The Buffalo Bills came to the end of the 1992 NFL season the same way they’d reached the previous two—as AFC champions. But the Bills yet to win the sport’s ultimate prize and the pressure was on in the 1992 Super Bowl to win their first title.
Even though they had the experience, oddsmakers liked the Dallas Cowboys. They were young and for some the youth was a concern. But the Cowboys had also been a better team all year long, and were favored by 6 ½ points when they arrived in Pasadena.
Dallas had gone 13-3 during the regular season and won big battle in San Francisco to claim the NFC Championship. Buffalo, unlike its previous runs through the AFC, had not been head and shoulders above the rest. The ’92 Bills came the wild-card route.
They started by producing the greatest comeback in the history of the NFL playoffs, falling behind the Houston Oilers 35-3 and ultimately winning 41-38. More decisive victories against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins on the road followed.
The fact the Cowboys would win this game 52-17 and force a Super Bowl record nine turnovers can make it seem like this game was a fait accompli from the beginning. Certainly, then-Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson does his best to convey that notion in his book Turning The Thing Around.
I have hard time thinking Johnson was really that cocksure—while he’s never lacked for confidence, this is also a coach who six years earlier on the college level had been completely outcoached when leading Miami into a national championship battle with Penn State. If Johnson could blow that game, with a vastly superior talent edge than what he had in 1992, how could he be so sure now?
Nor did the game play out like a mismatch, at least early on. Buffalo’s brilliant special teams player Steve Tasker blocked a punt and set up a quick touchdown. The Cowboys started to force the turnovers, one that set up a touchdown and one that produced the points directly. Even so, trailing 14-7, Buffalo drove to a 1st-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
It was here that the superior talent of Dallas really began to show. The Cowboys came up with a goal-line stand. The ensuing Bills’ drive got them to 3rd-and-1 at the four-yard line and Dallas stopped that play to. Possessions that should have given Buffalo 14 points had resulted in just three.
Meanwhile, Troy Aikman was getting in rhythm. He’d rifled a 19-yard touchdown pass to Michael Irvin on the first real drive the Cowboy offense put together. Dallas now led 21-10. Then came the sequence that realistically decided the game.
Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas took a swing pass and fumbled it away late in the first half. Aikman immediately took complete advantage and gunned another touchdown pass. A game in which the Bills had their share of chances, saw them trailing 28-10 going into the locker room.
The Bills remained nominally in the game. Even though starting quarterback Jim Kelly was injured, it was backup Frank Reich who’d led the epic rally against Houston, and it was 31-17 after three quarters. But Aikman came through again, with a 45-yard-touchdown pass to Alvin Harper to finally blow it open for good.
All that was left was for Dallas defensive tackle Leon Lett to get himself remembered in a less than positive way. Lett recovered another Buffalo fumble and took off for the goal line. In the open field and near the goal line he started to stretch his arms out in celebration. A hustling Buffalo receiver, Don Beebe, stripped the ball. By now, the score was 52-17 so it didn’t matter, but Lett’s hotdogging made him the subject of more than a few jokes. Though we should note in fairness that it’s not all that different from what most players do today. Lett just got busted on the game’s biggest stage.
And Dallas had busted Buffalo on the biggest stage. It was the Cowboy organization’s first Super Bowl title since 1977, and the 1992 Dallas Cowboys were leading the way for a dynasty just getting started.