When one mentions great comebacks in NFL history, people will immediately recall last year’s Super Bowl. Others will call to mind the playoff comeback engineered by Frank Reich as the Bills shocked the Oilers, 41-38 in overtime. Well, did you know the fourth greatest comeback in NFL history also occurred in Rich Stadium?
It was September 1997 and the Bills came into a week 4 game against the Indianapolis Colts with a 1-2 record. It was a strange time in Buffalo. This was the first season since 1985 that Jim Kelly was not the quarterback. And, Thurman Thomas was getting phased out as RB1 with the section of U. of Houston’s Antowain Smith.
It was easy to see over the course of their first three games that the defense was still very strong. Their offense, however, led by Todd Collins was going nowhere. Collins was a third-year pro out of Michigan. In his rookie season, he was chosen as the heir apparent of Jim Kelly. He performed so poorly, he was dropped to third on the depth chart prior to the 1995 playoffs. He was promoted to back up in 1996 and was inconsistent at best.
Marv Levy gave Collins his opportunity in 1997. On the other end were the Colts. Two years removed from barely losing in the AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh, Indianapolis was a mess. They were absolutely clobbered in consecutive weeks heading into the Buffalo game. The Colts were 0-3, had scored 19 total points and not one offensive touchdown.
Current Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh was quarterbacking at the time and the marvelous Marshall Faulk was the Colts best player by a country mile. They were mistake-prone and injury-prone along the offensive line. Thus, the Bills were favored by six points.
But, Indianapolis would tally first after Mitchell Galloway fumbled away a punt. Later in the first, the Colts added another touchdown.
The second quarter was brutal for Bills’ fans, and in a strange way, for Colts’ fans as well. The Bills committed a bunch of turnovers and in turn, the Colts kept settling for field goals. Cary Blanchard was four for four on short kicks in the second quarter and Buffalo found themselves trailing the inept Colts, 26-0 at the break.
If there is one thing people know about Marv Levy-coached football teams. They do not give up. It was with that spirit that Buffalo kept going back to the Super Bowl in the early-90’s. I don’t know if he needed to say anything except hold on to the ball.
And, when they stopped turning the ball over, they slowly but surely got back into the game. If the Frank Reich comeback was like a locomotive, this Todd Collins’ comeback was like riding a tricycle. Touchdowns by Lonnie Johnson, Quinn Early and Smith and a field goal cut the lead to 29-23.
In the middle of the fourth, the Colts went three-and-out and the stadium was going berserk. Buffalo followed that up with a big hitter to Quinn Early to the 1-yard line. Smith took it in from there and it was 30-29 for Buffalo.
The stage was set for a crazy last three minutes. Indy drove from their 12-yard line to Buffalo’s 46 where they were denied on downs. On the next play, Smith burst through for a 54-yard TD. Lost in the delirium was the fact that if Smith took a knee at the one, the Bills could have run out the clock. Instead, Buffalo led 37-29.
Following the kickoff, Bryce Paup knocked Harbaugh out. On the play, Aaron Bailey went for 22 yards and Paup was called for roughing the passer. Five plays later, back up quarterback Paul Justin found Marvin Harrison for a short TD pass.
The Colts missed the 2-point conversion, but recovered the onside kick. Two failed “Hail Mary” attempts gave Buffalo a 37-35 victory.
In hindsight, the loss served the Colts well. They lost their first 10 games of the 1997 season including a 9-6 result in Indianapolis in October. They ended up 3-13 clinching the top draft choice in 1998. With that choice, they selected Peyton Manning from Tennessee. The Colts would enter their golden years.
The Bills, unfortunately never got back on their investment with Collins. He played in the NFL for ages, but only found success one season with Washington a decade later.
His struggles caused Buffalo to seek a quarterback during the offseason. They went with Rob Johnson. He proved to only be slightly better than Collins and his time in Buffalo was mostly a disaster. Thankfully, Buffalo had a tremendous defense under new head coach Wade Phillips and the diminutive talents of Doug Flutie to save the 1998 season.
By 2000, Indianapolis was a whole world better than the Bills because of the quarterback position. 2017 has been a tough season for both teams, but wouldn’t it be great if the Colts and Bills treated us to a great game like they did in September 1997.
That was the comeback nobody remembers!
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills