The Comeback (American football)
The Comeback, sometimes known as The Choke or 35–3, was an NFL playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers. The game was played at Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York on January 3, 1993. It featured the Bills recovering from a 32-point deficit to win in overtime, 41–38, and as of the end of the 2018–19 season[update], it remains the largest comeback in NFL history. It was played in what was then known as Rich Stadium (now called New Era Field), and was televised by NBC, with Charlie Jones and Todd Christensen calling the action.
Rich Stadium, the site of the game.
|Date||January 3, 1993|
|Stadium||Rich Stadium, Orchard Park, New York|
|TV in the United States|
|Announcers||Charlie Jones and Todd Christensen|
Both teams qualified for the playoffs as wild card teams.
The Buffalo Bills, the American Football Conference (AFC) champions for the previous two seasons, recorded an 11–5 record during the 1992 regular season and finished in second place in the AFC Eastern Division. Buffalo's no-huddle offense led the league in rushing yards (2,436) and ranked second in the league in total offensive yards (6,114 yards). The main keys to their success would be their four future hall of fame players on offense: Quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas, and receivers Andre Reed and James Lofton. Buffalo also had a Hall of Fame defensive end, Bruce Smith, who would go on to become the NFL's all time leader in sacks.
Meanwhile, the Houston Oilers finished in second place in the AFC Central Division with a 10–6 record. Houston's run and shoot offense led the league in passing (4,231 yards) and its defense ranked third in the league, allowing only 4,532 total yards. Overall, the team boasted nine pro bowl selections, including their quarterback Warren Moon (despite missing six games with injuries) and three wide receivers, Curtis Duncan, Haywood Jeffires, and Ernest Givins. The Oilers also had a powerful running attack with Lorenzo White, who rushed for 1,226 yards and caught 57 passes.
The Bills and Oilers had faced each other for the final game of the regular season, with Houston defeating Buffalo, 27–3 in Houston. During that game, Kelly suffered strained ligaments in his knee, leaving backup quarterback Frank Reich to finish the game in his place. Reich completed a mere 11 of 23 passes for 99 yards, with 2 interceptions and a passer rating of 23.6. With Kelly out, Reich would take the reins starting in place of Kelly the following week in the wild card game, which Buffalo hosted. Reich would also start the following divisional playoff game in Pittsburgh in which Buffalo also won 24–3 to advance to the AFC Championship game the following week versus the Miami Dolphins.
In addition to losing Kelly, injuries would also rob Buffalo of one of their best defensive players for the upcoming wildcard game: linebacker Cornelius Bennett.
Reich and the biggest comeback in college football historyEdit
As the backup quarterback for the Maryland Terrapins, Reich replaced starter Stan Gelbaugh on November 10, 1984, and led the Terrapins back from a first-half deficit of 31–0 to a 42–40 victory over the Miami Hurricanes under Bernie Kosar. This college record stood until being broken by the 2006 Michigan State vs. Northwestern game.
Houston dominated the game early, as quarterback Warren Moon completed 19 of 22 passes for 218 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first half, while the Oilers held the ball for 21:12, keeping the Bills' high-powered offense off the field for most of the first two quarters. On the opening drive of the first quarter, Moon completed 6 of 7 passes on an 80-yard scoring drive that took over 9 minutes off the clock and ended it with his first touchdown throw to wide receiver Haywood Jeffires for 3 yards to give the Oilers a 7–0 lead. Buffalo responded on their ensuing drive, as Kenneth Davis returned the kickoff 33 yards to the 44-yard line. Reich subsequently led the Bills to the Oilers 18-yard line where Steve Christie made a 36-yard field goal, to cut the score to 7–3. But Moon struck right back, leading the Oilers on a second quarter scoring drive that was nearly identical to their first one, completing 6 of 7 passes on another 80-yard drive and finishing it with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Webster Slaughter. Then after forcing the Bills to a three-and-out, Moon threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Curtis Duncan. Later on, with 1:15 left in the half, the Oilers drove for another touchdown, aided by an encroachment call against the Bills on fourth down and 1. Moon completed the drive with his second touchdown pass to Jeffires, this one a 27-yarder, and the Oilers went into their locker room with a 28–3 halftime lead.
In the Bills' locker room, Defensive Coordinator Walt Corey angrily chided the defense. "I was hollering the same things the fans were hollering at me when we left the field", Corey says. "I can't repeat the words, but the more I talked, the louder I got. The thing that bothered me was their approach. To me, they looked timid. They looked like they were going to get in the right spots, but they weren't going to make anything happen afterward. This is an attitude game. Sometimes you start playing and you're afraid to make things happen or afraid to make a mistake." Nose Tackle Jeff Wright recalled "With every word that came out of Walt's mouth, he reached a new temperature level, until he finally just exploded. He had every right to say the things that he said. We were embarrassing him, we were embarrassing ourselves, we were embarrassing Buffalo Bills fans."
