The 1981 Buffalo Bills were coming off the first AFC East title in franchise history. The coaching of Chuck Knox had brought success, with a formula of tough defense, a running game and a passing attack that could hit you for the big play. The Bills made it back to the postseason in 1981, although the hopes of reaching the franchise’s first Super Bowl ultimately came up short.
Buffalo’s defense only had one Pro Bowler, nose tackle Fred Smerlas, but the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. Coordinator Tom Catlin oversaw a unit that ranked sixth in the NFL in points allowed.
The focal point of the offense was gifted 23-year-old running back Joe Cribbs. He ran for 1,097 yards, compiled 603 more catching the football and made the Pro Bowl.
So did 34-year-old wide receiver Frank Lewis, thanks to over 1,200 yards receiving. Jerry Butler was another reliable target, with over 800 yards receiving.
Joe Ferguson was behind center and he was boom or bust. Ferguson’s 51 percent completion rate was adequate by the standards of the time, his over 3,600 yards were solid and his 7.3 yards-per-pass exceptional. But he did throw interceptions. The TD-INT ratio of 24/20 wasn’t intolerable, as it would be today, but it was the biggest reason the offense only ranked 20th in the league scoring points.
There were no problems of any kind in the season opener at home against the New York Jets. Ferguson went 15/24 for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Butler was the primary target, racking up over 100 yards receiving and catching the touchdown that stretched the lead to 17-0 in the third quarter. The final was 31-0.
A road trip to the woeful Baltimore Colts was next and Ferguson took advantage of a historically bad defense, throwing four touchdowns in a 35-3 rout. A Thursday Night game–a rarity in 1981–was next with the Philadelphia Eagles, defending NFC champs. Buffalo was at home and led 14-10 at home. But they didn’t run the ball, didn’t stop the run and Ferguson was erratic, 14/30 for 187 yards. The Eagles took over the second half and won 20-14.
Buffalo traveled to Cincinnati, where the Bengals were coming off a 6-10 year, but would roll to 12-4 this season. Ferguson was excellent as he waged a passing battle with Ken Anderson, the eventual league MVP. Ferguson threw for 287 yards, Anderson for 328 and both quarterbacks had three touchdowns against zero interceptions.
Lewis staged his own battle against a rookie wide receiver that would one day be in everyone’s home on Sunday Night–Cris Collingsworth. Lewis caught eight passes for 132 yards, while Collingsworth caught ten for 111 yards. The game went to overtime, but the Bills came up short 27-24.
A visit from the Colts–an AFC East rival prior to the realignment of 2002–was just what the doctor ordered. Cribbs ran for 159 yards in a 23-17 win. A bigger win came on Monday Night against Miami and a contending Dolphins team. Ferguson lit up Buffalo’s Rich Stadium with a 338 yards and another 3/0 TD-INT performance, Lewis being the prime target again. The score was 31-7 at half and ended a deceptively respectable 31-28.
Buffalo looked back on track, but a visit to old Shea Stadium to face the Jets proved problematic. New York was starting to overcome a slow start and would join Buffalo and Miami in the AFC East’s race to the finish. The winds were blowing at 17 mph, and the Bills did not run the ball, losing this battle 200-43. They were in the game in the third quarter, but came apart in the end of a 33-14 loss.
Cribbs ran for 123 yards as Buffalo survived a tough home game with Denver, thanks to three Nick Mike-Mayer (pronounced “mick-a-meyer”) field goals, none of them chip-shots. The final was 9-7 and would prove to be a significant win against a Bronco team that was a playoff contender.
November opened with a 22-13 win over a Cleveland team that had won a division title in 1980, but was spiraling out of contention this year. Cribbs caught a 58-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson in the first quarter and a 60-yard TD pass in the fourth quarter.
Ferguson’s strengths and weaknesses were both on display for the Monday Night audience when Buffalo went to Dallas, where the Cowboys had a vintage Tom Landry team that would win 12 games. Ferguson threw for 301 yards and had the Bills up 14-7 at halftime. He also threw four interceptions and they ultimately lost the game 27-14. Then he followed it up with his worst performance of the season, throwing four interceptions in St. Louis, as the Bills lost 24-0 to a mediocre Cardinals team.
New England was on its way to 2-14 and the first pick in the draft, although the Patriots did often put up spirited fights. That was the case here, as they came to Buffalo and led 17-13. The Bills were getting production from two relatively unheralded running backs. Roosevelt Leaks rushed for 92 yards and Roland Hooks caught six passes.
