The Big Chill

The Bills put the Raiders on ice and stayed in the Super Bowl hunt with the Cowboys, the Chiefs and the 49ers
January 24, 1994

It was for playoff games like this—the Los Angeles Raiders against the Buffalo Bills in the dead of the Buffalo winter—that television and living rooms were invented. Thus die-hard Bill fan Rick Gould and his happy chums sat on a couch in the parking lot at Rich Stadium last Saturday, watching pregame TV and relaxing amid the swirling snow and 0° weather (—32° windchill) in a living room as big as all outdoors. "I'd rather come to a game like this," said the 35-year-old Gould, a construction worker dressed in blaze orange hunting garb, "than go to a warm game in the sun and meet babes." His seven buddies, lounging about in hunting attire of their own, agreed.

Other people had other reasons for attending, but you had to wonder what those reasons might be. Not only was this the coldest day for a game in Bill history, but also the outcome might propel Buffalo toward a berth in its fourth straight Super Bowl, where it might lose for the fourth straight year. Only Avis knows the heartbreak of second place better than the Bills.

Sure enough, by the end of the day nearly 100 people had been treated at the stadium for frostbite and other weather-related injuries; Buffalo had won 29-23; and Bill quarterback Jim Kelly was as defiant as ever. His masterly passing—27 completions in 37 attempts for 287 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions—led Buffalo to victory, but it also pushed the Bills nearer to a dreaded Fourth Big Loss. "People get down on us, but they don't know how hard we work to come back each year," snapped Kelly, who keeps a file of anti-Bills articles so he can read them and stay angry. "We have the hardest schedule year after year, but we fight through it all."

Before the game some of the Raiders weren't so sure their opponents were all that tough. "Let's just say they have been the best team the AFC could deliver," said L.A. defensive tackle Howie Long. "Up to this point."

Los Angeles's resurgent quarterback, Jeff Hostetler, a man not given to overstatement, allowed as how the Bills "are a team we match up well with."

But the Raiders didn't match up well with the weather. On Dec. 26 they were routed 28-0 by the Green Bay Packers in 0° weather at Lambeau Field. Long even spoke wistfully of the Wisconsin sun that shone on the field briefly that day before dropping behind the stands. "You don't realize what you've got till it's gone," he said. On the Thursday before the game in Buffalo, L.A. practiced at its camp in El Segundo in 76° weather; 48 hours later it would have to play in weather that was exactly 76 degrees colder. Bill defensive end Bruce Smith, one of the few players who came out bare-armed, knew what was required to prevail over the elements: "It's mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."

Upon arriving for practice on Friday, the Raiders joked about the climate, threw ice balls and posed with snow shovels. But the first four of them off the bus from the airport to the hotel had slipped on the ice and nearly killed themselves, and the entire Los Angeles organization came to understand why NFL teams play 16 games to earn the home field advantage. On Saturday the Raiders trotted onto the frozen Rich Stadium tundra and were greeted by a portentous banner that, in mock homage to L.A. team boss Al Davis, read, JUST FREEZE BABY.

Still, in the first half Los Angeles was able to ignore the elements and dominated play. The Raiders held the ball for 23½ minutes to 6½ for the Bills through the first two periods and scored three times—on a 30-yard field goal by Jeff Jaeger and a pair of one-yard runs by tailback Napoleon McCallum. But L.A. went into the locker room at intermission leading only 17-13, largely because the Bills came up with two big plays, neither of which produced stat-sheet offensive yardage.

The first, early in the second quarter, was a 67-yard return by Bill special teams master Steve Tasker of a short, low, knuckleball kickoff after Jaeger's field goal. Tasker was finally run out of bounds on the Raider one-yard line, and one play later Buffalo scored on a one-yard, cart-wheeling touchdown flop by second-string tailback Kenneth Davis. "I heard him hit the ground with this unbelievable thud," marveled Kelly of Davis's play. "Kenny has no fear of anything."

The second was a questionable pass-interference call on Los Angeles nickel-back Torin Dorn for allegedly bumping Bill wideout Andre Reed on a deep post pattern just before the half. The call was good for a 37-yard Buffalo gain, and it set up tailback Thurman Thomas's eight-yard touchdown run on the next play. "I feel it was a terrible call," said a distraught Dorn in the locker room after the game. "It kind of turned the tide and quieted things in the locker room at the half."

