As the 1990 regular season arrived near its conclusion, it became rather clear that three teams separated itself from the pack: the New York Football Giants of William Parcells; George Seifert’s two-time defending world champion San Francisco 49ers; and Marv Levy’s “little engine that could” from western New York, the Buffalo Bills.
While many pundits drooled over a regular season meeting featuring the 49ers and Giants and a highly likely rematch in the NFC title game, something bizarre was brewing in Buffalo.
Coming off of back to back playoff appearances, the Bills rolled into December with a tidy 9-2 record, led by an uptempo no-huddle attack that resembled something more suited for the NBA than NFL due to its quick, rapid-fire execution.
A high-powered offensive unit was nothing new to the Bills. Led by quarterback Jim Kelly, versatile running back Thurman Thomas, and electrifying wide receiver Andre Reed, Buffalo finished the 1989 season third in scoring.
The Bills could score. But so what, right? By 1990, the NFC spit out each AFC champion in the Super Bowl dating back to Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins in 1985.
What made this Buffalo so different than their AFC counterparts before them? Defense.
Buffalo’s formula of success was pretty simple; run up a big-lead against opponents with the no-huddle and if teams wanted to get into a shootout, their all-world pass rusher Bruce Smith would be there to help slam the door shut.
At 27, Smith was at the peak of his powers in 1990. He amassed a league-high 19 sacks and was named the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. While Smith served as the defense’s crown jewel, complementary parts like Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley, and Jeff Wright helped Buffalo finish eighth in total defense in 1990.
Buffalo’s powerful combination of a high-tech offense and bruising defense led NFL Films narrator Jeff Kaye to utter the following line during the ’90 season’s Road to the Super Bowl:
“Playing in the weaker AFC, the Bills were accorded the best of all complements…they played like an NFC team.”
When Week 13 of the ’90 season rolled around, the Bills would indeed test their collective metal against the roughhousing and roughneck tactics of the NFC East.
First up on the menu, would be the Philadelphia Eagles.
When examining why New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan operates with such an extreme amount of bravado, look no further than his father Buddy.
As Eagles head coach, Ryan lead his crew to three straight postseason appearances from ’88 to ’90. While the Eagles were an NFC contender, they had yet to show anything other than false bravado against the league’s upper crust, especially during the playoffs.
Philly’s greatest offensive weapon was quarterback Randall Cunningham. No player (with the possible exception of John Elway) possessed Cunningham’s prowess as a passer and runner. His 942 yards rushing led the Eagles in ’90.
Dubbed the “Ultimate Weapon” by Sports Illustrated, Cunningham’s wonderous talents appeared destined to lead the Eagles to somewhere past opening round playoff loss fodder.
As they entered Rich Stadium in Buffalo, the Eagles were full of themselves. Along with the Los Angeles Rams, the Eagles helped sabotage “Super Bowl XXIV 1/2” between the Giants and 49ers, an expected meeting between two 11-0 teams.
While the Rams slayed the Niners, Philadelphia crushed the Giants 31-13 one week earlier and at 7-4, entered their meeting with Buffalo winners of five straight.
Even though Cunningham’s flashy play appeared to be Philly’s calling card, the Eagles defense (led by Ryan and defensive coordinator Jeff Fisher) served as the face of the franchise.
Philadelphia’s “Gang Green” was fronted by defensive end Reggie White and tackle Jerome Brown. Adding linebackers Seth Joyner and Byron Evans along with hard-hitting safeties Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins to the mix gave Philly one of the NFL’s most feared defenses.
Yet, early on in their encounter with Buffalo, their normal bullying ways were no match for the Bills. Their no-huddle offense gave Buddy Ryan’s troops fits.
Playing the run-oriented Giants a week earlier, the Eagles appeared to be in quicksand at game’s start. Buffalo raced out to a 24-0 first quarter behind of long touchdown passes by Kelly.
Buffalo’s quick strikes exposed a big problem for the Eagles. Waters and Hopkins in space trying to catch Reed and Lofton was an absolute nightmare. Few teams could outhit the Eagles, but if the opponent could get its receivers in space, it was an adventure for the lumbering duo.
As I watched this game, even the 11-year-old version of me realized the Birds were in over their heads. Watching Buffalo run an Olympic track meet during the first quarter was mesmerizing.
The Bills no-huddle offense was the ’87 Showtime Lakers landing in the NFL. Jim Kelly was Magic Johnson; James Lofton was James Worthy; Andre Reed was Byron Scott; and Thurman Thomas was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’m not sure who Al Edwards was but I’ll go with Wes Matthews. The Bills were that dangerous.
Once the initial shock of the no-huddle’s first quarter sting wore off, the Eagles got defensive stops but the offense didn’t set Orchard Park ablaze either.
All of this could change though in an instant with a swift bolt of lightning from Cunningham.
After finally scoring in the second quarter, the Eagles trailed 24-9 as halftime approached. Then, it happened…
Backed up at their own five with just over a minute left, Philly faced a 3rd and 14. Armed with wildly mediocre offensive line, 3rd and longs were nothing new to Cunningham.
One year earlier against the Giants facing a 3rd and 23, Cunningham was sacked for a 10-yard loss. What exactly did he draw up on a 4th and 33 in a 17-17 game? The UNLV product booted a 91-yard punt through the harsh winds of the Meadowlands. His amazing kick pinned New York’s offense deep in their own territory. Their poor field position led to a turnover on that drive and the Eagles capitalized, winning 24-17.
This was a different beast though.
Cunningham needed a big play to save an otherwise forgettable first half effort in Buffalo. As he dropped back into the end zone, Smith easily got around a double team and made a beeline to #12.
Sensing imminent danger, somehow Cunningham felt the rush and ducked under Smith. Randall rolled left and spotted teammate Fred Barnett near midfield.
Before Buffalo’s Leon Seals could crush him, Cunningham arched a long pass into the wind to Barnett. After Arkansas Fred’s leaping grab, the rookie receiver raced to the end zone for six.
My jaw hit the floor.
To this day, it is easily one of the greatest plays in Eagles history and one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
My favorite part of the play is Randall coolly firing the six-shooters as if that was how the play was drawn up. In fact, during his postgame presser, Cunningham played with the media by suggesting it was all planned including Smith’s role in the play.
Anyhow, that was Philadelphia’s last significant highlight of the day. The Eagles trailed 24-23 in the third quarter but did not get any closer.
Shockingly, Buffalo’s Star Wars start to the game dissipated. After a 24-0 opener, two Scott Norwood field goals represented Buffalo’s only points over the final three quarters in a 30-23 Bills victory.
Surprisingly, Buffalo’s unheralded defense outpaced Philly’s bunch. The vaunted Eagles pass rush hardly laid a hand on Kelly in a sack-free and turnover-free effort.
Conversely, Cunningham was sacked six times (including two by Smith) while the Bills defense forced two turnovers.
Indeed, Buffalo did something an AFC team rarely did to the Eagles under Ryan; the Bills pushed them around.
I didn’t believe that Buffalo was a legit team. However, December 2, 1990 proved differently.
The Bills were for real and they planned on hanging around for awhile.