Chuck Knox became head coach of the Buffalo Bills when they were coming off a 3-11 season in 1977. This was a franchise that had some good moments—three straight winning seasons, including one playoff trip, from 1973-75, with O.J. Simpson. They came within one game of reaching the first Super Bowl in 1966. The 1980 Buffalo Bills, Knox’s third team brought the postseason back to Buffalo, even if they couldn’t bring the Super Bowl.
This wasn’t a team bursting at the seams with talent. Defensive tackle Fred Smerlas was the only Pro Bowler on the defensive side of the ball, and this unit was the strength of the team. Buffalo ranked third in the NFL in points allowed.
There were two Pro Bowlers on offense, starting with rookie running back Joe Cribbs, who ran for nearly 1,200 yards and caught 52 passes. Wide receiver Jerry Butler also made the Pro Bowl. Quarterback Joe Ferguson was respectable and the 30-year-old threw for 2,800 yards with a TD-INT ratio of 20/18. It wasn’t fantastic, but by the standards of the era, it was above average.
The offense still lagged behind the defense, ranking 12th in the NFL. The Bills were in a division with the New England Patriots, who had been producing winning teams in recent years and the Miami Dolphins, the reigning AFC East champs and the pre-eminent power of the decade under the coaching of Don Shula.
That Knox, who had spent most of the 1970s turning out playoff teams for the Los Angeles Rams, beat out the Patriots and Dolphins is testament to his coaching ability.
Buffalo had to be ready right out of the gate, with Miami coming in for Week 1. Ferguson played poorly, throwing five interceptions, but the Bills’ defense answered back with four picks of their own, and they also won the rushing battle. Two fourth quarter touchdowns produced a 17-7 win.
Ferguson picked up the next week at home against the New York Jets, going 18/29 for 207 yards and no mistakes. Buffalo spotted the visitors a field goal and then ripped off 20 straight points, including a Pick-6 from Jeff Nixon and they won 20-10.
Buffalo was a modest (+2) underdog in New Orleans and trailed 19-14 at the half. But this Saints’ team would be the worst in the NFL in 1980. Cribbs rushed for 89 yards, while the Bills held New Orleans’ runner Chuck Muncie to 22 yards and Buffalo eventually won 35-26.
The next two weeks would produce tests against the teams that would prove to be the best in the AFC West, the Oakland Raiders—who ultimately won the Super Bowl this season—and the San Diego Chargers. The Bills showed what they were made of. Buffalo’s defense dominated Oakland, forcing five turnovers and holding the Raiders to 70 yards rushing. Oakland’s defense scored a touchdown, but their offense did nothing, and the Bills got a 24-7 home win. The next week’s game at San Diego provided another chance to meet Muncie—the Chargers had just acquired the talented running back from the Saints. Buffalo again shut him down, with Muncie gaining just 37 yards.
But San Diego had a high-powered passing attack led by Dan Fouts and they led 14-3 in the second quarter. Buffalo linebacker Lucius Sanford turned the tide of the game with a fumble return for a touchdown. And while the Chargers couldn’t run, Cribbs chipped away for 87 yards. The Bills took care of the ball, while forcing four turnovers and eventually a fourth-quarter touchdown from Cribbs won it, 26-24.
Buffalo was rolling along at 5-0, but after the early big wins, they let down at home against the mediocre Baltimore Colts. Ferguson was erratic, going just 17-for-36, and the Bills lost 17-12. Then they dropped a road game in Miami when they dug a 14-0 hole thanks to allowing a touchdown off a turnover, couldn’t get the running game going and lost 17-14.
The Bills were now a game back of the Patriots in the AFC East (which at this time included the Colts, along with the division’s four current teams). New England came to Buffalo on October 26 for a big midseason battle.
After spotting the Pats a field goal, Ferguson threw a pair of second quarter touchdown passes to Frank Lewis. The game was still tight, 17-13 Buffalo in the fourth quarter. But Cribbs was controlling the game on the ground. He finished with 118 yards and rushed for two fourth quarter touchdowns to lead a 31-13 win.
If Buffalo was the surprise team in the AFC, the Atlanta Falcons had that honor in the NFC, and the two teams played in Atlanta on November 2. This time it was the Bills who had the early lead—14-zip with a Ferguson TD pass and Cribbs TD run—but then the Falcons ripped off 30 straight points and won going away.
