BUFFALO, N.Y. - Their pair of hall of famers, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas, were out injured. Their backup quarterback had just thrown an interception-touchdown on the first possession of the second half. Trailing 35-3 at home in the first round of the playoffs, the Buffalo Bills looked cooked. After going to two straight Super Bowls, they were going home early this year. That wasn't pessimism. That was just fact.
That's what made what happened next so remarkable.
The Houston Oilers had built their lead with their precision run-and-shoot passing, led by Warren Moon. While the run-and-shoot was a great offense for teams wanting to score quickly, it wasn't ideal for those trying to protect leads. The "run" in run-and-shoot was often missing when Houston played, and if their quick passes weren't connecting, things could get ugly quickly.
And so Houston started losing its lead, giving up their advantage even quicker than they had built it.
After the interception 1:41 into the third quarter, Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas left the game with an injured hip. Already without Kelly, they Bills would have to come back with both their backup quarterback and running back. The quarterback was Frank Reich, who had a bit of notability in that he was the quarterback for the biggest comeback in college football history, coming back from a 31-0 deficit to beat unbeaten Miami while a quarterback for Maryland.
Buffalo's first break came on the kickoff immediately following the interception return, as a sudden shift in the wind caused the kickoff to be squibbed along the ground, giving Buffalo great field position. Aided by a completion on a ball that went through a linebacker's hands and by a fourth-down conversion by backup running back Kenneth Davis, Buffalo scored with 8:52 left in the third to cut the deficit to 35-10.
Wanting to keep momentum, Buffalo called an onside kick, which kicker Steve Christie recovered himself. Four plays later, they scored again, making it 35-17. After forcing a short Houston punt on the next possession, Buffalo scored on a 38-yard touchdown pass to Don Beebe, a play in which Beebe had stepped out of bounds. The catch should have been ruled illegal, but the officials didn't see it.
Now trailing 35-24, the Bills defense got in on the act, getting an interception on the next Houston possession. On the ensuing drive, a fourth-down touchdown pass to Andre Reed made it 35-31. Remarkably, the Bills had cut their deficit from 32 points to 4 in just 6:52 of game time.
Houston's offense finally started moving again in the fourth quarter, and Moon moved the Oilers down for a field goal attempt. This time, a fumbled snap foiled the Oilers. The Bills then marched down for the touchdown that gave them a 38-35 lead. The Oilers recovered enough to march down to force overtime, but at this point, it was obvious who was going to win.
Even winning the coin toss didn't help Houston, as Moon threw an interception on their third play of overtime. Already in field goal range, the Bills ran two plays before kicking the winning field goal, capping the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history.
January 3, 2003: GLENDALE, Ari. - The pass fell incomplete, the Hurricanes started celebrating. The players on the sideline started running on the field, and the Ohio State players started hanging their heads. Then, among all the celebrating, a single yellow flag flew through the Arizona night. The call was late, almost suspiciously so, but there was no question what the call was going to be: pass interference, defense, automatic first down. Buoyed by their big break, the Buckeyes scored to tie the game in overtime, then scored first in the second overtime. As Miami's Ken Dorsey fell to the ground on fourth down, the Hurricanes' 34-game winning streak was over, and the Buckeyes had won the Fiesta Bowl and the national championship.