The Bills and Chargers will play for the 38th time this Sunday and second time ever in Los Angeles. Let’s look at some of the highlights from this 58-year rivalry.
1960 – The only other time the Bills and Chargers squared off in LA-LA land occurred in November 1960 and Buffalo stunned Los Angeles. At the time, Jack Kemp was quarterbacking the Chargers. Overall, he had a great stint with the Chargers, but not on this day. The Bills picked him off five times. Archie Matsos claimed two of those and took one back to the house in a 32-3 destruction.
1964, 1965 – As has been well-documented in my blog throughout this season, the Bills and Chargers opposed one another in consecutive AFL championship games in the mid-1960’s. The first of those games was played at the War Memorial Stadium on Jefferson & Best and this time Jack Kemp was starting for Buffalo againts John Hadl and the defending-champion San Diego Chargers. Indeed, the Chargers had the experience edge, but Buffalo compiled a much better season led by their unmatched defense. The AFL was known for the passing game and nobody embodied that style better than Sid Gillman and his Chargers. The Bills were the exception. They played like an NFL team. And, a first half hit by Mike Stratton on Keith Lincoln altered the game’s momentum. The Chargers had led 7-0 at the time. They would not sniff the red zone again. The Bills won 20-7, but were never threatened in the second half.
In the rematch the following season, San Diego only recorded 223 yards and was shut out, 23-0. Butch Byrd essentially sealed it with a pick six. In my opinion, Byrd is the best cornerback to ever play with the Bills and he stepped up when covering Lance Alworth on this, the biggest stage of his career.
1973 – Over the next 14 years, the Chargers thoroughly dominated the series. One game I feel obliged to include in this overview was the 1973 meeting. Why? Because it was week 2 of veteran Johnny Unitas’ time with the Chargers. It proved to be the only time he showed glimpses of success in something other than his trademark Colts’ uniform. For those too preoccupied to have researched the career of Unitas, I will put it this way: To me, the best quarterbacks I have ever seen are Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But, Johnny Unitas was the best QB I never got to see. He was that good. In a way, seeing him try to play beyond his prime was sad. The 1973 Chargers were terrible. They only won twice. One of those wins came against the 9-5 Bills who were legendary as OJ Simpson ran for over 2000 yards that season. He had 103 of those yards in San Diego that day.
Another interesting element to this game was former-Bills’ legend Mike Stratton picked off two passes…for the Chargers. It all added up to a perplexing 34-7 win for San Diego.
1980, 1981 – The Bills had the best defense in the NFL in 1980 and the Chargers had (by far) the best offense. The teams met three times in a two-year stretch when Chuck Knox and Don Coryell were near the top of the head coaching ranks. Buffalo won both regular season battles, while San Diego won the playoff game. These were all terrific games with All-Pros all over the field. The Bills had Joe Cribbs, Jerry Butler, Frank Lewis, Jim Haslett and Fred Smerlas while the Chargers countered with Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow, and Charlie Joiner just to name a few.
The first of these trhee classics was in week 5 of the 1980 regular season. The Chargers were a prohibitive favorite, one of the best teams in football in 1979 and a heavy favorite to win the AFC. Buffalo was the upstart team. And, we knew this group was special when down 24-12 on the road, they came back for a late upset victory. Cribbs ran it in from the three to give Buffalo the shocking win.
The Bills struggled down the stretch and lost out on homefield advantage late in the 1980 season. Therefore, they had to travel back to the west coast for the divisional round of the playoffs. This time, the Bills took the lead and couldn’t hold it. At halftime, San Diego stared at a 14-3 deficit. They chipped away until with 2:08 left, Dan Fouts hit little-used Ron Smith for a 50-yard touchdown reception down the middle. The Bills did not threaten as Ferguson was extremely gimpy on a sprained ankle.
The following regular season, both teams came into a late season game in San Diego with identical 8-5 records. The Chargers moved the ball up and down the field, but they converted five red zone opportunities into just 13 points. The Bills were more opportunistic as they scored four touchdowns on short running plays and committed 0 turnovers.
Both teams were eliminated from the 1981 playoffs in Cincinnati by the Bengals. Between 1981 and 2002, whenever the Bills and Chargers played, at least one of the teams was in a down season. Therefore, the rivalry has never reached the heights of the mid-1960s and early 1980s.
1985 – The Bills and Chargers played twice in 1985. Why? When the NFL was a 28-team league, there were six divisions. Four of those divisions had 5 team: AFC East, AFC West, NFC East, NFC Central. The last-place teams would get “last place schedules” the following season. For example, the 1984 Bills finished last so they played their 4 divisional opponents twice. They also played the entire AFC Central. The rest of their schedule was made of last place teams from the season before. Twice against San Diego of the AFC West and games against the last place teams of the NFC East and Central (Eagles & Vikings). So, while a non-last place schedule featured 4 games against the other conference as it is now with 32 teams, a last place schedule in the 80s for the four 5th place finishers would give them just two out of conference match ups and two games against the last place team from the other 5-team division in their own conference. Got it? Good!
