As we make our way to the NFL’s 100th season we have to take a look back at the great moments over the last century. These great games that go on to impact careers, eras, and Hall of Fame legacies take place in the NFL playoffs. At times you’ll have something momentus happen during the regular season but it’s the finality and visibility of postseason play where everyone is viewing an individual event at the same time that grow into lore.
A first playoff game for a team in a new city and stadium where the Titans had been 8-0 in the regular season. The ’99 campaign had a collegiate type spirit as the Titans finally had a home after bouncing around like nomads for 2 seasons.
Now they were going to take on the Buffalo Bills in the ’99 AFC Wildcard Game. It came with a sense of irony as you looked back at the tumultuous turn that saw the franchise’s descent from the beloved Houston Oilers to the nomadic Tennessee Oilers. It’s genesis was the ’92 AFC Wildcard game some 7 years earlier.
At the time the Oilers were nearing the end of a frustrating era in which they’re Run n Shoot offense had been the scourge of the league. Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon had put up video game numbers as he and his trio of 1,000 yard receivers in Ernest Givins, Haywood Jeffires, and the late Drew Hill torched defenses in the regular season. Yet in the postseason the football gods weren’t so kind.
Between 1987-1991 the Oilers had made the playoffs all 5 years yet never seemed to have that signature game from Warren Moon to get to an AFC Championship Game. Injuries and timely defense from their opponents seemed to undo this team in the postseason and their window for a championship run was nearing it’s end.
Moon was turning 36 and how long could he play at a high level?
The ’92 team went 10-6 and had to go to take on the 2 time AFC Champion Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park. They had beat the Bills 27-3 in the finale to set up the Wild Card tilt. In that game the Oilers knocked out Jim Kelly with a knee injury and wouldn’t have to face him in the Wildcard round.
In what should have been his signature win Moon blistered the Bills to go 19 of 22 for 4TDs and took a commanding 28-3 halftime lead. In the 2nd half the Bills turned the tables coming back from a 35-3 deficit to win 41-38 in overtime. The greatest comeback in NFL history.
The collapse was devastating and the doubt and discourse whittled away fan support as the team descended in to medicocrity over the next couple of years.
Finally Owner Bud Adams decided to move the team in 1996. He had watched Art Modell pull the plug in Cleveland & move the Browns to Baltimore the season before. Why try to win back a city that had tired of your failures when you can win anew elsewhere?? The Houston Oilers were no more and the Tennessee Oilers wandered the desert in search of a home.
They played the ’97 season in the Liberty Bowl and ’98 in Vanderbilt Stadium. Both were college arenas where they weren’t the main tenants and playing on a college campus. It didn’t have the look and feel of an NFL ball club as Eddie George and Steve McNair emerged as the team’s new stars. Then they made the decision to change the name of the team to reflect a new identity… the Tennessee Titans and would play in their own brand new stadium as Nashville became their new home.
A new energy hit Adlephia Coliseum immediately as the team was refreshed with new uniforms befitting the change. They played to raucous fans who showed an appreciation for having their own team. It never felt that way when they still had their Oilers name from their years in Texas. The team went 13-3 on the strength of Eddie George (1,304 yds / 9TDs) Steve McNair (337 yds rushing/ 8 TDs) and a smash mouth rushing offense while super rookie DE Jevon Kearse burst onto the scene with a rookie record 14.5 sacks.
The Freak was the playmaker on an aggressive physical defense and turned in the most impactful season since Lawrence Taylor in 1981. He was voted to his 1st Pro Bowl, All Pro, and took home the ’99 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. They won 7 of their last 8 including a 41-14 win over division winner Jacksonville in week 15. They were primed to make a run and 1st up in the wildcard round??
Those Buffalo Bills who were nearing the end of their run with future Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Andre Reed, and Thurman Thomas. Jim Kelly had already left the building after ’96 and the Bills began this strange odyssey of who should be quarterbacking??
Wade Phillips had taken over for Hall of Fame Head Coach Marv Levy and by all accounts favored Doug Flutie. He brought an energy to the team and an excitement even at this advanced age. Things seemed to pick up when he would go on a long serpentine run or scramble then hit an open receiver. An excitment christened “Flutie Magic”.
Eric Moulds was the new big threat in the Bills offense after a breakout ’98 (1,368 yds rec / 9 TDs) which was only bolstered by an NFL playoff record 240 yards in a Wildcard loss to Miami. Moulds was the future yet Andre Reed was still there to provide punch in the passing game.
