The 1990 Buffalo Bills were looking to take the next step. Marv Levy started as head coach in 1987 for a struggling team and by 1988, they were in the AFC Championship Game. They won another AFC East title in 1989. The 1990 edition broke through and reached the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
It started with an explosive offense that led the NFL in scoring. Jim Kelly was a Pro Bowl quarterback and ran a no-huddle attack with efficiency and explosion. Kelly’s favorite target was Pro Bowl receiver Andre Reed, with veteran James Lofton and tight end Keith McKeller mixed in.
The best all-around talent was running back Thurman Thomas. A 1st-team All-Pro, Thomas ran for nearly 1,300 yards. He was an able pass-catcher and his 49 receptions were second on the team. There were two Pro Bowl offensive lineman blocking for him, in center Kent Hull and left tackle Wil Wolford.
An outstanding linebacking corps produced three more Pro Bowlers in Darryl Talley, Shane Conlan and Cornelius Bennett. One of the best pass-rushers of all time in Bruce Smith was at defensive end, and Smith recorded nineteen sacks. The Buffalo defense ranked sixth in the league.
A visit to Miami in Week 2 was the only negative of the early going—the Bills rushed for 44 yards, and were manhandled 30-7. But they won consecutive home games against the Broncos and Raiders, scoring special teams touchdowns in both. Buffalo was 4-1 at the bye.
The Bills ripped off eight wins in their next nine games. The only loss was 27-24 on Monday Night in Houston to the playoff-perennial Oilers. The wins included a victory over playoff-bound Philadelphia 30-23, where Kelly lit up a good defense for 334 yards.
This nine-game stretch culminated on December 15 in the Meadowlands against the Super Bowl-contending Giants. Buffalo’s defense made two big red zone stops that were the difference in a 17-13 win.
There were two downsides. Kelly was injured and out until the playoffs. Furthermore, Buffalo had only had the ball for 22 minutes. It was a foreshadowing of how the season would end.
AFC EAST SHOWDOWN
Buffalo was 12-2, had a one-game lead on Miami and could clinch both the East and the #1 seed in the AFC when the Dolphins came north. But that head-to-head loss of Week 2 meant a Miami win could relegate the Bills to the 4-seed.
Frank Reich got the start at quarterback and delivered in the rain. He was a sharp 15/21 for 234 yards and no interceptions. The Bills dominated the ground game, with Thomas rushing for 154 yards. Buffalo won 24-14, gave key players some rest the following week in a loss to the Redskins and rolled into the postseason at 13-3.
Kelly was back for the early afternoon kickoff on January 12 that started Divisional Round Weekend and it was a Round Three with Miami. Undeterred by the steady snow, Kelly fired a 40-yard touchdown strike to Reed on the game’s opening drive. Kelly later threw a 44-yard pass to Lofton that set up a field goal, tossed a 13-yard touchdown pass to Lofton and put his team ahead 27-10 late in the second quarter.
Marino rallied the Dolphins and the lead was cut to 30-27 in the fourth quarter. But Buffalo drove it immediately back down the field and Thomas ran for a touchdown. Immediately following, Kelly threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Reed to stretch the lead to 44-27 and it ended 44-34.
The AFC Championship Game against the Raiders was more of the same. In spite of 18mph winds, Kelly again opened with a touchdown pass on the game’s first drive, this time to Lofton. The Bills’ defense forced seven turnovers. Thomas ran for 138 yards and caught five more passes.
How bad was the carnage? Las Vegas oddsmakers set the Over/Under on combined points for this game at 37. Buffalo beat that number by themselves by halftime. It was 41-3 at intermission and the 51-3 final still constitutes the worst blowout in a conference championship game.
SUPER BOWL HEARTBREAK
All the momentum was with Buffalo and they were a (-6.5) favorite over the New York Giants. Thomas was fantastic, with 135 yards rushing, 55 more receiving and a big touchdown run in the fourth quarter. But the Giants held the ball for a record 40:33. Trailing 20-19, Kelly drove his team for a last-second 47-yard field goal try, but it hooked right.
This was still the start of one of the great franchise runs in the history of sports. Buffalo would reach an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls. Even though they never got the last win of the year, the sustained excellence that started in 1990, as the culmination of a gradual build, was impressive indeed.