The 1991 Buffalo Bills were driven by a mission. They had come within one missed field goal of winning a Super Bowl in 1990 and only taking the final step would be enough in the immediate years after. Buffalo fans would watch a lot of outstanding championship football over the ensuing three years—winning an AFC title an unprecedented four straight times. But the Lombardi Trophy would continue to be the missing element.
Buffalo had one of the most high-octane offenses in the NFL, with frequent recourse to the no-huddle and quarterback Jim Kelly often calling his own plays. Kelly was 1st-team All-Pro in 1991, ranking in the top five among QBs in both completion percentage and yards-per-attempt. His 17 interceptions were high—but so were his 33 touchdown passes.
There was no shortage of weapons around Kelly and that started with versatile running back Thurman Thomas. Known as “the Michael Jordan of the NFL” for his tremendous athleticism, Thomas had his best year in 1991. He finished third in rushing with 1,407 yards. He led all running back with 4.9 yards-per-carry in spite of a heavy workload that often works against high averages in a stat like this. He caught 62 passes out of the backfield. His individual exploits were honored with the MVP award.
Kelly and Thomas were both future Hall of Famers and were joined by two more Canton-bound players at wide receiver who had Pro Bowl years in 1991. Andre Reed caught 81 balls for 1,113 yards. James Lofton, at age 35, was still a big play threat, catching 57 passes and averaging 18.8 yards per catch. The offensive line had the league’s best center in Kent Hull, a Pro Bowler in guard Jim Ritcher and at the tackles were Will Wolford and Howard Ballard, who were each consistent Pro Bowl players even if they did not get that honor in 1991.
The offense scored the second-most points in the NFL and often had to cover for a defense that could be a little lax. There were some great individual players to be sure, particularly at linebacker. Cornelius Bennett was a Pro Bowler on the outside, as was Darryl Talley on the inside. Shane Conlan was coming off three straight Pro Bowl years and while 1991 marked the beginning of a gradual career descent, he was still a tough player on the inside.
What Buffalo lacked was great players in the secondary. Normally they could make up for that by the presence of future Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith. But knee problems limited Smith to five regular season games and the Bills defense ended up 19th in the league in points allowed.
The Bills had gotten their stiffest challenge in the AFC East a year earlier from the Miami Dolphins and that’s who they opened the season with in the late Sunday afternoon time slot at home. After spotting the Dolphins a 14-zip lead, Buffalo kicked into gear. Kelly went 29/39 for 381 yards. Reed caught eleven balls for 154 yards. And Thomas? Merely 165 yards rushing and 103 more receiving, as the Bills rallied for a 35-31 win.
Pittsburgh had been a borderline playoff contender the previous two seasons and they were the next visitor to Rich Stadium. This Steelers team wouldn’t be very good and Kelly lit them up for 363 yards and six touchdowns, four going to Don Beebe. Reed and Thomas cleared the 100-yard barrier in receiving and rushing respectively in a 52-34 win.
A road trip to play the New York Jets gave Buffalo their first real challenge of the 1991 season. They were outrushed 168-64. Thomas made up for it with his receiving skills—he caught 13 passes for 112 yards, including the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter as the Bills survived 23-20. It was more of the same in Tampa the next week, as Buffalo spent three quarters futzing around against a bad team and was tied 10-10. Kelly finally found tight end Keith McKeller on a 29-yard touchdown pass and the upset bid was turned back, 17-10.
It would take a better performance to beat Mike Ditka’s playoff-bound Chicago Bears on their visit to Buffalo that closed out September. The game was tight defensively for a half, with the Bills leading 7-6, before the offense finally unleashed again. Kelly was 19/29 for 303 yards, with Lofton doing the most damage this time, his four catches going for over 120 yards. Thomas ran though the tough Bear defense for 117 yards and Buffalo pulled away to win 35-20.
The Bills stepped onto the Monday Night stage in Kansas City, with the Chiefs another team who had made the playoffs in 1990, would do so again in 1991 and generally play pretty good football throughout the decade. Buffalo was pounded on the ground, losing rush yardage 239-65 and this time they weren’t going to wiggle out of it. They also turned the ball over five times and the first loss of the season was a 33-6 prime-time embarrassment.
A woeful Indianapolis team was the right antidote. The Bills got physical on the ground with Thomas and Kenneth Davis each rushing for 100-plus in a 42-6 win. A quick return to Monday Night Football at home against Cincinnati provided an opportunity for redemption in front of the national audience. Lofton caught eight passes for 220 yards in a 35-16 rout. Buffalo went into their bye week with a 7-1 record.
