Paying the Bills: Buffalo in AFL and AFC Championship games

Paying the Bills: Buffalo in AFL and AFC Championship games
Reading Time: 8 minutes.

The Buffalo Bills are oft remembered as a ‘Near Dynasty’. A team that from 1990-1993 went to four straight Super Bowls off the back of a 49-15 regular season run. But ultimately fell at the final hurdle every time.

They may be the only team to go to four consecutive Super Bowls. But losing them all was a special kind of torture for the team and their fans.

For the Bills though this does not tell the whole story. This team has appeared in three AFL title games and 5 AFC title games up to this point. (The upcoming game with Kansas City will be their sixth).

In those games they have a good record. So let’s take a look and see how they did.

The AFL

When the the American Football League launched in 1960 not many in NFL circles saw the new league and its founding 8 teams surviving. After all they had seen off two leagues with the same name before. And absorbed part of the old AAFC.

So successful was the upstart league in fact that by 1966 the NFL and AFL were merging.

The Bills were one of the founding teams of the AFL. Going 25-28-3 over their first three seasons they could easily be overlooked. But by 1964 the Bills were ready to join the party.

The Bills 1964 & 1965 AFL winners trophies. Image from the Pro Football Hall of Fame

1964 AFL Championship Game Bills 20 Chargers 7

The San Diego Chargers, who were making their fourth AFL title game appearance, were the defending AFL champion going into this one. The previous year they had upended the Boston Patritos 51-10 behind an incredible performance from RB Keith Lincoln. He had 13 carries for 206 yards, 7 catches for 12 yards and 2 TD’s to key the victory.

Now it was a question of could the Bills D stop the vaunted Chargers attack? The AFL was synonymous with wide open play and attacking flair. But the Bills weren’t about that.

The 12-2 Bills had set a number of defensive records. They led the AFL in a range of defensive categouries. Including fewest points allowed (242), first downs allowed (206), most sacks (50) and most interceptions (34).

It really didn’t hurt in this game that the Chargers star wide receiver Lance Alworth was out with a leg injury. Or that the pervious years title game hero, Lincoln was forced out of the game with an injury sustained on a tackle by Buffalo linebacker Mike Stratton in the first quarter.

Lincoln had started well and keyed an early Chargers TD drive. But from there on in it was all Bills. Wray Carlton and Jack Kemp each scored touchdowns and Pete Gogolak kicked two field goals as the Bills took their first AFL title 20-7 at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo.

1965 AFL Championship Game Bills 23 Chargers 0

The Bills repeated their success in the last AFL Championship game played before the Super Bowl era.

The game would be played on December 26th at Balbao Stadium San Diego. It remains the last time a pro football title game was played in December in the US.

Once again the 10-3-1 Bills relied on their D to get the job done. This time they only let the Chargers past the Buffalo 25-yard line once in the entire game.

Butch Byrd returned an interception 74 yards for a touchdown and placekicker Pete Gogolak hit three field goals to key the 23-0 win.

1966 AFL Championship Game Chiefs 31 Bills 7

The Bills were appearing in their third consecutive AFL title game. The Chiefs were in their first since 1962, when as the Dallas Texans they had beaten the Oilers 20-17 in double overtime.

The prize at the end of this one was a trip to the first Super Bowl. Or as it was known at the time AFL-NFL World Championship Game (catchy!).

The game was back at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo. But even though the 9-4-1 Bills were two time defending champs they were underdogs to the 11-2-1 Chiefs.

To a drizzly backdrop the teams made it tied at 7-7 after one. That included Bills QB Jack Kemp hitting Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion for a 69 yard TD pass.

The turning point came with KC up 14-7 in the second. From the 12 yard line Kemp threw into the End Zone only to be intercepted by Johnny Robinson who ran it back 72 yards. Instead of 14-14 game the Chiefs went in up 17-7.

Ultimately the Chiefs forced four Bills turnovers and gave up none themselves. Len Dawson passed for 2 TD’s and Mike Garrett ran in a pair of scores. The Chiefs put up 24 unanswered points on their way to the win.  

The Post Merger Years

After the merger of the NFL and AFL the Bills found themselves in the AFC East. But they weren’t competitive for a good while.

A high point came in 1973 when RB OJ Simpson became the first pro football player to join the 2,000 yard club.

But there would be a 22 year gap between AFL/AFC Championship game appearances. Only at the inception of the ‘Near Dynasty’ did the Bills make it to a Championship Game. The first coming in 1988.

By 1993 the Bills had improved their AFCCG record to 4-1. Image from Pinterest

1988 Season AFC Championship Game Bengals 21 Bills 10

This game was a learning experience for the Bills. They were a team on the rise and this gave them a taste of what a Championship game could be like.

Before the game the Bills complained about the Bengals no-huddle offence. They criticized the strategy as against the rules, as it was ‘done with intent to deceive’. However this blew over before the game which Cincinnati dominated.

While Boomer Esiason threw two picks and only had 94 yards passing the Bengals ground game and D did the job.

The Bengals scored first on a one-yard Ickey Woods run following a Jim Kelly interception. Kelly came back with four straight completions, including a touchdown pass to Andre Reed to tie the game.

