1994 Buffalo Bills: The End Of An AFC Dynasty

For four straight seasons, the Buffalo Bills had been the gold standard of the AFC—four straight conference championships, a feat unparalleled in the Super Bowl era. They hadn’t won that final game of the year, but they were winning most everything else. All good things come to an end though, and the 1994 Buffalo Bills season marked the end of an AFC dynasty.

Buffalo’s offense continued to be pretty good, but it was no longer the explosive force it had once been. Thurman Thomas ran for nearly 1,100 yards but averaged less than four a pop. Andre Reed had a Pro Bowl season at wide receiver with 90 catches for over 1,300 yards. But the passing game as a whole was one-dimensional. Kent Hull, a one-time Pro Bowl center, was in decline, as was the offensive line.

The great veteran quarterback Jim Kelly still completed 64 percent of his passes—fourth in the league. His 7.0 yards-per-attempt was 12th among starting quarterbacks. But Kelly was also mistake-prone. A 22/17 TD/INT ratio and 3.8 percent interception rate weren’t as intolerable as they would be in today’s game, but Kelly was still in the lower half of the league when it came to making mistakes.

The Bills’ offense still ranked 11th in a 28-team league for points scored. Not bad. But not enough to cover for a defense that really fell off. The great defensive end, Bruce Smith, still had an All-Pro year. But other than modest contributions from Phil Hansen at the other end, and Cornelius Bennett at outside linebacker (5 ½ sacks each), the Buffalo defense lacked playmakers and Pro Bowlers. And they finished 22nd in the NFL for points allowed.

A home game with a bad New York Jets team to start the year put problems quickly on display. Kelly was erratic, was sacked four times, and there was no running game. The result was a 23-3 loss.

Kelly bounced back though, and threw four first-half touchdown passes at New England, hitting four different receivers. He also threw three interceptions and a Patriots team emerging as a contender this season got back in the game. But Reed caught seven balls for 142 yards and Buffalo held on to win 38-35.

The Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) had joined Buffalo as a regular contender the past several years. But the Oilers had parted ways with Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon and collapsed in 1994. Buffalo’s offense sputtered again. But they got five field goals. Smith finished with four seconds and the Bills won 15-7.

A Monday Night home date with the Denver Broncos and John Elway was up next. The Broncos were winless and would miss the playoffs this year. Kelly was efficient, going 16/26 for 178 yards. Thomas ran for 103 yards. Bennett’s two sacks led a good pass rush and Buffalo got a 27-20 win.

The Bills were 3-1, but a late afternoon road trip to Chicago slowed the momentum. Buffalo led 13-10 against the playoff-bound Bears. But the Bills weren’t doing anything offensively. There was no running game. Kelly was only 19/33 for 116 yards, and he was intercepted twice. Buffalo gave up the lead and lost 20-13.

That set up a big home game with the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo’s prime rival in the AFC East during this era. The Bills were ready, and they woke up the echoes of the recent years. Thomas’ 125 yards led a dominating ground attack that produced over 200 yards overall. Buffalo led 21-3 in the fourth quarter and closed out a 21-11 win.

But they couldn’t keep the good times going. As a 9 ½ point home favorite against mediocre Indianapolis and quarterback Jim Harbaugh, the Bills dug themselves a deep hole and lost 27-17. They were licking their wounds going into the bye week.

Buffalo had knocked Kansas City out of the playoffs in 1991 and 1993. The Chiefs, and Joe Montana, awaited on the far side of the bye. The Bills used their time off well. In a game that was tied 7-7 , Buffalo exploded for 24 straight points. Kelly went 14/22 for 184 yards, four TD passes and no mistakes. Reed caught five balls for 106 yards. An impressive 44-10 rout lifted the Bills to 5-3.

They were right there in the hunt and there was no great team in the AFC. But the inconsistency again raised its ugly head. The Bills went on the road to play the Jets in the late afternoon window. After jumping to a 14-3 lead, they came apart and lost 22-17.

Then they went to Pittsburgh, where the Steelers were en route to the 1-seed in the AFC playoffs. Buffalo fell behind 13-0. Kelly went to the air and finished 27/53 for 258 yards. He also threw two picks. The Bills closed to 16-10 but lost a fumble in their end zone to seal a 23-10 loss.

Brett Favre and the playoff-bound Green Bay Packers came to Rich Stadium for what was now  a must-win game. Playing with urgency, Kelly threw two touchdown passes to Reed, and Thomas ran for another. Kelly finished 32/44 for 365 yards. Reed had a monster day, catching 15 passes for 191 yards. In a game the Bills led 24-0, they went on to win 29-20.

Four days later, Buffalo was in Detroit. The Lions, with Barry Sanders, were another playoff-bound team. The Bills did a nice job stopping Barry, but they were carved up by Detroit QB Dave Krieg. Trailing 28-21, Kelly threw a Pick-6 deep in his own end and Buffalo went home with a 35-21 loss.

At 6-6, the chances of making the playoffs were in serious jeopardy, but it wasn’t over. There were three wild-card spots available (to go with the winners of the East-Central-West divisions). While one of them would go to the Pittsburgh/Cleveland runner-up in the Central, there was a lot of mediocrity jousting for the 5-6 seeds. Kansas City—whom Buffalo had a head-to-head win over—was 7-5. The Raiders, Broncos and Patriots all joined the Bills at 6-6. The Colts were 5-7.

Moreover, Buffalo was within two games of 8-4 Miami in the AFC East. They had a head-to-head win over the Dolphins and the next head-to-head chance was on deck. The Bills were going to South Beach for a Sunday Night date that would open the stretch drive.

They looked the part of a proud veteran team fighting for its life. Kelly went 18/28 for 299 yards, spreading the ball around and throwing four touchdowns. He outgunned counterpart Dan Marino and Buffalo won 42-31. They had not only strengthened their wild-card position, but they had put the AFC East back in play.

Until they hosted Minnesota. It started well enough. Buffalo led 17-9 against another team that had the playoffs in its immediate future. But they only ran for 85 yards and couldn’t put the game away. Kelly sprained his knee and was knocked out. The Bills lost 21-17.

New England and the L.A. Raiders were 8-6 and in the lead for the two playoff spots. Buffalo, along with Kansas City and Denver, were both 7-7. The Bills had a home game with the Patriots. It was a chance to play their way back in. With the AFC dynasty on the line, this 1 PM start between teams on the playoff bubble had national attention.

But Kelly’s knee injury was serious, and he was out for the year. Frank Reich had authored some memorable moments as backup—notably a historic playoff rally against Houston in 1992. Now, the season was in his hands.

Reich threw an early touchdown pass and Buffalo jumped to a 17-3 lead. At this point, the dynasty came crashing down. The Bills turned the ball over five times. They were picked apart by a rising star at quarterback in Drew Bledsoe. They gave up a defensive touchdown. Reed caught six balls for 112 yards, but he was a lonely warrior in a 41-17 loss. When the Raiders won later that afternoon, all avenues to the playoffs were closed off. An era was over.

There was still one more game to play. Buffalo went to Indianapolis (an AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002). Three drives bogged down inside the 10-yard line. A 10-9 loss ended the year. Finishing at 7-9 was an unceremonious way to end the dynasty.

Buffalo’s time as the AFC power might have been gone, but they showed some resilience. They bounced back and returned to the playoffs in both 1995 and 1996, a more appropriate sendoff for Kelly, head coach Marv Levy, and the rest of this great team.