Friday, January 4, 2013

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Houston Oilers for Blowing a 35-3 Lead in the Playoffs

I missed a notable sports anniversary yesterday.  Let me make up for it now:

January 3, 1993, 20 years ago: The Houston Oilers led the 2-time defending AFC Champion Buffalo Bills, 35-3, with 13:19 left in the 3rd quarter, at Rich Stadium (now Ralph Wilson Stadium) in Orchard Park, New York.  To make matters worse, the Bills' Hall of Fame quarterback, Jim Kelly, had been injured earlier in the game, and the Bills were relying on backup QB Frank Reich.

In other words, with a backup at the helm, the Bills had to be a net +32 points over the last 28 minutes of the game, just to tie.

Final score: Bills 41, Oilers 38, in overtime.

It was, and remains, the greatest comeback in NFL history, and it happened in the Playoffs.

Cue Jim Mora Sr., at the time the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, but leading the Indianapolis Colts when he said it in 2001: "Playoffs? Don't talk about Playoffs! You kiddin' me? Playoffs?"

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Houston Oilers for Blowing a 35-3 Lead in the Playoffs

5. False Confidence.  Just 7 days before, at the Astrodome in Houston, the Oilers had beaten the Bills by a whopping 27-3.  Which means that, in a little more than a game and a half in a week, they'd outscored the Bills 62-6.  That's a high school blowout score.

But the Oilers went into that regular-season finale with a record of 9-6, and had to win just to get into the Playoffs.  In contrast, the Bills went in 11-4, having already clinched not just a Playoff berth but a home game in the first round.  The Bills didn't need to win that game -- the Oilers did.  Faced with a Bills team that did have to win, the Oilers probably got overconfident.  If you'd hung 62 points on a team in a span of 32 minutes of football, you'd be overconfident, too.

4. Bills Weather.  The Oilers were used to playing in the Astrodome, in total climate control.  The joke was that the temperature was 72 degrees, with the wind blowing from the north, east, south and west at 1 mile per hour.  In Orchard Park that day, it was 34 degrees, and the 14 MPH wind made the temperature 24 with the wind chill factor.  And it started to snow.  Put it all together, and you have Bills Weather.  Just as the Dallas Cowboys couldn't quite hold up under "Packer Weather" in "the Ice Bowl" in the 1967 NFL Championship Game, 25 years and 3 days earlier, that other Texas team couldn't hang onto a 4-touchdown lead on the windswept plain just off the shore of Lake Erie.

3. Steve Christie.  Unlike Scott Norwood, who 2 years earlier had to kick from 47 yards out on grass, but had great weather for it, Christie's potential game-winner, while just 32 yards away and on turf, was in cold, snow and wind (which is the greatest enemy of any kicker), went through the uprights.  Christie doesn't get nearly as much credit for winning this game as Norwood gets blame for losing Super Bowl XXV -- and while Christie's kick won only a Wild Card game, there were, as ESPN proved in their Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame... piece on Norwood, plenty of reason why he has been unfairly vilified for sending that kick wide right.  (They never did an episode on the Bills comeback/Oilers choke.)

2. Frank Reich.  He led 5 touchdown drives in the 2nd half, going 21-for-34 for 289 yards.  And, unlike Jim Kelly, who stupidly threw 8 passes over the middle in the last minute of Super Bowl XXV, when he should have been throwing toward the sideline to stop the clock -- to hell with what the Giants' defense was doing, you do not throw over the middle when you need to save time -- in overtime he got the Bills to the Oilers' 15-yard-line, so Christie's field goal would be 32 yards, instead of the 47 that Kelly left Norwood to have to kick.  Reich had the kind of game that comes just once in a lifetime.

Except it came twice in his lifetime.  He he had done this before: In 1984, he was quarterbacking the University of Maryland against the University of Miami at the Orange Bowl -- which was an even better home field for them than it was for the Miami Dolphins.  Bernie Kosar had led the Hurricanes to a 31-0 halftime lead, and their defense had knocked Stan Gelbaugh out of the game.  To be fair, Gelbaugh was only in because Reich himself had been injured a few weeks earlier.  But Reich came off the bench, and when it was over, the Terrapins had won, 42-40.

So until 2006, when Michigan State wiped out a 38-3 Northwestern lead to win 41-38, Reich had come off the bench to win the biggest comebacks in the history of both the NCAA and the NFL.

1. The Bills Were Better.  They were, after all, the 2-time defending AFC Champions.  They were, after all, at home.  As for the Oilers, they had already lost 4 of their last 5 Playoff games, and didn't win another one for another 7 years -- by which point they were the Tennessee Titans.  The Oilers had 3 Pro Football Hall-of-Famers: Quarterback Warren Moon, tackle Bruce Matthews and guard Mike Munchak.  The Bills had 4: Quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, receiver James Lofton and defensive end Bruce Smith; and probably should have 1 or 2 more, definitely receiver Andre Reed, and possibly also receiver-special teams master Steve Tasker.

It is true that the Bills lost 4 straight Super Bowls, in the 1990 to 1993 seasons.  It is also true that they got to 4 straight Super Bowls.  Only one other team, the 1971-73 Dolphins, has even gotten to 3.  The Bills had to do this in an AFC East that had Dan Marino's Dolphins, Drew Bledsoe's New England Patriots and a decent Jets side; and in the AFC Playoffs with Moon's Oilers, John Elway's Denver Broncos, Bernie Kosar's Cleveland Browns, Boomer Esiason's Cincinnati Bengals, Marcus Allen's Los Angeles Raiders, Joe Montana's Kansas City Chiefs, and a Pittsburgh Steeler team that had a defense nearly as nasty as their 1970s Steel Curtain.  So they always had a tough schedule.  Yet they got through it, 4 times in a row.

This loss didn't quite doom the Oilers to having to leave Houston -- you can blame their Astrodome lease and founder-owner Bud Adams' greed for that.  Nor did it absolve the Bills for their 4 straight Super Bowl losses.  But it did show that they were a team that deserved respect.


JBsptfn said...

I don't necessarily think that the Bills were better than Houston. The Oilers had just as many, if not more, Pro Bowlers than the Bills had.

You can blame the Oilers for losing this game.

Robert Polykronis said...