he believes that it can happen, and he’s just given me the confidence to know that it can happen.”

Levy: “[Reich] just nodded his head, like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ When we’re walking back up the tunnel, our [quarterbacks coach] Jim Shofner said, ‘Coach, the greatest comeback was 28 points, we’re only down 25.’ And I said, ‘Oh, Frank doesn’t know that.’ The first play the second half, he threw an interception for a touchdown.”

McDowell picked off Reich on a tipped pass off the hands of tight end Keith McKeller that went right into the safety’s arms. He ran it back 58 yards for the score.

McDowell: “I was breaking on the ball on the out route. I don’t know if I would have got there [had it not tipped off his hand]. I would have got there to definitely make the tackle. It would have been a big hit because I was full speed. The ball bounced, and it bounced perfectly into my hand as I was striding down the sideline. I didn’t even break stride.”

Oilers offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride: “Everybody that’s an Oilers fan is cheering him on to take it all the way back, except for me, because I knew the way my little receivers were freezing cold. If I didn’t get them out on the field soon that they would rather just stay on that warm heated bench.”

Metzelaars: “At some point in the third quarter after they made it 35-3, [Tasker] and I were standing next to each other … We decided that next weekend, we were going to fly to Florida and go play some golf, just to get out and get away from football and get away from Buffalo. We’re not winning this game.”

Reich: “You kind of hit the reset button at halftime, you think, ‘All right, here we go. We’re gonna go one play at a time, we’re gonna go down and score a touchdown.’ And then the next thing you know, you throw an interception. Honestly, I thought I might get benched.”

Score: Oilers 35, Bills 3

Fans began streaming toward the exits after the play. But on the next drive, following a bad kickoff by the Oilers due to the wind, the Bills scored their first touchdown of the day on a 1-yard run by backup running back Kenneth Davis (starter Thurman Thomas was injured).

Metzelaars: “One of their linebackers dropped right underneath [a pass on that drive] and jumped up and the ball went right through his hands and kept coming to me and I end up catching it and getting a 24-yard gain. I tell people if [Oilers linebacker Eddie Robinson] had caught that ball that went right through both his hands, the game would have been over with.”

Oilers linebacker Al Smith: “It was a situation where everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

Score: Oilers 35, Bills 10

The Bills executed an onside kick to start the following drive, which was recovered by Christie.

Christie: “It’s called the surprise middle onside kick. … I remember telling myself that the ball has to go at least 10 yards, but I’d like it to go 11. …They left a gap, not much of a gap, but because of [Mark] Pike and [Mark] Maddox [blocking] there was enough room to get it. … I slid in there and the ball was there. And then Tasker grabbed me and said, ‘Get out of there, they’re going to kill you.'”

Tasker: “That play itself was the point at which the fans appreciated that we had not given up.”

Wide receiver Don Beebe scored a 38-yard touchdown pass on the next drive, but he was pushed out of bounds before the catch was made. The referees missed it.

Beebe: “When [Oilers cornerback Jerry Gray] shoved me and my momentum carried me — I’ve seen the highlight 1,000 times — my left foot touched the line. I never realized at the time.”

Gray: “Sometimes referees, they make mistakes, and everybody clearly could see it, but if the guy doesn’t take his hat off, and throw it on the ground, I mean he obviously did step out of bounds … It was something that you try to dispute, but the thing you don’t want to do is go negative on the referee, because all of a sudden, they’re not going to see you in a positive light.”

Oilers defensive quality control coach Gregg Williams: “I saw it from the box, and was complaining about that down there, but we had no challenges back in those days. … I don’t know if there’s any pictures of our sideline with those guys, the coaches complaining or hollering at the referees, because I saw that, and we did talk about that over the headsets.”

Score: Oilers 35, Bills 17

In the second half, the Oilers struggled offensively. Houston did not have a single first down in the third quarter, and in the fourth, the Oilers wasted a scoring opportunity when holder Greg Montgomery bobbled a snap on a botched field goal attempt.

Gray: “Instead of trying to win the game, I think we kind of changed the mindset to not losing the game, and that’s a big difference. A lot of people don’t understand that, when you play not to lose, you’re probably going to lose.”

Oilers safety Marcus Robertson: “From a managing-the-game perspective, when the weather was bad, we shouldn’t have passed the ball, we should have been running the ball, throwing incomplete passes, stopping the clock; there were several things that we did that were at the time [not] good decisions in my personal opinion, based on the conditions of the of the day.”