Any way, it was supposed to be a new era of Bills’ football when they hosted San Diego to open the 1985 season. Their new QB Vince Ferragamo, their new WR Andre Reed, and their first round pick Bruce Smith were all making their Bills’ debuts. It was a frustrating day. The Bills moved the ball at will, but could not punch it into the endzone. Even more disappointing for me as a 9-year old was the fact the game was not sold out so it was not on TV. Ugh!
Later in the season, the Chargers destroyed Buffalo. By this time, Bruce Mathison was starting at quarterback for the Bills. He was awful and the Bills were drubbed, 40-7. Thank goodness, the Jim Kelly era was just a few games away!
1998 – Unbelievably, Jim Kelly did not play against the Chargers a single time in his career. The Bills and Chargers went an astounding thirteen seasons without facing each other. The 1998 schedule opened with Buffalo playing at San Diego and their widely-hyped quarterback, Ryan Leaf. The Bills had a new quarterback as well. His name was Rob Johnson out of USC. Johnson played one amazing game as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars. John Butler proceeded to pay him a boatload of money because: 1) He was spectacular in that one game & 2) Todd Collins was horrendous in 1997. The Bills also signed journeyman and CFL star Doug Flutie to provide a veteran at back up.
Leaf and Johnson both played OK, but it was Flutie who stole the show after Johnson was concussed. Unfortunately for Buffalo, trustworthy Steve Christie blew the game-winning field goal attempt as San Diego won 16-14. Flutie Magic was about to take Buffalo by storm!
2000 – When the Bills played the Chargers in 2000, Leaf was already gone. The Chargers were an absolute mess. The Bills were still very much relevant and Johnson played one of his better games during his four seasons with the Bills on this day. Inexplicably, the Bills’ solid defense had a hard time stopping Jim Harbaugh and actually had to rally to tie the game with seconds left on the clock. They beat the eventual 1-15 Chargers at home in overtime. The drought was impending!
2001- Perhaps the most-hyped game that only mattered to Bills’ fans in team history occurred during Buffalo’s ill-fated 2001 campaign. Although it was a loss, it turned out to be by far the most entertaining game of the season and secretly, and perhaps, not so secretly, thousands of Bills’ fans must have cheered when Doug Flutie scored on a TD run with a minute to go to beat his former team. Johnson actually out-dueled Flutie and led the Bills to a 24-20 lead with 1:30 left. But, like the Music City Miracle, Johnson was done in by the ensuing kickoff. Ronney Jenkins returned it into Buffalo’s territory. Then, Brian Moorman got an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Flutie followed that with his scramble for the winner.
2002- In the midst of a collosal collapse, Buffalo outlasted the Chargers 20-13. Travis Henry scored with under a minute to go. The Chargers went from 8-4 to 8-8 and out of the playoffs in 2002. Buffalo and San Diego were eliminated from playoff contention the following week.
2005 & 2011 – In games that mirrored each other, Buffalo got demolished in San Diego in both 2005 & 2011. I won’t waste your time with any analysis.
2006 – This game was interesting in that the Chargers were on their way to 1 14-2 record and LaDainian Tomlinson was in the process of shattering the NFL record for touchdowns in a season. The Bills hung around, but were not in the same league as that seasons’ Chargers. That was truly the best team in the NFL in ’06. But, they completely choked in their divisional round game against New England. The ’06 Patriots were not the ’07 Patriots that beat them in the AFC Championship game. The 2006 Patriots were a poor offensive team and only beat the Chargers because they fumbled after a virtual game-clinching interception!
2008 – The 2008 Bills started strong and ran their record to an impressive 5-1 after beating the Chargers 23-14. Lee Evans played one of his best games in a Bills’ uniform and scored the difference-making TD on a tremendous catch. The game is best known for the power outage caused by three helium balloons next door to Wilson Stadium. Those 5-1 Bills finished 7-9. Those ’08 Chargers lost in the divisional round of the playoffs at eventual-World Champion Pittsburgh.
2014 – The last time Buffalo played the San Diego Chargers was early in the 2014 season. This proved to be a critical loss for the Bills as they finished 9-7. EJ Manuel played a terrible game and he would only last one more week as the Bills’ starting quarterback. The thing I remember most about this ball game was gutsy Danny Woodhead breaking his leg. The Chargers prevailed, 22-10. Both the Bills and Chargers choked away their playoff down the stretch. San Diego played a terrible season finale at Kansas City which sealed their deal, allowing the Ravens to clinch the last spot.
So, the Chargers lead the all-time series, 23-12-2. I think they will prevail once again this Sunday, 31-23.
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_bills