Meanwhile, head coach Marv Levy told his team, "You've got thirty more minutes. Maybe it's the last thirty minutes of your season. When your season's over, you're going to have to live with yourselves and look yourselves in the eyes. You'd well better have reason to feel good about yourselves, regardless of how this game turns out." Steve Tasker praised the "brilliance in his simplicity ... We had been in two Super Bowls, and he appealed to our pride. It wound up working".
Reminding Reich about his comeback while at Maryland, Kelly said "maybe lightning will strike twice" as the team began the second half. The Bills started the 2nd half on their own 36 yard line, and apparently, the words of Corey and Levy did not have any immediate effect, because 1:41 into the third quarter, and on a 3rd and 9, Reich threw a pass that bounced off the hands of tight end Keith McKeller and went into the arms of defensive back Bubba McDowell, who returned the interception 58 yards for a touchdown. Houston now had a 32-point lead, 35–3; it was only the second time all season the Oilers had broken 30 points scored in a game. The Bills' misfortunes were compounded with the loss of Thurman Thomas, who had to leave the game due to a hip injury on the drive, forcing Buffalo to attempt a comeback with a second-string backfield of Reich and Davis.
A Houston radio announcer was immortalized on NFL Films with the statement "The lights are on here at Rich Stadium, they've been on since this morning, you could pretty much turn them out on the Bills right now."
The Bills got a huge assist to start their comeback on the ensuing kickoff. The wind shifted the ball just before it was kicked by Al Del Greco. As a result, it became an unintentional squib kick that the Bills recovered with great field position at midfield. Buffalo then drove 50 yards in 10 plays, including a pass to Pete Metzelaars that went right through the hands of linebacker Eddie Robinson, and scored with a 1-yard touchdown run by Davis, cutting the deficit to 35–10 when the extra point was added. On the drive, Reich completed a 24-yard pass to tight end Metzelaars and a 16-yard strike to Andre Reed, while Davis kept the drive going with a 5-yard run on fourth down and 2 before finishing it off with a touchdown run with 8:52 left in the 3rd quarter.
The Bills, still with a 25 point deficit, tried an onside kick. Steve Christie, Buffalo's kicker and punter recovered his own onside kick and the Bills scored on the fourth play of their ensuing drive with Reich's 38-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Don Beebe. One of Beebe's feet went partially out of bounds during the run before he made the catch, and it should have been ruled by the officials as an illegal touching of the football; this was pointed out on ESPN's NFL Primetime postgame recap as well as by Todd Christensen on the NBC broadcast, but no penalty was called on the play, and at the time the NFL did not have any replay challenge system to challenge the call. The extra point made the score 35–17 with 7:46 left in the third quarter.
Houston was then forced to punt for the first time in the game on their next drive, and Greg Montgomery's 25-yard kick gave Buffalo the ball at their own 41-yard line. Reich started out the ensuing drive with an 18-yard completion to James Lofton. Davis gained 20 yards on a screen pass and then Reich threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Reed, trimming the lead (after making the extra point) to 35–24. In a span of 10 minutes in the third quarter, the Bills had run 18 plays, gained 176 yards, and scored 21 points, while holding the Oilers' offense to 3 plays for 3 yards.
The situation did not get any better for Houston. On the first play of the Oilers' ensuing possession, Moon's pass was tipped off the hands of Slaughter; Bills' safety Henry Jones intercepted the pass from Moon and returned it 15 yards to the Houston 23-yard line. Three plays later, Buffalo faced fourth down and five on the 18-yard line. Rather than attempt a field goal, Reich connected with Reed for the touchdown. With the score (including the extra point), the Bills had cut their deficit from 32 points to four in a span of just 6:52. On the Oilers' next drive, linebacker Darryl Talley forced a fumble from Moon while sacking him. Houston recovered the fumble, but they were forced to punt, and Montgomery's 24-yard kick gave Buffalo the ball at its 48-yard line. In the third quarter, Buffalo had outscored Houston 28–7 while holding Moon to 2 of 7 completions for 19 yards.
This time, the Bills could not take advantage of their excellent starting field position and had to punt. Moon's run and shoot offense began to move the ball effectively again, aided by a roughing the passer penalty on Bruce Smith that negated linebacker Carlton Bailey's interception. Despite two sacks by Wright on the drive, Houston reached the Buffalo 14-yard line. Al Del Greco attempted a field goal to increase the Oilers' lead, but Montgomery fumbled the snap. Talley recovered the ball and returned it 70 yards, but officials ruled him down by contact when he made the initial recovery, giving Buffalo the ball on their own 26-yard line. After two plays, the Bills faced third down and four. With Houston's defense dropping back and expecting a pass, Reich handed the ball off to Davis, who stormed through the line and took off for a 35-yard gain. Only a diving tackle from defensive back Steve Jackson prevented Davis from taking it all the way for a touchdown. Then Reich went back to passing the ball, completing a short pass to Reed at the Oilers' 17-yard line on third down and two for the first down. With just 3:08 left in the fourth quarter, Reich threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Reed, giving Buffalo its first lead of the game 38–35 (after the extra point); for the first time all season, the Houston defense (ninth in fewest points allowed that season) had allowed over 29 points. But Moon led Houston downfield on a 63-yard drive to score the tying 26-yard field goal from Del Greco to send the game into overtime. A key play on the drive was an 18-yard completion to Slaughter on fourth down and four from the Bills' 34-yard line.
