Welcome to another episode of theater of the past. The most famous games in NFL history have always been playoff games. Football is a game of emotion and it’s the finality of knowing your season could be over that can elevate the play of both teams. Yet some playoff games are talked about and held with esteem while others are rarely written about, rehashed, re-shown, or ever discussed among the greats.
To us, there is a heavy bias toward the glamour franchises or darlings that the media aid in anointing their games great while others are passed over. One such game was the 1989 AFC Divisional playoff tilt between the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills. Not only was it great, it was as great as “The Epic in Miami”, or in our CEO’s estimation better.
This was a magnificent football game. You have to realize that particular weekend you had John Elway and the Denver Broncos hosting the cinderella Pittsburgh Steelers in one playoff game. Jim Everett’s underdog Los Angeles Rams in New York facing Lawrence Taylor’s Giants, and the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers of Joe Montana hosting the Minnesota Vikings for a third straight post season. Yet it was the Browns v. the Bills that caught the imagination of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was in attendance, and Donald Trump who was in the box with Browns owner Art Modell. Why??
Well the Browns, famous for their “Dawg Defense”, had been stung 3 years before by John Elway’s Denver Broncos in the ’86 AFC Championship, and the following season with Earnest Byner’s fumble in the 1987 AFC Championship. Although the Cleveland Browns had been the NFL’s Team of the decade in the 1950’s, they had been a down franchise for many years. However each time the Browns thought they had a team capable of winning it all, they lost in heart breaking fashion on 3 occasions. The stellar teams they had from 1985-1989 were aging and many pundits thought this was the last chance for this team to get a Super Bowl win for owner Art Modell.
The other side had an up and coming Buffalo Bills team that rose to prominence as a defensive giant in 1988, after nearly a decade of futility. High draft picks,which included future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, and Shane Conlan carried this team to the 1988 AFC Championship Game. After losing that game to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bills were looked upon as a team of the future. However the team almost imploded in 1989 from infighting and finger pointing, which earned them the nickname ” the Bickering Bills”. The offense of Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas was starting to show signs of life as the defense slumped slightly from the year before.
Better than “The Epic In Miami”?? Yes! This game featured big play after big play and came down to the wire with the Browns prevailing 34-30. To compare it to the great ’81 AFC Divisional playoff: Want to talk excitement?? With touchdowns of 33, 44, 52, 73, and 90 yards out, this game in ’89 had 5 touchdowns from 33 yards or more compared to 2 in that one. The only other playoff game in the Super Bowl era to equal 5 TDs of that distance was Super Bowl XXXVII between the Bucs and the Raiders. This game had 4 lead changes as compared to 3 in the earlier game.
Each had the record holder for receptions in a playoff game with 13 in both Thurman Thomas and Kellen Winslow. (both Hall of Famers) Each had a Hall of Fame Coach, Marv Levy of Buffalo and Don Shula as well as quarterbacks in Jim Kelly and Dan Fouts. Where the earlier game went to double overtime and ended on a boring field goal, this one had a sense of de ja vu. The Bills made a last second march toward their goal line with time running out, just like John Elway and “The Drive.” Although this time Clay Matthews intercepted Jim Kelly at the 1 yard line with :03 left. Now that is a finish!!
The game was also one of the best ever broadcast with Charlie Jones and the late Merlin Olson making the call. Here are the sights and sounds of the biggest plays from that game…
One outstanding aspect of this game was how great the commentary was. Notice how Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen allowed the viewer to take in the sights and sounds of 80,000 fans going crazy. This is the antithesis to Joe Buck, who our CEO thinks is the worst play by play man ever. One aspect of announcing a football game versus a baseball game: Allow the visuals to stimulate the viewer more so than the commentary and know when to acquiesce to such.
Epilogue: Why is this game not revered like “The Epic In Miami”? This game had more Hall of Famers and neither game produced a Super Bowl winner. We feel that it might have something to do with the media’s growing disdain for the University of Miami football team, from which both Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar hailed. Then NFL Films, who rarely slights a team due to media prejudice, chose NOT to put this game in the Cleveland Browns 1989 Yearbook. Seriously?? That was embarrassing. Yet alas it came down to one play and Clay Matthews made it. So when you saw the 4th quarter fumble caused by his son Clay Matthews III in last year’s Super Bowl, and Casey Matthews forcing a 4th quarter fumble in last year’s National Championship Game for Oregon, you now know it’s in the genes.
The Browns would go on to lose their 3rd AFC Championship Game in 4 years to the Denver Broncos that brought an end to their playoff run. However the Buffalo Bills went on to a record 4 straight Super Bowls which began the following season. From 1986-1993, one of these teams was in every single AFC Championship game for an 8 year period. It was this game that was the birth of the Buffalo “K-Gun” offense and the crossing point where Cleveland conceded to Buffalo as an AFC elite team. For one game, and four hours of sheer escapism magnificence, they played to the highest level worthy of being one of the greatest NFL playoff games ever played and is due more in it’s remembrance.
I dedicate this article to the late Charlie Jones and the late Merlin Olsen for their broadcasting excellence in elevating this game to one of magnificent lore. Your call on this afternoon in January 1990 was simply the best ever. Gentlemen, thank you for a job well done.
R.I.P. Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen
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