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So here were the buffalo bills, down 35-3 to the Houston Oilers with 28 minutes left in an AFC wild-card game at Rich Stadium on Sunday. It had been bad enough at halftime when, with his team trailing 28-3, coach Marv Levy had stared down his players and told them, "Whatever happens, you guys have to live with yourselves after today." But then to come right out and have Oiler safety Bubba McDowell return an interception 58 yards for a touchdown....
With Houston having beaten Buffalo 27-3 in the regular-season finale, the Oilers had outscored the two-time defending AFC champion Bills 62-6 in the previous six quarters and two minutes. And now Buffalo was playing without quarterback Jim Kelly (knee sprain), running back Thurman Thomas (hip pointer) and linebacker Cornelius Bennett (hamstring pull). Sackmaster Bruce Smith (three cracked ribs) was on the field but having little impact.
So you can understand why, after McDowell's touchdown, a few thousand tans started leaving cold, windy Rich Stadium. And why a couple of Houston TV guys up in the press box got on the phone to make nonrefundable plane reservations for the next round of the playoffs, in Pittsburgh. And why a league official consoled Buffalo media-relations director Scott Berch told, telling him, "Well, you guys had a good run."
"It was like time was standing still," Houston wide receiver Ernest Givins said later, "like they were scoring every 15, 20 seconds."
Twenty-eight minutes to go, 32 points behind. "We had a chance," Levy said. "About the same chance a guy has of winning the New York Lottery."
"We had control of this game like no team's ever had control of a game," said Houston quarterback Warren Moon, who in throwing for four first-half touchdowns had staked the Oilers to that seemingly insurmountable advantage.
Following McDowell's interception, Buffalo quarterback Frank Reich, who has been Kelly's backup for seven years, stood on the sideline and told himself, One play at a time. Then he methodically executed 10 plays that moved the ball 50 yards. The drive ended when Thomas's replacement, Kenneth Davis, swept around left end for a touchdown from a yard out. Oilers 35-10, with 8:52 left in the third quarter. "We're still up 25," Moon said. "We're fine."
A stupid play by Houston's special teams followed. Everyone in the stadium knew the Bills might try an onside kick, but as Steve Christie approached the ball for the kickoff, the live Oilers on the front line of the return unit started moving backward to set up for a return. Squib! The kick caromed off Houston's Rick Graf and into Christie's hands. Four plays later Buffalo wideout Don Beebe clearly stepped out of bounds and came back into play to catch a 38-yard Reich rainbow for a touchdown, "I let up." said veteran cornerback Jerry Gray, who had forced Beebe wide to the sideline. Gray thought the official would flag Beebe for having stepped out. No flag. Oilers 35-17, with 7:56 left in the third. "We're still up 18," Moon said. "We're fine."
Houston went three and out on its next possession, and the Bills got the ball back on their 41. "Before the game," said Buffalo wide receiver Andre Reed, who had made only three touchdown catches in 1992 after having averaged nine the three previous seasons. "I told Frank, 'You've got to get me the ball today. It's time. It's the playoffs. The chips are down." Four plays later Reed beat nickelback Steve Jackson for Buffalo's third touchdown in 4½ minutes. Oilers 35-24, with 4:21 left in the third.