Bills' classic shows rallies to be complex mix of mental, physical

ANATOMY OF A COMEBACK

January 05, 1993|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Staff Writer

Momentum does not always arrive with the siren call of an interception or the flash of a long, completed pass.

Sometimes it just sneaks up on you, almost unnoticed, the way it sneaked up on the Buffalo Bills Sunday.

There were three prime ingredients to Buffalo's astounding 41-38 playoff victory over the Houston Oilers, the biggest comeback in the history of the NFL:

* The Bills' resolve to use their base 3-4 defense, matching linebackers against Houston's wide receivers.

* Frank Reich's know-how in the art of coming back.

* The Oilers' self-doubts in holding a lead.

All three concepts germinated in the bowels of Rich Stadium at halftime, with the Oilers leading 28-3.

In Buffalo's locker room, reserve quarterback Gale Gilbert reminded Reich of his glorious past, namely the 31-point deficit Reich wiped out while quarterbacking the Maryland Terrapins to a 1984 upset of the Miami Hurricanes.

In Houston's locker room, quarterback Warren Moon reminded the Oilers of their fourth-quarter collapse against the Denver Broncos a year earlier, when a 24-16 lead turned into a 26-24 defeat.

Somewhere amid all the reminiscing, Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey scrapped his nickel-and-dime defenses -- they weren't worth a penny in the first half -- in favor of a conventional 3-4 alignment.

Reich remembered, the Oilers couldn't forget, and the Bills' defense stopped the run-and-shoot offense cold.

"When we went out in our regular defense, that's when momentum started to turn, although it did not turn real fast," said Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey, an alumnus of Woodlawn High. "Every series after that, we were even higher. It was a challenge for the linebackers to go out and play against the run-and-shoot."

Houston wasn't the only team that coughed up a comfortable lead Sunday. The New Orleans Saints led the Philadelphia Eagles, 20-7, with five minutes left in the third quarter. Then quarterback Bobby Hebert started throwing interceptions, and by the time he was finished, the Eagles had a 36-20 rout.

Just as Houston's collapse was no surprise, neither was New Orleans' demise. In a remarkable picture of defeat, the Saints have held a fourth-quarter lead in nine of their last 11 losses.

Dr. Jim McGee, chief of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Health System, and one who has counseled pro athletes, attributed this phenomenon to "performance anxiety, a fancy term for getting nervous and uptight about how well you're doing."

"When a team gets far behind, one of two things can happen," McGee said. "Either the players get so totally demoralized they come completely unglued, or they stop worrying about whether or not they're going to win. Then performance anxiety goes out the window. Paradoxically, they end up in an ideal state of mind, where they focus only on playing."

After watching the Oilers fold up, McGee said the Oilers showed classic symptoms. "In this case, I think they really did take the pipe," he said. "The last quarter and the overtime period, they played very poorly. They played like an uptight, anxious, constricted football team.

"If anybody ever wondered whether psychology had anything to do with it, this was a wonderful example."

Reich, replacing injured starter Jim Kelly, helped put the Oilers in that uptight state of mind by throwing for 230 yards and four touchdowns in the second half. He threw for 59 yards in the first.

If you were looking for a turning point in Sunday's AFC wild-card game, there was plenty to pick from. From afar, Charlie Casserly, general manager of the Washington Redskins, had two observations.

"Halftime," Casserly said, "is a momentum killer and a momentum builder. I think momentum changed at the half. Buffalo came off the field and regrouped. That helped them. They played better.

"Secondly, the onsides kick was a huge one. It gave them an extra possession. They scored, got the ball back, and scored again. It was 35-17 with a lot of time left."

From the NBC studios in New York, Boomer Esiason, lame-duck quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals, watched the Oilers collapse after padding their lead to 35-3 on Bubba McDowell's 58-yard touchdown return with an interception. That, in Esiason's opinion, was the turning point.

"The onsides kick was huge," he said from his home in Villa Hills, Ky. "But the interception Frank threw at the beginning of the second half made the Oilers start doing stupid things.

"The Oilers, in my estimation, basically lost control of their responsibilities in their zone defenses. It was everybody. . . . Jerry Gray leaving Andre Reed open down the sideline, Steve Jackson letting Reed get open down the middle. And I think it was a critical error by Houston for not blitzing when it started to get out of hand."

The Oilers apparently agreed with Esiason. Yesterday they fired defensive coordinator Jim Eddy and defensive backs coach Pat Thomas.

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