With the Bills facing a damaging upset loss and time for one play from the Patriot 36-yard line, Hooks caught his final pass of the day, a desperation pass from Ferguson, and scored the winning touchdown. The win kept Buffalo over .500, with a 7-5 record and they were a half-game behind Miami and New York, who had played to a tie earlier in the year and were both 7-4-1.
Cribbs was out for a home game with the Redskins, who were a mediocre team overall, but much better in the second half of the season in their first year under Joe Gibbs. Hooks came up big again, rushing for 108 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown run that broke a 14-14 tie in the third quarter. The 21-14 score stood up and the Bills kept pace with the Jets and Dolphins.
The San Diego Chargers had ousted Buffalo from the playoffs in 1980 in a particularly tough loss. Cribbs was back in the lineup, but the big story was the Bills’ performance in the red zone. The Chargers had a high-powered offense and a bad defense, so both teams moved the ball. Lewis caught five passes for 113 yards, and Buffalo won 28-27 because they scored touchdowns, while forcing a couple San Diego field goal attempts.
Buffalo now had wins over the AFC West’s top two contenders, Denver and San Diego. The Bills also got a break when the Jets were upset in Seattle. Buffalo was 9-5, a half-game behind Miami–whom they would still play–and a half-game ahead of the Jets in the race for two wild-card spots.
The Bills went to New England and got a first quarter touchdown run from Leaks, while Cribbs took a pass from Ferguson and scored on a 39-yard touchdown pass. That was enough, as Buffalo chiseled out a 19-10 win thanks to Cribbs’ 153 rushing yards.
Buffalo’s win clinched a playoff spot. It was still possible they could finish behind New York, but the only other wild-card contenders would be the Denver/San Diego runner-up and it was guaranteed that the second place team (it turned out to be Denver) could be no better than 10-6. Buffalo had ten wins in the bank and head-to-head wins over both teams. They were in, and could go for a repeat AFC East title in Miami.
It was a late Saturday afternoon kickoff in Miami, and Buffalo really struggled offensively. Ferguson went 14/29 for only 140 yards and threw two interceptions. Cribbs ran reasonably well, gaining 94 yards, but couldn’t make the big play. The same goes for the defense–good outing, but they only forced one turnover, while the Dolphins collected three.
Miami won the game 16-6. Buffalo would go to the wild-card round and when the Jets won on Sunday, it meant the Bills would open on the road.
Oddsmakers saw the Bills and Jets as basically even, so New York got the customary homefield edge of being a three-point favorite when they kicked off in the early afternoon of the last Sunday in December. Buffalo wasted no time getting started.
Charles Romes scooped up a fumble and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown. Then Ferguson connected with Lewis on a 50-yard scoring strike. After a field goal, Ferguson hit Lewis again, this time from 26 yards out and it was 24-0 by the early second quarter.
Buffalo’s defense struggled to hold up though, and with Ferguson also throwing four interceptions on the day, New York came back. It was 24-13 by the third quarter, although when Cribbs took off on a 45-yard touchdown run to make it 31-13 it looked like the Bills had finally turned back the tide.
But they hadn’t. The Jets, thanks to 377 passing yards from Todd, kept coming and cut the lead to 31-27. Then they drove it into the red zone with time for two more plays. The Bill defense had been opportunistic and already intercepted Todd three times, in addition to scoring off the fumble. One more big play saved them. Bill Simpson picked off Todd at the goal line and preserved the win.
No one had expected a shootout, with little in the way of the running game, as 17 mph winds swirled in Shea. But that’s what happened in a memorable AFC wild-card game.
Buffalo went back to Cincinnati to face the top-seeded Bengals and just as the two teams had in September, they staged a great game. Buffalo rallied to tie after trailing 14-0 and did it again after falling behind 21-14. Trailing again 28-21, they were driving late in the game and facing a 4th-and-4. One of the most infamous moments in franchise history–if not NFL playoff history–happened.
Lou Piccone had only caught five passes all year, and when he ran a short out to the right side and caught this one from Ferguson for the first down, it was the biggest moment of the little wideout’s career. And it would be nullified by a delay of game penalty–one after a timeout, no less. Buffalo now had to convert 4th-and-9, but couldn’t. The season was over.
And so was this team’s brief two-year run of success. Buffalo began to decline in the strike-shortened year of 1982 and then collapsed. Better times were ahead–Marv Levy would arrive in the late 1980s, playoff teams would churn out and a record four straight AFC championships opened the early 1990s. But the 1981 Buffalo Bills, while a good team, seem one of missed opportunity–defined by a ill-fated delay of game penalty.