1992 Buffalo Bills: The Road To A 3rd Straight AFC Crown

In the great four-year run the Buffalo Bills had from 1990-93, when they won four straight AFC championships, no run had more drama than in 1992. The 1992 Buffalo Bills didn’t win their division, faced an insurmountable deficit in the first playoff game and then a difficult road thereafter…but somehow they got it down and reached the Super Bowl for a third straight year.

The usual suspects from the first two Super Bowl runs were still on hand. Jim Kelly had a Pro Bowl year, thanks mainly to a 7.5 yards-per-attempt stat that was fourth-best in the NFL. Thurman Thomas ran for nearly 1,500 yards and was second on the team in catches with 58. Thomas also went to the Pro Bowl.

Andre Reed continued to be the leading receiver and he also punched his Pro Bowl ticket, with a 65 catches/913 yards performance. James Lofton was 36-years-old, but still a valuable second threat, with 51 catches for 786 yards. On the defensive side, Bruce Smith was still the anchor, getting 14 sacks from his end position and making the Pro Bowl.

These five players—Kelly, Thomas, Reed, Lofton and Smith—all made the Hall of Fame. And they led the ‘92 Bills to top five finishes in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

And the talent didn’t stop there. Howard Ballard had a Pro Bowl year at right tackle. Phil Hansen and Jeff Wright joined Smith on the defensive front and combined for 14 sacks themselves. That’s a lot of pass rush production to get from the defensive line in a 3-4 scheme and made blocking the linebackers all the more difficult.

Speaking of those linebackers…Cornelius Bennett had a Pro Bowl campaign on the outside. Stalwarts Shane Conlan, Darryl Talley and Carlton Bailey rounded out the unit. In the secondary, Henry Jones was the top strong safety in the league in 1992 and intercepted eight passes. Mark Kelso picked off seven more from his free safety spot. Nate Odomes, a Pro Bowl corner had five picks.

Buffalo came rolling out of the gate when the season began, winning their first four games. The highlight was a Week 2 visit to San Francisco. The 49ers were on the way to a great season themselves and it was a shootout. Kelly threw for over 400 yards, with both Reed and tight end Pete Metzelaars clearing the 100-yard mark in receiving. San Francisco missed a couple key field goals and the Bills won 34-31.

The winning streak ended with a terrible home performance against Miami, the principal competition in the AFC East. Kelly threw four interceptions in a 37-10 rout that was the low point of a two-game skid.

Buffalo bounced back and ripped off five straight wins, including showcase wins over the Steelers and Dolphins. Pittsburgh was headed for the 1-seed in the AFC and came to Rich Stadium for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff. Kelly was brilliant, going 26/33 for 290 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Wide receiver Don Beebe caught eight balls for 101 yards, while Thomas ran for 155 yards on the ground. The final was 28-20.

The revenge trip to Miami came on a Monday Night and the defense stepped up. They sacked Dan Marino four times and shut down the Dolphin running game. Kelly, after his four-INT disaster in the first meeting, played mistake-free football and Buffalo’s 26-20 win gave them the edge in the AFC East.

But with the record at 9-2, the Bills stumbled. They lost at Indianapolis in overtime and then suffered an inexplicable home loss to the lowly Jets. The Dolphins also lost both of their games in this two-week stretch, but the losses were not created equal. Buffalo’s losses to AFC teams meant that they slipped behind Miami in the tiebreakers.

When the Bills beat the Broncos and then delivered a tough 20-16 road win over a really good New Orleans Saints team, they were still in position to win the division when they went to Houston on the final Sunday Night of the season.

Earlier in the day, Miami had won to complete an 11-5 season. The tiebreakers now loomed large, as it meant Buffalo needed the win. But Kelly was hurt early on and the game was a complete disaster. The 27-3 loss ended the Bills’ four-year run atop the AFC East and sent them into the wild-card round.

Kelly wasn’t done for the year, but he needed recovery time and would be on the shelf for a rematch with Houston the following week. The Oilers (today known as the Tennessee Titans) came to Buffalo for the early Sunday afternoon game of wild-card weekend. And they picked up where they had left off in the regular season finale.

Houston led 28-3 at the half and even the strongest-willed of Buffalo fans had to lose hope when Oiler safety Bubba McDowell returned an interception 58 yards to the house. It was 35-3. The quarterback was Frank Reich. And over the last six quarters-plus, the Bills had been outscored by the Oilers 62-6.

Reich quietly went to work, leading a touchdown drive that at least stopped the bleeding. Then he ripped off three consecutive touchdown passes. And these weren’t chintzy TD passes from down near the goal line. Reich hit Don Beebe from 38 yards out. Reed caught a 26-yard strike and a TD pass to Thomas came from the Houston 18. By the time the third quarter was over, the score was 35-31 and there was still life in Buffalo.

One more touchdown pass to Reed—this one from 17 yards—gave the Bills a stunning 38-35 lead, but Warren Moon rallied the Oilers for a field goal that sent the game to overtime. But Reich hadn’t led his team this far to lose this one and a 32-yard field goal in overtime completed the greatest comeback in the history of the NFL playoffs.

There was no time to celebrate and the Bills had to be feeling a sense of destiny after the Houston game. They went to Pittsburgh and cruised to a 24-3 win, sacking Steeler quarterback Neil O’Donnell seven times and getting 104 yards rushing from Kenneth Davis.

Round 3 with Miami was set for the AFC Championship Game and Kelly was back in the saddle. The game was tied 3-3 after a quarter, but the Buffalo defense never let Marino get untracked. They sacked him four times, twice by Smith. The Bills got five turnovers. They dominated the trenches, winning rush yardage 182-33. The second half was more a coronation party in South Beach, as Buffalo cruised home 29-10.

It was time for a third straight Super Bowl trip. After losses in 1990 to the New York Giants and 1991 to the Washington Redskins, Buffalo would draw another opponent from the NFC East. This time it was the Dallas Cowboys, who had won at San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game.

Buffalo struck early, when their great special teams player, Steve Tasker, blocked a punt and the Bills took a 7-0 lead. But Dallas, with Jimmy Johnson on the sidelines and the Big Three of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin in their first Super Bowl, were a dynasty in the making. The rest of the game was a disaster. The Bills turned the ball over nine times, a Super Bowl record. They trailed 28-10 by halftime and lost 52-17.

Buffalo was far from finished—they won an unprecedented fourth straight AFC title in 1993…and lost an unprecedented fourth straight Super Bowl, again to Dallas. These Bills were an extraordinary team and over a four-year stretch were easily the best in the NFL. They were just never the best in any one individual season.