The Buffalo Bills would have the great dynasty of the AFC in the early 1990s, winning four straight conference championships from 1990-93. They never won the Super Bowl, but the four straight appearances remain unprecedented. The 1988 Buffalo Bills were the edition that first cracked the postseason with Marv Levy at head coach and Jim Kelly at quarterback.
Levy took over midway through a 1986 season that would end at 4-12. That was after two straight 2-14 seasons. In 1987, Levy got the Bills to 7-8 (there were only 15 games played due to a players’ strike). Buffalo entered 1988 with legitimate playoff aspirations.
Kelly was 28-years-old and would throw for over 3,300 yards in a Pro Bowl season. Kent Hull, the Pro Bowl center, anchored the offensive line and a talented young left tackle in Will Wolford began to make his mark.
The Bills dispersed running game duties among four players, Robb Riddick and Jamie Mueller at fullback, along with Ronnie Harmon at halfback. And the fourth? A rookie named Thurman Thomas who would make an immediate impact and eventually become one of the NFL’s best. Andre Reed was a Pro Bowl receiver and caught 71 passes for 968 yards.
It was still the defense that really carries this Buffalo team. The offense ranked middle of the pack, 14th in what was then a 28-team league. The defense ranked 3rd. Defensive end Bruce Smith and linebacker Cornelius Bennett were each 1st-team All-Pro and combined for 20 ½ sacks. Nose tackle Fred Smerlas and inside linebacker Shane Conlan also reached the Pro Bowl on a unit that was not only talented, but young.
Buffalo opened the season at home with the Minnesota Vikings, a team on the rise and fresh off reaching the NFC Championship Game in 1987. It was a tough, physical game, but Thomas ground out 86 yards and the Bills won 13-10. They won another battle with the Miami Dolphins 9-6, getting a pair of fourth-quarter field goals from kicker Scott Norwood to come from behind.
Norwood delivered the Bills again the following week in New England. Buffalo trailed 14-3 at the half before scoring ten points, and then Norwood booted the game-winning field goal in a 16-14 victory. Buffalo went to 4-0 with a home victory over what was a subpar Pittsburgh Steelers team. The Bills got five turnovers, blocked a punt for a touchdown, and Kelly threw for 288 yards in a 36-28 win.
They were 4-0 and after not reaching the playoffs—or even having had a winning season since 1981—no one was going to complain. But it was not an impressive 4-0. Two of the wins, over the Dolphins and Steelers, came against bad teams. The Patriots were far from a powerhouse. Yet all the games had been close.
What’s more, a road test against a genuinely top team, the Chicago Bears, went poorly in Week 5. The Bills got zero yards rushing, and even though Kelly played reasonably well, the lack of a running game against the league’s best defense was too much to overcome. Buffalo lost 24-3.
The Indianapolis Colts had won the AFC East in 1987, and they came to Buffalo the following week. The Bills dug a big hole, trailing 17-0 in the first quarter. But their defense gradually took control. They held the great Colt running back Eric Dickerson to 66 yards. Kelly threw for 315 yards and three touchdown passes and Buffalo took the lead in the fourth quarter, eventually winning 34-23.
Buffalo now stepped onto the Monday Night stage in the Meadowlands, against the New York Jets. And they were ready. Kelly hit Reed with a 65-yard touchdown strike to get the scoring underway in the first quarter. Kelly then went 66 yards to Flip Johnson. The quarterback finished with 302 passing yards and the result was a 37-14 rout.
The Bills hosted the Patriots a week later and won another AFC East game in a division where everyone except Miami would finish over .500. In spite of losing three fumbles and the turnover battle 4-0, Buffalo held off New England with a great defensive effort and another clutch kick from Norwood, to seal a 23-20 win.
Thomas rumbled for 116 yards and the defense scored two touchdowns in an easy 28-0 win over the woeful Green Bay Packers. A trip west to face the Seattle Seahawks in the Kingdome, produced a tough 13-3 win over a team that would win the AFC West. Kelly completed 16/25 for 180 yards to give the offense just enough juice to win.
Buffalo went to Miami and crushed the Dolphins on the ground, 205-33 in rush yardage, with Harmon and Riddick doing the damage in a 31-6 win. Another big display of running took place in a 9-6 overtime win over the Jets. This time it was Riddick and Thomas that carried the load.
The win over the Jets pushed the Bills’ record to 11-1 and it clinched the AFC East. They were also in strong position for the #1 seed in the AFC overall, and could all but seal it if they won a road game with the Cincinnati Bengals, who were leading the AFC Central. But the Bills turned it over four times and were beaten up front by the Bengal running game in a 35-21 loss.
Buffalo still had a loss to give in the race for the #1 seed. But they gave the margin for error away in a terrible 10-5 road loss at lousy Tampa Bay. The Bills committed 12 penalties and rushed for just 39 yards. They were able to restore their mojo by beating up the Los Angeles Raiders at home 37-21, keyed by Thomas’ 106 rushing yards.
All that was left was to win at Indianapolis and the road to the Super Bowl would go through Buffalo. Kelly went 17/29 for 204 yards and hooked up with Reed twice for touchdowns. The Bills led 14-3 in the fourth quarter. But the December slide continued when this excellent Buffalo defense allowed Gary Hogeboom to lead consecutive touchdown drives and the Colts won 17-14. Buffalo would end up as the #2 seed behind Cincinnati, and it would prove costly.
New Year’s Day dawned in Buffalo, and the Bills hosted the Houston Oilers in the AFC divisional playoff. It was a scoreless first quarter before Riddick pounded over the game’s first touchdown. Thomas ran in from 11 yards out and gave the Bills a 14-3 lead. Reed caught six passes for 91 yards and allowed Buffalo to keep Houston at arm’s length and win 17-10.
Now it was time to visit Cincinnati for the AFC Championship Game and the day didn’t work out. Neither Kelly, nor his counterpart, league MVP Boomer Esiason, played well, Esiason threw two interceptions and for just 94 yards. But Kelly threw three picks, and the Bengals found a running game while the Bills didn’t. The rush yardage differential was 175-45 and the final score was 21-10.
That was the bad news. The good news was that the winning was just getting started in Buffalo. They won the AFC East again the next season. Two years later, the run of Super Bowl trips began. The franchise made the postseason seven times in eight years under Levy and it was the 1988 Buffalo Bills that got the run started.