Houston won the coin toss and got the ball at its 20-yard line. Moon started out the drive with two completions for 7 yards, but his 50th pass attempt of the day turned out to be his last. On third down and three, Moon threw a pass intended for Ernest Givins five yards downfield. Givins was not able to get to the ball and it ended up further downfield into the arms of defensive back Nate Odomes for an interception. After a 2-yard return, Jeffires committed a 15-yard facemask penalty while making the tackle, giving Buffalo a first down on Houston's 20-yard line. Game commentators examined the replay and strongly asserted that Givins was held on the play by Darryl Talley. However, the referees assessed no holding penalty against Buffalo, so they retained possession. After two runs by Davis, Christie kicked a 32-yard field goal to give Buffalo the win, 41–38.
Reich finished the game with 21 of 34 pass completions for 289 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 1 interception. Reed had 8 catches for 136 yards and 3 touchdowns. Davis rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown, while also catching 2 passes for 25 yards and returning a kickoff for 33. Moon recorded 36 of 50 completions for 371 yards and 4 touchdowns, with 2 interceptions. His 36 completions set a playoff record that would stand until broken by Drew Brees's 39 completions in 2010 (Brees's New Orleans Saints also lost that game). Givins caught 9 passes for 117 yards. Jeffires recorded 8 catches for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Many left the stadium while the Oilers had the large lead; Tasker recalled "seeing so many empty seats" in the third quarter and Reich saw "a big wave of people leaving", which Buffalo News reporter Vic Carucci described as "they're pouring out of the gates, getting in their cars, driving home". They returned when they heard on the radio of the Bills' comeback; tickets did not permit reentry, so people climbed fences until the stadium reopened the gates. Team general manager Bill Polian recalled how the same fans who had left in disgust after denouncing to him the Bills' inability to beat the Oilers, ran back to their seats praising the team. Kelly said, "the old saying was, 'Did you know that 150,000 people went to the Buffalo Bills football game?'", Levy said "70,000 people were at that game. I've already met 400,000 of them", and Tasker joked "I've met 1.2 million people who say they were in the stadium".
Tasker said of the game:
It's probably bigger in Buffalo than the Ice Bowl is in Green Bay or the Immaculate Reception is in Pittsburgh, because those cities have experienced eight Super Bowls between them. Since the Bills haven't won any, we kind of hang our hat on that comeback game ... In a way, it was our crowning moment.
Carucci said of the game:
It reset the love affair with that team. People had become jaded, people had become upset with the idea that they just didn't see the success at the end of the rainbow. And now they had this, and this reminded them of how special this football team really is.
The game was Christie's first in the postseason; after kicking the winning field goal he asked "Wow! Are all playoff games like this?" The Bills won their next two games, 24–3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and 29–10 against the Miami Dolphins, advancing to Super Bowl XXVII, where they were beaten by the Dallas Cowboys 52–17.
Tasker heard that "the visiting locker room was like a funeral home" after the game. Oiler Cris Dishman told an interviewer, "It was the biggest choke job in history ... I think we have to put another word in the English dictionary to describe this loss because devastated doesn't do it". The next day, the Oilers fired defensive coordinator Jim Eddy and defensive backs coach Pat Thomas. Eddy was replaced by Buddy Ryan. In Houston, the game has come to be known as "The Choke". "Choke City" was a Houston Chronicle front-page headline in 1994, given to the city of Houston after the Houston Rockets blew two consecutive commanding fourth-quarter leads at The Summit in the first two games of their Western Conference semifinals match-up versus the Phoenix Suns in the 1994 NBA Playoffs. The Rockets went to Phoenix down 0–2 in the best-of-seven series. It was feared at the time that the Rockets would follow the same fate as the Oilers did. During this era, no Houston-based professional sports team from an existing sports league (the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball) had won a championship. The Rockets, however, would rally to win the series and go on to win NBA championships in 1994 and 1995.
In addition, the Oilers' loss marked the beginning of a turbulent period for the franchise. The team suffered a drama-filled 1–4 start the following season, including a blowout loss in a rematch with the Bills, before winning the final eleven games of the season to clinch what would become their final playoff appearance in Houston. After losing in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs at home, Oilers owner Bud Adams cut or traded many of his team's star players, and the Oilers suffered through three losing seasons before deciding to move to Nashville (with an interim stop in Memphis in 1997) to eventually become the Tennessee Titans.
On September 25, 2011, the Bills rebounded from a 21–0 deficit to defeat the New England Patriots 34–31. When Rian Lindell kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired, radio play-by-play announcer John Murphy enthusiastically dubbed their victory "The greatest comeback since The Comeback!"
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Buffalo Bills-From 32 points behind to win
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The Buffalo Bills overcame a 32-point third-quarter Houston lead
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