So quieted were the Raiders that they barely made a peep in the second half. The only noise they produced came at the end of the third quarter on a short pass from Hostetler to wideout Tim Brown, who took off like a bolt up the middle of the field, sidestepped Bill safety Mark Kelso at the Buffalo 20 and turned the short toss into an 86-yard touchdown. Jaeger missed the extra point (the Bills' Steve Christie missed two as well; "The ball was frozen, and you couldn't feel your feet," he explained later), and the Raiders were ahead 23-22.

Buffalo promptly marched down the field after Brown's touchdown, going 71 yards on nine plays to score on a sweet 22-yard pass from Kelly to wideout Billy Brooks. It was Brooks's second touchdown catch of the day—the other having been a 25-yarder in the third period—and it clinched the game for the Bills. Kelly had so much time to throw in the second half that he occasionally looked like a man casually casting a fly rod, not forward passes. He had special praise for his offensive linemen and for Brooks. "It came down to the way those guys blocked for me," he said afterward. "And Billy never makes mistakes. On that second touchdown I threw the ball to where I hoped he was going to be. He's that dependable."

The Raiders had plenty of time to score again after Brooks's touchdown, but the Buffalo defense stopped them twice on downs, and the Bill offense ran out the last 5:42. On L.A.'s final series Hostetler, facing a third-and-seven from his own 29, was sacked by the fired-up Smith. In the equipment room after the game, Smith, whose two sacks for the day gave him the career playoff record of 11, sipped a beer and talked about reports that he was bitter at not having been named the league's defensive MVP (Rod Woodson of the Pittsburgh Steelers received the honor). "What my point was," he explained, "is that from game one to game 16 there wasn't a player as consistent as I was." He shrugged. "I'm only repeating what NFL coaches and other players tell me. The truth hurts."

It hurt some of the Raiders plenty. McCallum even got a bit teary when Al Davis hugged him in the locker room and said, "Thanks a lot. I'm sorry."

One of the things that hurt Los Angeles was so simple it deserved to be cried about. "In our no-huddle offense," said Bill center Kent Hull, "80 percent of the time Jim just walks up and says, 'Hut!' and we're gone. The Raider defense started to get into a rhythm, so in the second half we went on the second, third or fourth sound, and that neutralized their rush. Of all the things that could make a difference, you wouldn't think that would be it, would you?"

No, you wouldn't. But the Raider defensive linemen could never adjust to the slower snap count, and Long, a veteran of 13 seasons and 10 previous postseason games, was flagged four times for jumping offside.

After the game, in the basement bar at his house, Kelly wandered among his friends and teammates in simple attire—sweat socks, jeans and a 1991 All-Madden Team sweatshirt—pondering the simplicity of the task ahead of the Bills: They need to go back to the big game one more time and make up for some negative history. Kelly looked at his pink left hand, admitting that it had just about frozen solid in the second half. No matter. In his right hand he held a shot of cinnamon schnapps, with which he offered a toast to the victory, to the work remaining and, yes, to warmth.

Meanwhile, Rick Gould and his band were back in the Rich Stadium parking lot, watching football news on the TV they had propped up against the rental truck that had carried their beloved couch to this event. "It's a used couch," said Gould of the battered piece of furniture. "But you may call it ratty."

"We're going to reupholster it in leather for next year," said his friend Rob Grandits, 34, a tile layer from nearby Amherst, N.Y. "With hinges, so we can take it in the car if we want to."

And what about this week, for the AFC Championship game against the Kansas City Chiefs back here at Rich Stadium?

"We may not leave," said Gould. His friends nodded. The scenery, after all, is just fine.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERDavis showed no fear of flying on this one-yard score in the second quarter. TWO PHOTOSDAMIAN STROHMEYERTo the Raiders, the temperature wasn't as low as the blow from one Buffalo sign maker. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERLA. took an early lead on a plunge by McCallum (41) and regained it briefly on Brown's 86-yard romp. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSAL TIELEMANSWhile the Raiders huddled for some warmth, Hostetler (15) felt the heat from the Buffalo rush. PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERBrooks (80) warmed the frozen fans with the first of his two touchdowns. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.]