Two weak opponents in New England and Green Bay awaited out of the bye. Buffalo didn’t dazzle anyone but they got the job done. Thomas ran a combined 232 yards in the two games. Reed and Lofton took turns as Kelly’s lead target. The victories of 22-17 and 34-24 sent Buffalo into another Monday Night appearance, this time in Miami.
Buffalo was locked in a tight 10-10 game, but the running game was the difference, with Thomas going for 135 and Davis pounding out 98 more, as the Bills pulled away to win 34-13. On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving they made a return trip to New England and Kelly played poorly. He threw four interceptions in a 16-13 upset loss.
The Bills were 10-2 and still in command of the AFC East with a three-game lead. They had a one-game edge on the Houston Oilers for the top playoff seed. The Jets, the nearest pursuer in the division came up to Buffalo and forced four turnovers and the game was tied 10-10 at the half. Thomas was rolling though, rushing for 124 yards and they got some chunk plays from Lofton, whose five catches generated 109 yards. The 24-13 win clinched the organization’s fourth straight division title and an Oiler loss nudged Buffalo ever-closer to home-field advantage in the playoffs.
It was needed cushion because a rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship Game against the Los Angeles Raiders was next. The Bills fell behind 27-14 on the road, but Kelly got rolling, finished the game 33/52 for 347 yards and pulled out a 30-27 win.
The following Sunday Night in Indianapolis (the Colts were an AFC East team prior to 2002, along with the division’s four current teams), Buffalo locked up the 1-seed with an easy 35-7 win. The regular season ended with a 17-14 loss to a good Detroit Lions team, but Kelly and Thomas didn’t play, the winds were gusting at 22mph and the Lions were playing for a chance at a first-round bye. There was no reason for the defeat to raise any alarms.
In fact, there was reason for increased optimism as the playoffs beckoned—Bruce Smith’s recovery had gone well enough that he would be available for postseason play. After a week off, Buffalo hosted Kansas City in a revenge game on early Sunday afternoon.
The October result between these two teams notwithstanding, the Bills were still a hefty 10 ½ point favorite. Kelly got it going early with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Andre Reed and the pair hooked up again in the second quarter, this time for 53 yards. Before the half was over, Kansas City quarterback Steve DeBerg was knocked out.
Buffalo’s lead grew to 24-0 in the third quarter, 37-7 in the fourth and the final was 37-14. Even with Kelly throwing three interceptions, the Bills got 100-yard games from Thomas on the ground and Reed in the air. They shut down the potent KC ground game and intercepted backup quarterback Mark Vlasic four times, two of the picks coming from Kirby Jackson. This was a Bills team that looked like it was coasting into the Super Bowl and a heavyweight fight with the NFC’s powerful Washington Redskins.
Except that this was the last really good football game the 1991 Buffalo Bills played. They got timely defensive play against Denver in the AFC Championship Game, turning back five first-half drives past midfield and keeping the game scoreless. They knocked John Elway out of the game. But the offense could do nothing and it was still a 0-0 tie in the third quarter.
Linebacker Carlton Bailey made the play of the game, intercepting a tipped screen pass on the Denver 11-yard line and taking it in for Buffalo’s only touchdown of the afternoon. They got a field goal in the fourth quarter and hung on for a 10-7 win. They were headed back to the Super Bowl.
During the season the Bills and Redskins had been eyeing each other up from across the conference aisle. But as the year went on and the playoffs progressed, Washington seemed to separate themselves, at least in the eyes of Las Vegas. Buffalo was a seven-point underdog in Minneapolis for the Super Bowl and that proved to be overly generous.
Thomas missed the game’s first couple plays because he couldn’t find his helmet and the game went downhill from there. Kelly threw four interceptions, including two that set up easy Redskin touchdowns. The Bills were in a 24-0 hole in the third quarter. When they closed it to 24-10, Washington promptly reeled off 13 straight points and put the game away. A couple late TD passes by Kelly made the 37-24 final score respectable, but it was a game that was never in doubt.
Buffalo was in the midst of a four-year stretch where they were the NFL’s pre-eminent franchise. The teams they lost Super Bowls too—the Giants in 1990, the Redskins in 1991 and the Cowboys each of the next two years—all had sub-.500 years in that same 1990-93 stretch. It’s how this era of Bills teams should be remembered. But their loyal fans can’t be blamed for longing for that one last win that never came.