Bills and Raiders, 1991
Al Davis still shudders whenever the subject is broached. The Darth Vader of the NFL, the patriarch of the Raiders franchise, still has nightmares relating to the events of January 1991 when the Bills dealt his proud and storied team its most devastating loss ever, a 51-3 shellacking in the AFC Championship Game. While the Houston comeback stands as the Bills' greatest achievement, this triumph over the Raiders is the team's signature victory.
By Sal Maiorana
ORCHARD PARK (Jan. 20, 1991) - More times than they'd be willing to admit, the Buffalo Bills sat in the team meeting room the night before a game looking like they were listening to coach Marv Levy, but all the while they were staring right through the old sage.
He'd spin a wonderful yarn about Winston Churchill or recite one of his many quippy quotations, and along the way he'd drop in a few words that very few of his players even knew he existed. "Look it up, Thurman" he laughingly told the star running back on the day Levy presented Jim Kelly to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, recalling the many blank stares he'd get from Thurman and his mates.
And while in some way, on some level, the players knew that whatever Levy was talking about pertained to football, they didn't always grasp the correlation. At least not right away.
"Sometimes when he talks to us, I wish I had a dictionary in my pocket," strong safety Leonard Smith once said. "But just when you say to yourself, 'Huh?' he gives you the meaning. He doesn't leave you hanging."
Levy delivered one such Marvism in training camp prior to the start of the magical 1990 season, and it struck such a chord with linebacker Shane Conlan that right before the start of that year's AFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Raiders, Conlan felt compelled to repeat it.
"My father was in the Marines in World War I, and he was in a famous battle, the Battle of Belleau Wood," Levy recalled. "He had a commanding officer, a major named
'Hard' John Hughes who used to say, 'When it's too tough for them, it's just right for us.' So I had told (the team) this story one hot day in training camp and I hadn't mentioned it much since. But before the kickoff, we gathered the team together on the sidelines and Shane Conlan said, 'Coach, can I say something?' And he said,
'When it's too tough for them, it's just right for us.' And I think our team took that attitude into the game."
For the next three hours on that unforgettable afternoon when Allied bombs fell on Baghdad and Jim Kelly's bombs filled the air at Rich Stadium, it was historically tough for the Raiders, and it was always just right for the Bills. Levy's cerebrally-motivated players played the game of their lives in dealing the Silver and Black a mind-boggling 51-3 defeat to clinch their first Super Bowl berth.
"We're going to The Show, baby," linebacker Darryl Talley said as he hugged team owner Ralph Wilson in the locker room. "We're going to The Show."
It couldn't have been a more glorious, yet poignant day for Wilson. Yes, his team was finally going to the Super Bowl as it pummeled his old rival from the renegade AFL days, Al Davis, with a devastating display of power and precision, the 48-point margin of victory the third-largest in playoff history. But Wilson's elation was tempered by the fact that the United States had just become embroiled in the Persian Gulf War, and it was not lost on Wilson that as the Bills and Raiders were playing a
football game, fellow Americans were fighting a much more important battle in a desert halfway around the world.
A World War II veteran who served his country proudly, Wilson had tears in his eyes as he surveyed the patriotic, flag-waving, record crowd of 80,324 during the emotional playing of the National Anthem by the West Point marching band. And as the throng chanted "U-S-A!, U-S-A!, U-S-A!" he felt genuine respect in his heart for those who had been called on to carry out Operation Desert Storm.
"We are all thinking about the brave men and women over in the Gulf showing so much courage and resolve," Wilson said. "Jack Kemp (Wilson's old Buffalo quarterback who at this time was Bush's U.S. housing secretary) called me a few days ago and said the troops over there wanted the games to be played, and that's why the league has gone
on with them, because that's what the troops want."
There had been doubt, though, right up until the final hours before kickoff whether the AFC and NFC Championship games would go on. Four days earlier President Bush the
elder said "The battle has been joined," as he gave the OK to begin the bombing raids on strategic targets in Iraq and occupied Kuwait.
Fearing retaliatory terrorist strikes in the U.S. by Saddam Hussein, the NFL thought long and hard about postponing the game in Buffalo and the NFC title match later that afternoon in San Francisco between the 49ers and Giants. After all, what better place to make a political statement than at a nationally-televised sporting event where more than 80,000 people had gathered?
The league decided to play its games, which was really too bad for the Raiders.
The Bills won the opening coin toss - no surprise on this day - and they proceeded to run their no-huddle offense to perfection. They had the Raiders gasping so badly for air that after Buffalo had advanced 55 yards in five lightning-quick plays, the Raiders called for a timeout to regroup and catch their collective breath.
"That was the greatest feeling that I've ever had in a game other than putting points on the board," center Kent Hull said. "They told us right there that the only way we can stop you is with a timeout. We were laughing in the huddle."
Said Kelly: "I remember (Raiders defensive lineman) Howie Long telling me on that drive, 'Come on, Jim, slow down.'''
