The Buffalo Bills took a step backward in 1989—after winning 12 games in a breakout year under head coach Marv Levy and quarterback Jim Kelly in 1988, the Bills slipped to 9-7. But that was still good enough to win the AFC East and in retrospect, was important in that it kept the franchise moving forward to what would be its greatest heights. Here are the key highs and lows of the 1989 Buffalo Bills…
*An offense that was the third-best in the NFL was top-heavy reliant on running back Thurman Thomas, a 1,200-yard rusher who also caught 60 passes, along with wide receiver Andre Reed, who caught 88 balls. While Kelly was good and made big plays, he was also mistake-prone and its Thomas and Reed—who each made the Pro Bowl—that deserve the bulk of the credit.
*The offensive front was solid, with a Pro Bowl center in Kent Hull and emerging offensive tackles in Wil Wolford and Howard Ballard. Defensively, the Bills could be leaky at times, ranking 14th in a 28-team league in points allowed. But they had playmakers, notably Bruce Smith at defensive end, Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley at outside linebacker and free safety Mark Kelso, who picked off six passes .
*Buffalo hosted Denver for Monday Night Football in Week 2 and it proved to be an omen for how the AFC race would shake out. Kelly was intercepted three times. The defense was pounded for over 200 rush yards. The Broncos won 28-14 in a game where the Bills were a (-6.5) favorite. It foreshadowed that John Elway’s team, rather than Kelly’s, would be the one stepping up to make a run to the Super Bowl.
*The Bills still played steady football for the first three quarters of the season. Key highlights were early wins over playoff-bound teams in the Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Rams. In Houston, Kelly outgunned Warren Moon in a wild 47-41 overtime game that ended with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Reed. Against the Rams, at home on Monday Night, Kelly was hurt and Frank Reich was in. Thomas stepped up with 172 all-purpose yards, the rush defense collared LA’s Greg Bell and the result was a 23-20 win.
*Those high points were balanced off by aggravating losses at Indianapolis and Atlanta. At Indy, the Bills turned the ball over six times, were outrushed 153-71 and lost 37-14. The Falcon loss was 30-28 on a last-second field goal, but inexcusable, given that Atlanta was one of the NFL’s worst teams in 1989.
*Buffalo still got their record to 8-4 after beating Cincinnati 24-7 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, behind a dominating ground attack. The Bengals had beat the Bills the previous year’s AFC Championship Game and they ended up narrowly missing the playoffs this season. Small payback to be sure, but payback nonetheless.
*With the AFC East firmly in their grasp and the path to the 2-seed in the AFC behind Denver all clear, Buffalo fell apart and lost three in a row. The last of the three, to the eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers was to be expected. Losing at home to a non-playoff team in Seattle on Monday Night was not. Nor was Kelly throwing three interceptions in a 22-19 home loss to New Orleans, another non-playoff team.
*Buffalo still had a hole card—they held the tiebreakers in a race where they, the Colts (an AFC East team prior to 2002) and the Dolphins were all 8-7 and Buffalo had a game with the woeful New York Jets on deck. The Bills righted the ship on a Saturday afternoon in the Meadowlands, as Thomas and fullback Larry Kinnebrew pounded out yards amidst 18mph winds and Buffalo coasted to a 37-0 win.
*One week later, on another early Saturday afternoon kick in the Northeast, with weather playing a role, the season ended in heartbreak. Buffalo traveled to Cleveland where the field was cold and icy. Kelly played one of his best games of the year, completing 28/54 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns. Thomas caught 13 of those passes for 150 yards.
But a missed extra point had the Bills down 34-30 instead of being within a field goal when they made their final drive. Running back Ronnie Harmon had the winning touchdown pass in his grasp and dropped it. On the next play, Kelly was intercepted in the end zone. The season was over.
The Super Bowl expectations the 1989 NFL season began with weren’t fulfilled in Buffalo. But the Bills continued to establish that they were the new sheriff in town when it came to the AFC East. And the biggest breakthrough was immediately ahead—in 1990, Buffalo made it to the first of what remains a historic run of four straight Super Bowls.