It was for playoff games like this—the Los Angeles Raiders against the Buffalo Bills in the dead of the Buffalo winter—that television and living rooms were invented. Thus die-hard Bill fan Rick Gould and his happy chums sat on a couch in the parking lot at Rich Stadium last Saturday, watching pregame TV and relaxing amid the swirling snow and 0° weather (—32° windchill) in a living room as big as all outdoors. "I'd rather come to a game like this," said the 35-year-old Gould, a construction worker dressed in blaze orange hunting garb, "than go to a warm game in the sun and meet babes." His seven buddies, lounging about in hunting attire of their own, agreed.
Other people had other reasons for attending, but you had to wonder what those reasons might be. Not only was this the coldest day for a game in Bill history, but also the outcome might propel Buffalo toward a berth in its fourth straight Super Bowl, where it might lose for the fourth straight year. Only Avis knows the heartbreak of second place better than the Bills.
Sure enough, by the end of the day nearly 100 people had been treated at the stadium for frostbite and other weather-related injuries; Buffalo had won 29-23; and Bill quarterback Jim Kelly was as defiant as ever. His masterly passing—27 completions in 37 attempts for 287 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions—led Buffalo to victory, but it also pushed the Bills nearer to a dreaded Fourth Big Loss. "People get down on us, but they don't know how hard we work to come back each year," snapped Kelly, who keeps a file of anti-Bills articles so he can read them and stay angry. "We have the hardest schedule year after year, but we fight through it all."
Before the game some of the Raiders weren't so sure their opponents were all that tough. "Let's just say they have been the best team the AFC could deliver," said L.A. defensive tackle Howie Long. "Up to this point."
Los Angeles's resurgent quarterback, Jeff Hostetler, a man not given to overstatement, allowed as how the Bills "are a team we match up well with."
But the Raiders didn't match up well with the weather. On Dec. 26 they were routed 28-0 by the Green Bay Packers in 0° weather at Lambeau Field. Long even spoke wistfully of the Wisconsin sun that shone on the field briefly that day before dropping behind the stands. "You don't realize what you've got till it's gone," he said. On the Thursday before the game in Buffalo, L.A. practiced at its camp in El Segundo in 76° weather; 48 hours later it would have to play in weather that was exactly 76 degrees colder. Bill defensive end Bruce Smith, one of the few players who came out bare-armed, knew what was required to prevail over the elements: "It's mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."
Upon arriving for practice on Friday, the Raiders joked about the climate, threw ice balls and posed with snow shovels. But the first four of them off the bus from the airport to the hotel had slipped on the ice and nearly killed themselves, and the entire Los Angeles organization came to understand why NFL teams play 16 games to earn the home field advantage. On Saturday the Raiders trotted onto the frozen Rich Stadium tundra and were greeted by a portentous banner that, in mock homage to L.A. team boss Al Davis, read, JUST FREEZE BABY.
Still, in the first half Los Angeles was able to ignore the elements and dominated play. The Raiders held the ball for 23½ minutes to 6½ for the Bills through the first two periods and scored three times—on a 30-yard field goal by Jeff Jaeger and a pair of one-yard runs by tailback Napoleon McCallum. But L.A. went into the locker room at intermission leading only 17-13, largely because the Bills came up with two big plays, neither of which produced stat-sheet offensive yardage.
The first, early in the second quarter, was a 67-yard return by Bill special teams master Steve Tasker of a short, low, knuckleball kickoff after Jaeger's field goal. Tasker was finally run out of bounds on the Raider one-yard line, and one play later Buffalo scored on a one-yard, cart-wheeling touchdown flop by second-string tailback Kenneth Davis. "I heard him hit the ground with this unbelievable thud," marveled Kelly of Davis's play. "Kenny has no fear of anything."
The second was a questionable pass-interference call on Los Angeles nickel-back Torin Dorn for allegedly bumping Bill wideout Andre Reed on a deep post pattern just before the half. The call was good for a 37-yard Buffalo gain, and it set up tailback Thurman Thomas's eight-yard touchdown run on the next play. "I feel it was a terrible call," said a distraught Dorn in the locker room after the game. "It kind of turned the tide and quieted things in the locker room at the half."