Four plays later, Kelly dropped a shotgun snap, but was still able to throw a 13-yard touchdown pass to James Lofton and you knew right there something was up. The rout was on.
Los Angeles showed its only spark when it touched the ball for the first time. Quarterback Jay Schroeder completed a pair of 26-yard passes to Mervyn Fernandez and Willie Gault, but the Buffalo defense rose up and forced the Raiders to settle for a
41-yard Jeff Jaeger field goal.
Any hope the Raiders had of staying competitive was blown away in the next few minutes. It took Kelly just four plays after the kickoff to put another touchdown on the board as he hit Lofton for a 41-yard gain before Thomas skipped into the end zone
on a 12-yard run.
After a Raiders punt the Bills were on the move again, driving to the Los Angeles 24 before Kelly threw an interception to Garry Lewis. Not to worry. Disappointed groans turned to wild cheers a minute later when Talley picked off a Schroeder pass and raced 27 yards for a touchdown. There was still more than 48 minutes to play and the Bills were ahead 21-3.
"The first thing I thought was 'the football's coming,'" Talley said. "And as soon as I got the ball the only thing I could think of was to get to the end zone as fast as I can."
Levy remembered the impact that play had on the rest of the game. His Bills were thrilled, but they remained resolute, while Art Shell's Raiders seemed to shrivel. "When something like that happens, the other team begins to press," Levy said. "Our
guys stayed very focused, they didn't get giddy on the sidelines."
Things only got worse for the Raiders. Another punt led to another touchdown drive by the Bills. Los Angeles, shell-shocked by Kelly's no-huddle passing, went almost exclusively to a dime defense, so Kelly decided to stick to the ground and he handed off to Thomas and Kenneth Davis on delays and counters out of the shotgun.
"We were always one step ahead of them," Kelly said. This time it was 57 yards in 13 plays with Davis crashing in from the 1 on fourth down. Although Scott Norwood's extra point was blocked, it was 27-3.
The count could have risen again when Los Angeles' Ron Holland muffed the kickoff and Jamie Mueller recovered at the Raiders' 27, but Norwood missed a 45-yard field goal. Pfftt. Like it mattered. The Bills' defense forced another punt, and Kelly's 44-yard strike to Steve Tasker led to Davis' three-yard TD run to make it 34-3.
Still not ready to call off the attack, Nate Odomes intercepted a Schroeder pass and returned it to the Raiders 39, setting up Kelly's eight-yard TD pass to Lofton 1:06 before the end of the half.
As the Bills left the field at intermission to a resounding standing ovation, their 41 first-half points a new NFL playoff record, the grounds crew down at Tampa Stadium - site of the following week's Super Bowl - got busy. There was no need to wait for this game to end. It was over, so they began painting "BILLS" in one of the end zones.
The second half was a mere formality. Davis added his third touchdown run of the day, Norwood kicked a 39-yard field goal, and the defense protected the sanctity of the slaughter by blanking the Raiders with the help of three more interceptions of
When the carnage was complete, 18 championship game records had been set including most first downs (30) and highest completion percentage by a quarterback as Kelly, in throwing for 300 yards, completed 17 of 23 for 73.9 percent. Thomas finished with 138 yards rushing and another 61 receiving, and Lofton had five catches for 113 yards as the Bills amassed 502 total yards.
"Not in my wildest dreams did I think we'd score 51 points against these guys," said Kelly.
Defensively, the Bills recorded six interceptions and seven turnovers, and held Marcus Allen to 26 yards. "We had the kind of day where it seemed we couldn't do anything right," said Schroeder.
In the locker room, as the Bills celebrated their first AFC/AFL title since 1965, Talley recalled the horror of Buffalo's back-to-back 2-14 seasons in the mid-1980s. "I went through the jokes, you know, like 'Knock, knock. Who's there? Owen. Owen who? Oh-and-10. Yeah, I thought about the bad years. You'd go out in public and people would be snickering and laughing at you behind your back. I just tried to play as hard as I could during those times and I hoped that eventually better times would
Happy days were here for Talley and the Bills. And there was hope for the happiest day of all when, one week hence, they would play in Super Bowl 25.
POSTSCRIPT: "I've been to almost every Super Bowl and every time I'm there, I daydream. When the players would run out on the field, electricity would fill the stadium and I'd think 'Boy, wouldn't it be great if someday the Bills were able to run out of that tunnel on a Super Bowl Sunday.' I'm a little shell-shocked by the tremendous performance the team put on today. This is probably the best performance the Bills have ever had. Anything in the last 31 years that didn't go the right way, it was all turned around today."
And then it turned back around in Tampa. Instead of it being the happiest day in team history it became the saddest when Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with four seconds remaining and the Bills lost the championship game to the Giants, 20-19.
The Bills would go on to win four consecutive AFC championships, a record that may never be broken, and they would go on to lose every Super Bowl, another record that may never be broken. It was a time of ultimate highs and ultimate lows for this franchise, and 51-3 was the highest of the highs.
One more time: 51-3.
SOURCES: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle; The Buffalo News.