The 1993 Buffalo Bills were looking to make history. No team had ever won four straight conference championships, either before or since. These Bills were out to be the first and they did it, concluding a four-year run where they were the class of the AFC.
Thurman Thomas, the great all-purpose running back was the focal point of the offense. His 1,315 rushing yards ranked third in the league and he made the Pro Bowl. Andre Reed, the Pro Bowl wide receiver, averaged better than 16 yards-per-catch. Tight end Pete Metzelaars and wide receiver Bill Brooks actually caught more balls than anyone else on the team and Don Beebe was also in the mix at the wideout spot.
Orchestrating all of this was 33-year-old quarterback Jim Kelly, who was a throwback in that he called his own plays. Kelly finished in the top ten in both completion percentage and yards-per-attempt. That, along with his leadership, made up for high interception totals. An 18/18 TD-INT ratio wasn’t as unthinkable in 1993 as it would be today (There were nine other starting quarterbacks intercepted at a greater rate than Kelly), but the picks did likely cost the future Hall of Fame signal-caller another Pro Bowl trip.
Buffalo’s offensive line was getting older, but still has Pro Bowl left tackle Howard Ballard as its anchor. The other side of the ball was led by defensive end Bruce Smith, a Hall of Famer still at the top of his game. Smith recorded 14 ½ sacks and was 1st-team All-NFL. Outside linebacker Cornelius Bennett continued to be a Pro Bowl force as a disruptor. And opposing offenses paid a price for thinking they could pick on corner Nate Odomes, who intercepted nine balls.
The Bills were among the league’s upper crust in both offense and defense, they had championship experience and they were hungry to finally turn those AFC titles into the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy.
Buffalo paid a Week 2 visit to Dallas in a rematch against the team that had shellacked them 52-17 in the previous year’s Super Bowl. The Cowboys were in turmoil, with star running back Emmitt Smith in a contract holdout. The Bills’ defense forced four turnovers and got a 13-10 win before the late Sunday afternoon national TV audience.
Three weeks later, on a Sunday night at home, the Buffalo defense stepped up against the New York Giants and picked off Phil Simms three times. The Bills won 17-14. A week later, the Houston Oilers and Warren Moon came to Rich Stadium for Monday Night Football. Buffalo intercepted three more passes, forced seven turnovers in all and won 35-7.
By the season’s midpoint, the Bills were in 7-1 and the victories over the Cowboys, Giants and Oilers were all against teams that would finish the regular season with 11-plus wins.
Then came a hiccup. Buffalo lost three of their next four, all to eventual playoff teams. The slide started on a Monday Night in Pittsburgh. Even though the Bills only turned the ball over once, the offense was so inept that it resulted in a 23-0 loss. Another decisive loss came at Kansas City and Buffalo dropped a 25-24 decision at home to the Los Angeles Raiders.
At 8-4, the Bills were now trailing the Miami Dolphins by a game in the AFC East and the New York Jets were sneaking up on them at 7-5. Buffalo stopped the bleeding with a 10-7 win over mediocre Philadelphia and then got set to face both divisional foes in succession.
The Bills were a (+3.5) underdog in Miami, who had been playing without Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino since Week 6. Kelly was outstanding, going 20/30 for 245 yards, but it was a shootout at halftime and the Bills’ lead was 26-20. Odomes made the game-changing play in the third quarter, a 25-yard fumble return for a touchdown. It started a run of 21 unanswered points and the Bills eventually won 47-34.
On the day after Christmas back in Buffalo, the winds were gusting at 23mph. Kelly played well, going 20/31 for 256 yards, but was intercepted twice in the conditions. His counterpart, Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason, was even better, going 22/31 for 232 yards and no mistakes. But Buffalo kicker Steve Christie was the difference. While New York missed three goal attempts, Christie nailed all three of his tries, including one in the fourth quarter that delivered a 16-14 win.
The three-game win streak, combined with the Dolphins and Jets falling apart in other games, meant Buffalo pulled away with the AFC East title. A 30-10 win at Indianapolis ensured the Bills would have the #1 seed in the playoffs with a 12-4 record.
After a week off, Buffalo hosted the Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional round. The kickoff was early Saturday afternoon in frigid conditions and the Bills were slow out of the gate. They dug themselves a 17-6 hole in the second quarter. Just before the half, Thomas ran eight yards for a touchdown to get them back in the game. Kelly threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Brooks in the third quarter to get the lead at 22-17 after Christie missed the extra point.
Raider receiver Tim Brown caught an 86-yard touchdown pass and even though this extra point was also missed, the Bills still trailed 29-23 early in the fourth quarter. Kelly was doing what a veteran quarterback does though and that’s responding to playoff pressure. He finished the game 27/37 for 287 yards and not an interception to be found. And another strike to Brooks, this one from 22 yards, gave Buffalo a 29-23 lead with 12:05 left.
The defense made it stand up and the offense controlled the ball for the final six minutes to seal another playoff win at Rich Stadium.
Kansas City was coming to town for an early afternoon AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs had acquired Joe Montana at quarterback and the Hall of Fame great had thrown three second-half touchdowns in a 28-20 upset at Houston the previous week, derailing the red-hot Oilers, who had won 11 in a row and were the trendy pick to dethrone Buffalo in the AFC.
An early touchdown run by Thomas gave Buffalo the lead, and the defense made a couple red-zone stops to keep the lead at 7-6. Another scoring run by Thomas extended the margin to 14-6, but then it was the Bills’ turn to miss red-zone opportunities. Twice, they settled for field goals and while the lead was a comfortable 20-6, they had kept Montana in the game.
But the Buffalo defense had the legendary quarterback under control. Montana had only completed 9/23 passes for 125 yards, when the Bills knocked him out early in the third quarter. Kansas City still cut the lead to 20-13, but this day was ultimately going to be about Thurman Thomas. He got the ball 33 times and racked up 186 yards. That included one more touchdown run to seal the 30-13 win and a fourth straight AFC crown.
Buffalo had made history and now they went to Atlanta hoping not to make more. They were already the only team to lose three straight Super Bowls and trying not to add to that record. They weren’t given much of a chance. Dallas had gotten Emmitt Smith back in the fold after that Week 2 matchup between the teams and Smith had delivered an MVP season. The Bills were a heavy (+10.5) underdog.
Buffalo earned a lot of respect, from both the Dallas sideline and the nation as a whole with the way they competed. They didn’t fold and led 13-6 at the half. But a defensive touchdown in the third quarter that tied the game turned the tide. The Bills couldn’t run the ball against the stout Cowboy defense, Emmitt got rolling and the result was another loss, this one also by a 30-13 score.
The Bills’ amazing run of the early 1990s came to an end when a late fade cost them the playoffs in 1994. They made it back to the postseason in 1995 and 1996 under Marv Levy’s leadership. They made the playoffs again in 1998 and 1999 with Wade Phillips calling the shots. But the 21st century was hard on the great fans of Buffalo, who didn’t see their team get back to the postseason until 2017, and they still haven’t seen a home game since the glory years under Levy.
During the years of 1990-93, only three of the 28 NFL teams would win Super Bowls (Giants, Redskins, Cowboys). All three of these teams also had losing seasons in that four-year stretch. Buffalo was the constant in the NFL during this time period and the phrase “won four straight AFC titles” should enter every fan’s mind before “lost four straight Super Bowls” ever does.