After the Beebe score, Reich threw two touchdowns to Andre Reed in the third quarter. The Bills had one offensive drive that stalled, but with the Oilers’ offensive and special teams issues, the Bills were able to take the lead in the fourth quarter on a third touchdown pass to Reed.

Score: Bills 38, Oilers 35

McDowell: “For some reason, we were just letting Andre down the seam, he was killing us down the seam, we couldn’t even get that right. … We were trying to just try kind of switch [cornerback] Chris Dishman and [move safety Steve Jackson], because Chris was a better cover guy, man-to-man cover guy, just on Andre, because he was really the only one that was killing us.”

Reich: “The fourth touchdown pass, the third one to Andre, the one that put us in the lead [I look back on]. It was up the right seam, about a 20-yard touchdown pass that was obviously a huge play in the game, and one of those as a quarterback where there’s really only one place the ball could be, it wasn’t a whole lot of margin of error.”

McDowell: “Somebody had to take a timeout and regroup these guys and get everybody settled down. We didn’t do that. We did not do that the whole second half, we just kept playing through it, kept playing through it. Guys on the sideline just, OK, what’s happening, what’s going on?”

Williams: “We didn’t control the clock. We didn’t control how many snaps that Buffalo got on offense to have a chance to control. It’s a total team thing.”

The Oilers put together one last drive to tie the game on a 26-yard Al Del Greco field goal, which sent the game into overtime.

Metzelaars: “They had put together a good drive at the end of the fourth quarter to take the lead.”

Beebe: “When [Reed] scored a third one and we went up three points, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re gonna win this game!’ And then they go down and finally score a field to tie it. We’re like, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ We come all the way back this far, and then they tie it, now it’s going to go to overtime.”

Tasker: “The surprising thing was that nothing happened for the Oilers that broke that momentum. They never did anything. Even the field goal that sent it into overtime, it did not break the momentum.”

Score: Oilers 38, Bills 38, end of regulation

Fans weren’t initially allowed to reenter the stadium after leaving, so they climbed over fences to get back in. Eventually, they were allowed in for safety reasons. The Oilers got the ball first but Bills cornerback Nate Odomes intercepted Moon on the third play of overtime.

Gray: “Overtime, we still thought we had a chance to win the game.”

Metzelaars: “We kicked off to them and felt like our defense was going to get a stop and we were going to get field position and get a chance to go down and score. Then Nate Odomes gets the interception, and we get the ball [at the Houston 20-yard line after a 15-yard face mask penalty on the Oilers].”

Gilbride: “I remember saying, ‘What did you do?’ [Moon] said, ‘What’s the difference? It was third down, we had to get it. If we didn’t get it, we weren’t gonna stop them.’ We hadn’t stopped them the whole second half, that’s what his thinking was, so he kind of forced it in there. I’m saying, you just can’t play like that. You gotta believe that they’re gonna stop them this time.”

Christie: “As soon as [Odomes] picked it off, I was telling myself, ‘Well, that’s it, I better get ready. We’re gonna win this thing, it’s over.’ It’s kind of like, yeah, I hope I get the chance. I hope to God it goes in, and I hope I can just go home after this, because it’s been the craziest playoff. And that was my first playoff game.”

After the Bills ran two running plays, a large crowd witnessed Christie’s game-winning 32-yard field goal.

Final score: Bills 41, Oilers 38 (OT)

Beebe: “At that point, we’re like, ‘Well we got one of the best kickers in the league. He’s gonna make this, and we’re gonna win this game.’ And when it went in … I just remember my reaction … going out there sprinting and tackling Frank [who was the holder] and I’m on the ground on top of him in his face just in elation and screaming, euphoric.”

Christie: “Everybody kind of had this whole idea of we can’t believe this happened, but there’s also that sense of relief that it’s over, and we’re moving on.”

McDowell: “They were loud. At the end of the game, I just sat, like stunned and I couldn’t move for probably like 20 minutes, just hearing the fans behind me. A couple of guys came and got me and tried to get me off the bench. And I was like, “Geez, this did not just happen.'”

Reich: “I remember celebrating that with my teammates and the next thing I remember running off the field, looking up into the stands where my family was sitting, my wife and probably 20 members of my family all sitting up there, looking at them going crazy up there. That was pretty special.”

Tasker: “For each person in the stadium and on both sidelines, there was a moment when the comeback became inevitable. I think that was a sensation that most people would remember from that game. There was one point where before it happened, everybody knew it was going to. And I think that’s the thing that sets it apart.”

Levy: “After all the celebration in the locker room after the game, Frank finally said to me, ‘Coach, I knew you said I’d lead the greatest comeback, that’s why I threw that interception.'”

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