Reich comes back to glory QB's Terp-like miracle takes Bills to unlikeliest of victories over Oilers

January 04, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As he watched Houston safety Bubba McDowell cruise 58 yards with an interception return that gave the Oilers a 35-3 lead in the opening minutes of the second half yesterday, Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy didn't like his team's chances of overcoming the deficit.

"There was a lot of time left, and there was a glimmer of hope,Levy said. "But it's about the same chance you have of winning the New York lottery."

But it turns out that Levy had a winning ticket -- the arm of backup quarterback Frank Reich, who engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history. Reich threw four second-half touchdown passes and enabled Steve Christie to kick the winning 32-yard field goal in overtime for an incredible, 41-38 AFC wild-card playoff win at Rich Stadium.

Bills fans throughout Western New York had to be kickinthemselves yesterday -- because 9,000 tickets were unsold on Friday, the game was not televised here. What the fortunate 75,141 saw was an emotional comeback that surpassed the 28-point margin the San Francisco 49ers overcame in 1980 in a 38-35, regular-season win over the New Orleans Saints.

And it was only fitting that Reich led the comeback. In 1984, hbrought Maryland back from a 31-0 halftime deficit, taking the Terrapins on six straight scoring drives to beat Miami, 42-40 -- the biggest comeback in the history of Division I college football.

"During this game, I didn't think about it that much. But certainlthe experience helped," said Reich, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 230 yards and four touchdowns in yesterday's second half. "Just like then, this was a total team effort. It takes an effort from all 47 players to make a huge comeback like that."

Even with 47 players working as one, no one could havimagined such a comeback with three of Buffalo's best players watching from the sidelines.

Quarterback Jim Kelly was out after spraining his knee in lasweek's 27-3 loss in Houston, linebacker Cornelius Bennett didn't dress because of a hamstring injury and running back Thurman Thomas -- thought to be the key to Buffalo's success with Kelly out -- rushed once in the second half before leaving for good with a hip injury. Thomas finished with just 26 yards.

With Houston quarterback Warren Moon completing 19 of 2passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, the Bills appeared headed to their first home playoff loss since a 1966 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs at the old War Memorial Stadium. The four touchdown passes were a Houston playoff record that Moon seemed a good bet to pad in the second half.

"In the first half," said Houston coach Jack Pardee, "everythinwe did was just right."

Which made the loss harder to deal with for a Houston team tha scored each time it touched the ball on the way to a 28-3 halftime lead.

"It was 28-3, and I told our guys they had to live wit themselves," said Levy, who addressed his team's offensive unit in the locker room. "There was anger in what I said, but I told them whether we came out winning or losing, I wanted them to feel proud of themselves."

Buffalo defensive coordinator Walt Corey also was angry -- a unusual mood for him, he said -- as he addressed his embarrassed defensive unit on the other side of the room.

"By the end of the half, I knew this was going to require different type of halftime speech," Corey said. "I gave them one ++ that I think they'll remember for a long, long time."

But Corey did more than yell. He changed the Bills defense.

Corey's key adjustment: ditching the dime package the Bills liked to use against the run-and-shoot in favor of a basic 3-4 defense. The result: While Moon was able to complete 17 of 28 passes for 153 yards the rest of the game, the Bills kept what had been an unstoppable Oilers offense out of the end zone.

That accomplished, Reich engineered the rest. McDowell'interception at the start of the half made it 35-3, but Houston's squib kick hit a Buffalo player in the back, with the Bills recovering at midfield. Reich completed his first three passes on Buffalo's next drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring run by Kenneth Davis (who replaced the injured Thomas) for Buffalo's first touchdown that made it 35-10.

Three plays after a successful onside kick, Reich hit a wide-opeDon Beebe down the left sideline for a 38-yard scoring pass that made it 35-17. Suddenly, the Bills -- and their fans -- were starting to think the unbelievable.

"I think the onside kick and Beebe's touchdown might havstarted the whole thing," said Buffalo wide receiver Andre Reed. "I think [Houston] might have got a little fat [defensively] and lackadaisical because they were up so much."

Reed took advantage. He was wide open down the left sidelinon a 26-yard scoring pass that made it 35-24 with 4:21 left in the third. Four plays after Buffalo safety Henry Jones intercepted Moon, Reed caught an 18-yard scoring pass on fourth-and-five that had the Bills within 35-31 with 2:00 left in the quarter.

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