The Bengals capped an 11-play, 74-yard drive with a 10 yard TD toss to RB James Brooks. That put them up 14-10 and they never relinquished the lead.

The Bills’ offense struggled in the second half, failing to convert a third down and only converting two total first downs. All five second-half drives began inside their own 23-yard line. Ickey Woods capped the win running in a 1 yard TD to start the final quarter.

1990 Season AFC Championship Game Bills 51 Raiders 3

Buffalo came back from their defeat to Cincinnati two years later and had clearly learnt the lessons of that game. As they destroyed the Raiders 51-3 behind their own no huddle offence.

On Buffalo’s opening drive, Kelly, on a pretty gimpy knee, completed six consecutive passes for 65 yards, the last a 13-yard touchdown toss to Lofton. Which pretty much set the tone.

The Raiders did get it to 7-3. But the Bills went 66 yards in 4 plays capped by a 12 yard Thurman Thomas TD.

As the game got further away from the Raiders it got more desperate. Jay Schroeder completed only 13 of his 31 passes for 150 yards. 52 of those came on two 26-yard completions to Mervyn Fernandez and Willie Gault on their first offensive series.

As the Bills racked up the points the Raiders tried to stay with them and Schroeder was picked off 5 times.

The Bills scored 21 points in the first and 20 in the second for a 41-3 halftime lead. 10 points in the final quarter rounded things out as the 13-3 Bills entertained their raucous fans.

The big question at the time was how much of a difference would it have made if Bo Jackson had not been injured the week before for the Raiders.

1991 Season AFC Championship Game Bills 10 Broncos 7

The Bills went 13-3 again and once again were hosting the AFC title game. But this time their fans would endure a much more tense game. Not to mention a completely different style of game as the Defences took control.

The Bills had scored 458 points, most in the AFC and second most in the NFL. In their last playoff game they had beaten Kansas City 37-14. Denver went in off the back of a 26-24 win over Houston. But here both attacks failed to click.

It was 0-0 at halftime after Denver’s David Treadwell had missed on 47 and 42 yard Field Goal attempts.

In the third quarter John Elway found his fabled mobility hampered by a deep thigh bruise. He was picked off and the ball run back 11 yards for a TD to give the Bills a 7-0 lead.

With 4:18 left on the clock Scott Norwood hit a 44 yard Field Goal to exend the lead to 10-0.

Elway went off and his backup Gary Kubiak, who was playing in his last NFL game before retiring, came in and got things moving. He would lead an 8-play, 85-yard drive capped by a 3-yard touchdown run on a quarterback draw. This made the score 10–7 with less than two minutes left. 

Kubiak completed 11 of 12 passes for 136 yards and rushed for 22 yards, outscoring and out-passing Kelly and Elway. The Broncos D had held the Bills vaunted offence to 3 points but it was Buffalo going to another Super Bowl whilst the Broncos went home.

1992 Season AFC Championship Game Bills 29 Dolphins 10

For the first time in 5 years the Bills had not won the AFC East Division. Both they and the Miami Dolphins had finished 11-5. But the Dolphins took the Division on tie-breakers.

No matter. The Bills made their third consecutive AFC Championship Game appearance anyway.

Once again the Bills D put in an excellent performance. Dan Marino was picked off twice, and sacked 4 times. Meanwhile the Dolphins were held to just 33 yards on the ground and 3 fumbles were forced.

It was 3-3 after one but then the Bills put up 23 unanswered points. That included three Steve Christie Field Goals and two touchdowns. Miami responded with a 15 yard TD pass in the fourth but Christie kicked another Field Goal and the Bills won 29-10 to collect another Lamar Hunt trophy.

1993 Season AFC Championship Game Bills 30 Chiefs 13

For an incredible fourth time in a row, and fifth time in six years the Bills were back in the AFC title game.

They had faced the Chiefs in the 1966 AFL title match with a chance at contesting Super Bowl I on the line. Now they would face each other again with a chance to contest Super Bowl XXVIII as the prize.

Marv Levy was named Coach of the Year as once again the Bills were the AFC number one seed (having gone 12-4 in the regular season).

Buffalo simply ran Kansas City out of the game. Thurman Thomas scored first on a 12 yard TD run. Although KC repsonded with two Field Goals, the Bills found separation. Thomas ran in another TD and Steve Christie hit 2 Field Goals to make it 20-6 at halftime.

Joe Montana, who was steering the Chiefs offence was intercepted near the end of the first half. Then suffered a concussion on the Chiefs third play of the second half.

The Chiefs did get a TD on a 1 yard run from Allen. But in the final quarter Thomas added another TD and Christie another FG for the 30-13 decision.

Buffalo had seen off teams led by quarterbacking legends Montana, Marino and Elway over the past three seasons to win these games.

Looking ahead

The last AFC Championship game listed above saw the first time a previous AFL Championship Game was being played at this stage. Now we can look forward to it happening again. As the two old AFL foes, the Bills and Chiefs line up to do battle for a chance at a Super Bowl berth once more.

Will the Bills move onto a Tampa Bay Bowl or will it be a case of further development needed?

It will be fun finding out. And along the way the Bills fans might just wreck a few tables!

Banner image – the Bills celebrate their 1964 AFL title. Image from medium.com

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