- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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When the crypt that was the Houston locker room opened to the press, the players spat out bitterness and sadness. "We choked as a team, choked as players, choked as management," said Dishman, on the verge of tears. "How else can you describe it? We completely broke down. We choked."
"I think this game will break this team," said Givins.
While the Buffalo locker room was still closed, Talley's voice rang out above his teammates': "That's why they play 60 minutes! That's why they play 60 minutes!" His free-spirited father was flying around the room, kissing people. "Everybody's got a game ball coming," Levy told his players. When the doors finally swung open, general manager Bill Polian wandered through the room, stunned. "No Kelly, no Bennett, no Thurman for the second half," said Polian. "How do you figure that?"
There would be another game to play in six days. The Bills already knew that Kelly would again be on the sideline and that Thomas, Smith and Bennett at best would be playing hurt. But what had just happened in the wild-card playoff gave them a terrific lift. "People get the wrong idea about this team," linebacker Shane Conlan had said while watching New Year's Day bowl games with nine teammates at The Big Tree Inn, a tavern next to the stadium. "We're together. Everybody thinks we're this splintered team, but that's totally false. We're as tight as the teams I was on at Penn State."
"We live to dance another dance," said Talley. "I'm not stunned. I go out and fight till they kick the last breath out of me, and today I think we found out we got a whole lot of those guys on this team."
One of whom was Reich. He had thrown only 47 passes in the regular season, mostly in garbage time, so no one could have expected him to complete 21 of 34 for 289 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. Now he has the distinction of having led what at the time was the biggest major-college comeback in history as well as pro football's greatest comeback. He brought Maryland back from a 31-0 deficit at the Orange Bowl to beat Miami 42-40 on Nov. 10, 1984.
"A lot of the thoughts I had that day came back today," he said, finally alone in the locker room after 90 minutes of bedlam. "Especially after [backup quarterback] Gale Gilbert said to me at halftime, 'Hey, you did this in college. You can do it here." I remember thinking the same thing I thought that day in Miami—one play at a time. One play at a time. We scored 42 points that day and only threw 15 passes. You don't have to play bombs away. Your defense has to give the ball back to you every time, and you have to be protected well. Our defense was great, and my line was magnificent."
Magnificent. A good word to describe the entire day. The greatest comeback in the 73-year history of the NFL overshadowed the entire first round of the playoffs, even the Philadelphia Eagles' 29-0 second-half blitz that buried the New Orleans Saints 36-20 in Sunday's NFC wildcard game. On Saturday the staggering but gutty defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins surprised the Minnesota Vikings 24-7, and the San Diego Chargers beat the Kansas City Chiefs 17-0 after a scoreless first half.
For a few days anyway the Bills could feel like 47 Jimmy Stewarts in It's a Wonderful Life. Their coffee tasted better. Their wives looked even prettier. Their weather looked palatable. Few games in all of sports have rivaled this one. It's up there with Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951, the Bill Buckner game of the '86 World Series, Doug Flutie's Hail Mary against Miami and N.C. State's '83 Final Four triumph. However, measured in terms of a comeback, they'll all have to line up behind this one.
When Reich was almost ready to leave the locker room, wearing his boots and jeans but still shirtless, he talked about the Christian song that had inspired him to tears during the week leading up to the game, a song he had listened to over and over to remind him that he was on earth to do Christ's work. Reich asked someone to get his wife, Linda, and she was ushered through the door of the locker room. A petite woman, she walked toward her husband and then began rushing toward him. He grabbed her around the waist, and she threw her arms around his shoulders. He lifted her, holding her off the ground for five, eight, 10, 15 seconds. It looked like one of those husband-comes-home-from-the-war pictures.