The Jets finished 4-12 and when the Bills went into old Shea Stadium and grabbed a 17-0 lead, it looked like this game would be easy. But New York didn’t go away and they crawled all the way back to a 24-24 tie, as early evening settled on the Big Apple. It was oddly foreshadowing of a playoff game that would take place here one year later, when Buffalo first blew a big lead and then hung on for dear life. Today, Ferguson found Lewis on a touchdown pass that got the Bills out of town with a 31-24 win.
Buffalo’s defense delivered the next week in Cincinnati, holding a subpar Bengal team to 68 yards rushing in a 14-0 win. The next game was at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers. This was not an opponent who would make the playoffs, but the Steelers were the two-time defending Super Bowl champions and on November 23 they were still very much alive.
The Steelers left Buffalo with their heads hanging. Ferguson found Butler for a 29-yard touchdown pass in the first half and the Bills led 14-10. Cribbs ran over the proud Steel Curtain defense and led a team effort that produced 178 yards rushing. Buffalo pulled away to a 28-13 win.
Given the prominence of the 1970s Steeler Dynasty and the fact they never recovered after this game—either this season or with this core group of players—it’s not too much to say the victory by the 1980 Buffalo Bills was a seminal moment in NFL history.
Maybe that explains Buffalo’s inability to get up for the games with Baltimore, because they went south and after scoring the game’s first 14 points, the Bills fell asleep and lost 28-24. They were still 9-4 though, and holding on to first place over the 8-5 Patriots. The Dolphins had slipped to 6-7 and would not challenge for the AFC East crown.
The schedule didn’t provide any favors though, with a home game against the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams followed by a trip to New England. The game against the Rams was a defensive battle, and Buffalo’s only points in regulation came on a 47-yard interception return by Steve Freeman. The game was tied 7-7 in overtime before the Bills finally won it. The next night, fans in Buffalo watched with delight as Miami beat New England. The Bills had a two-game lead in the AFC East with two weeks to go.
Buffalo still didn’t have the tiebreaker—if they lost in New England, the Patriots would gain the edge, thanks to Buffalo’s divisional losses to Baltimore. And with their first AFC East title at hand, the Bills didn’t exactly meet the moment. For the second straight week, the offense failed to score any points. This time, all the defense got was a safety in an embarrassing 24-2 loss.
The Bills could still clinch if they won at San Francisco. But this wouldn’t be easy. The 49ers were 6-9, but this was the team, led by Bill Walsh and quarterbacked by Joe Montana, that would win the Super Bowl a year later. Less than a month earlier, the Patriots had come west and walked home with a loss. San Francisco was aiming to complete AFC East parlay.
Furthermore, Buffalo did not have a playoff berth in hand if the division got away. The entire AFC was packed top-to-bottom. The format at the time was three division winners and two wild-cards (like MLB is today). San Diego and Oakland were both going out of the West. Houston was in out of the Central and Cleveland was set to clinch too (and even if the Browns lost, that would benefit the Patriots, who had beaten Cleveland head-to-head, rather than Buffalo).
That’s the long explanation for this reality—Buffalo went to San Francisco facing what was, for all practical purposes, a win-or-go-home situation. And they had to do so with an injured quarterback—Ferguson had badly messed up his ankle in Foxboro, but he was a gamer and would play in the finale.
Ferguson threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Butler, but the missed extra point kept the early lead at 6-0. The missed PAT loomed large with the game tied 13-13 in the fourth quarter. Cribbs was stepping up, as he had all year long, and finished with 128 yards. Buffalo was finally able to get a field goal, and then get modest breathing room a safety. They won 18-13 and were division champs.
The two weeks off provided only marginal improvement to Ferguson’s ankle and that proved costly in the divisional round at San Diego. Buffalo played well here for the second time this season and had a 14-3 lead. But Ferguson couldn’t get comfortable in the pocket. He finished with three interceptions, including a critical one in the red zone that might have put the game away. Fouts eventually pulled the game out with a 50-yard touchdown pass with 2:08 left.
Buffalo’s 20-14 loss was a tough way to end the season, but that couldn’t take away from how much the time overachieved and finally broke through, with its first AFC East crown.