Antowain Smith had become the featured runner as Thurman Thomas had shown wear after a Hall of Fame career. In ’99 he was injured with a lacerated liver that allowed him to return with fresh legs late in ’99 as Smith and Jonathan Linton had worn down toward season’s end.
One thing the Bills could bank on was the league’s #1 defense as Bruce Smith, Phil Hansen, and Marcellus Wiley provided a solid pass rush.
Yet all that paled in comparison to the ultimate betrayal that haunts Buffalo to this very day.
In an attempt to get a leg up on the franchise quarterback derby the Bills signed Rob Johnson before the ’98 season. He had started one game for an injured Mark Brunell while playing for Jacksonville. The offense would sputter under his leadership as he was often sacked for holding the ball too long. This is what prompted Phillips to replace him in ’98 & Flutie beat him out and started the 1st 15 games of ’99.
With a wildcard wrapped up and unable to improve their playoff position the Bills decided to rest Doug Flutie for the finale. It looked and sounded suspicious as Rob Johnson played the finale against a playoff bound Colts team also resting their starters. Then Coach Phillips dropped a bombshell and named Johnson the starter going into the Wildcard Game.
What?!?!?!?!!? The fanbase went bonkers and blew up switchboards and talk shows all week discussed Flutie v. Rob Johnson. Why would you disrupt the teams momentum to satisfy a front office pressuring you to start the $25 milion free agent?? Facing a Defensive Rookie of the Year coming off the ball with the intensity of a young Lawrence Taylor you decide to face him with an immobile quarterback?? What could possibly go wrong??
Less than 5 minutes into a game destined to be a defensive struggle, Kearse came screaming off the corner and sacked Johnson causing him to fumble out of the endzone. Safety 2-0! The Titans received the free kick and drove for a TD on a short field making it 9-0 just 7:00 into the game. It allowed Adelphia’s rowdy fans to stay at a fevered pitch as Buffalo fought uphill the entire game. Bruce Smith, in his last playoff appearance, kept Steve McNair under wraps sacking him 2.5 times.
The Bills clawed their way back in it and found themselves down 15-13 with 1:41 to go. Johnson had the chance to be a hero. Although he completed just 8 passes going into this final drive, he knew a playoff win could be the launching pad for his career. Johnson appeared calm amid the chaos and drove Buffalo to a last second field goal and a 16-15 lead! It appeared he had done it!! On one play he escaped his nemesis, Kearse and zipped his last completion to Peerless Price, all while scrambling with just one she on.
Once Steve Christie’s kick was good the Bills sideline exploded with emotion as the team brass scrambled to make reservations to go to Indianapolis for a rematch with Peyton Manning, Edgerrin James and the 13-3 upstart Colts… all they had to do was get through the final :16
It was The Immaculate Reception of the new millenium since we were in January of 2000. The parallels were there as a city was hosting it’s 1st playoff game, a last second touchdown when the home team had no hope, and a long delay where the officials had to discuss the legitamacy of the scoring play. Only this time Instant Replay was used as an officiating tool. As a Billls fan I was screaming forward lateral and did so right before writing this…
The conclusive evidence is the 4th replay as Joe Theismann, Paul Mcguire, and Mike Patrick exalts “From THAT angle…” and I tried to argue for years it was a forward lateral.
It was the end of an era as Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Bruce Smith were let go at the end of the season. They were the last of the Bills that had played in the 4 Super Bowls at the beginning of the decade. The football gods struck back for doing Flutie dirty and benching him going into the playoffs. It was only the 2nd time in NFL history where a backup was named to start the playoffs without an injury. Only the Jets in 1986 when Pat Ryan was named to start the ’86 AFC Wildcard over Ken O’Brien after the Jets lost their last 6 games was the other occasion.
As for the Titans… they rode this incredible momentum all the way to Super Bowl XXXIV where Kevin Dyson wound up in another famous play. Mike Jones tackling him at the 1 yard line as time ran out. Over the next 8 seasons the Titans were an elite team as Eddie George and Steve McNair became household names. Kevin Dyson had a good NFL career and is now Principle of a local school in the Nashville area.
The Music City Miracle didn’t become as famous as The Immaculate Reception…however had the Titans won a Super Bowl in the years that followed, it would have.
In January of 2000 it was played on ESPN and NFL Shows the rest of the month as it was truly a great play. One for the ages for everyone that wasn’t a Bills fan. We still bristle.
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