The NFL playoffs are here and that means endless talk about who will make it to the Super Bowl. That’s all well and good but I’m here to relive some glorious moments from the past. Some are well-remembered, others are lost classics. So without further ado, here are the top 5 AFC Wildcard games in NFL history.
January 3, 1993: Buffalo Bills 41 Houston Oilers 38 OT
Of course this game would make the list. How could it not? Every football fan knows the story. The Oilers jumped out to a seemingly insurmountable 35-3 lead early in the third quarter. The Bills, without starting quarterback Jim Kelly look to be finished. But Frank Reich thought otherwise. Four touchdown passes, three of them to Andre Reed plus a Kenneth Davis touchdown run gave the Bills a shocking 38-35 lead. The Oilers did kick a late field goal to force overtime, but the momentum was clearly in Buffalo’s favour. Steve Christie’s 32 yard field goal in overtime, capped off the greatest comeback in NFL history, and one of the greatest games in NFL history. This game spelled the beginning of the end of the Oilers franchise in Houston. After another playoff ouster the following season, the team fell off and the fans decided not to show up. In 1997, the franchise relocated to Tennessee, becoming the Titans, where they would get their revenge on the Bills.
January 8, 1994: Kansas City Chiefs 27 Pittsburgh Steelers 24 OT
Many thought the Kansas City Chiefs were a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl champion. So when Joe Montana became available, coach Marty Schottenheimer and general manager Carl Peterson didn’t hesitate. Even though Montana was coming off back surgery, he felt he had enough in the tank to lead the Chiefs into the promised land. Montana led the Chiefs to the AFC West title in 1993, which setup a tough wildcard matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers at noisy Arrowhead Stadium. The Steelers had an aggressive defense, led by cornerback Rod Woodson and linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene. The Steelers built a 24-17 lead late in the fourth quarter, when Montana showed his magic. After the Chiefs blocked a punt which set them up on the Pittsburgh 9 yard line, Montana found Fred Barnett from 7 yards out to force overtime. In overtime, neither team moved the ball on their first possession. When the Chiefs got the ball a second time, Montana led the Chiefs to field goal range, where Nick Lowery booted a 32 yard field goal to send the Chiefs to the next round. However, Kansas City would not make it to the Super Bowl. Despite knocking off the Houston Oilers in the divisional playoff round, the Chiefs were eliminated by the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship game.
December 28, 1996: Jacksonville Jaguars 30 Buffalo Bills 27
This game marked the end of Jim Kelly’s career, while also marking the temporary rise of the Jaguars franchise. The Bills came into the game never losing a home playoff game, while this was the first playoff game in franchise history for the Jags. What made Jacksonville’s appearance so unlikely was it was only their second year in existence. It looked like it would be the Bills day early on, as Kelly led Buffalo to an opening drive touchdown, finding Thurman Thomas from 7 yards out to open the scoring. But Jacksonville showed their moxie late in the first quarter when defensive end Clyde Simmons intercepted a Kelly shovel pass, and rumbled 20 yards to tie the game. The game seesawed all the way to the fourth quarter where it was tied 20-20. The Bills looked like they were going to win when cornerback intercepted a Mark Brunell pass, and returned it 38 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. But Brunell and the Jags answered right back when on the very next possession, driving down the field and finding Jimmy Smith from 2 yards out to even the score yet again. Buffalo were looking to regain the lead, when Jags safety levelled Kelly on a safety blitz, forcing the Bills quarterback out of the game with a shoulder injury. Kelly fumbled and the Jags recovered. That setup a 45 yard field goal attempt from Mike Hollis, who banged it off the upright and through, to give the Jaguars the lead. The Bills were forced to go with backup quarterback Todd Collins the rest of the way. Collins couldn’t do anything with the Bills offense, and the Jaguars hung on for the upset. Jacksonville’s amazing run continued in the divisional playoffs, where they upset the top seeded Denver Broncos. However, the Jags Cinderella story struck midnight in the AFC Championship game, where they fell to the New England Patriots.
January 8, 2000: Tennessee Titans 22 Buffalo Bills 16
Everyone remembers this game as the Music City Miracle. However, it was a quarterback controversy that dominated the headlines leading up to the game. The Bills had used Doug Flutie for most of the season as their starting quarterback. However, head coach Wade Phillips decided to go with Rob Johnson as his starting quarterback for the playoff game in Nashville. Johnson was the prototypical pocket passer, while Flutie was the small yet flashy scrambling quarterback who made more plays with his legs, than his arm. It looked like a bad decision in the first half, as the Titans went into the intermission with a 12-0 lead. But the Bills started to find their game in the second half, thanks to the running of Antowain Smith. His 44 yard run, setup the Bills first touchdown in the third quarter. The Bills eventually took a 16-15 lead, with 22 seconds remaining, thanks to a 41 yard field goal from Steve Christie. Then the miracle happened. Christie’s kickoff was lofted to the 25 yard line, where it was picked up by Lorenzo Neal. Neal handed off to Frank Wycheck who then lateraled the ball across the field to Kevin Dyson. As Dyson started up the sidelines, he realized there were no Bills within the vicinity. Dyson raced 75 yards down the field for the winning touchdown. The play was under review, as the Bills thought the ball was flung forward by Wycheck which would have made the play illegal. But the call stood and the Titans had a miraculous victory. The game marked the end of the stellar careers of Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed, who both retired at the end of the season. The Bills have not played a playoff game since. Both Johnson and Flutie never regained form in their careers. Flutie had marginal success in San Diego and New England, while Johnson totally flopped Tampa Bay, Washington and Oakland before retiring.
January 5, 2003: Pittsburgh Steelers 36 Cleveland Browns 33
Two great rivals met in a classic playoff encounter in the Steel City. The Steelers were led by the comeback story of the year in quarterback Tommy Maddox. The Browns were led by backup Kelly Holcomb, who replaced the struggling Tim Couch midway through the season. Both quarterbacks had incredible games in snowy conditions in Pittsburgh. Maddox completed 30 out of 48 pass attempts for 367 yards, 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Holcomb completed 26 out of 43 pass attempts for 429 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Browns were leading 24-7 midway through the third quarter, when the Steelers started their comeback. The Browns were hanging on in the fourth quarter, trying to protect a shaky 33-28 lead. The Steelers weren’t going to be denied as Maddox led Pittsburgh on a 68 yard, 5 play drive that was capped off by a Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala 3 yard run, giving the Steelers the improbable victory. While many thought the young Browns would recover from this heartbreaking loss, Cleveland hasn’t made a playoff appearance since the meltdown in Steel Town.
You can follow me on Twitter @jstar1973