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NFL Classic Rewind: Jets’ Furious Rally is Stopped by Last-Second Interception

Posted on November 03, 2011 by A.J. Foss

The decade of the 1970s were not kind to the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets as the two teams combined for just one playoff appearance between them.

When the 1980s came around, things began to look up for Buffalo as they went 11-5 and won the AFC East division title during the 1980 season.

Though they lost to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, the Buffalo Bills headed into the 1981 season with renewed confidence under head coach Chuck Knox.

Led by veteran quarterback Joe Ferguson and 1,000 yard rusher Joe Cribbs, the Bills returned to the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

While the Bills were turning the page on a lost decade, the Jets seemed to continue their woes from the 70s as they entered the 1980s.

The Jets went 4-12 in the 1980 season, which included a loss to the 1-15 Saints, and started the 1981 season by dropping their first three games.

New York fans and media members were calling for head coach Walt Michaels, who had been the head coach since 1977, to be replaced.

But under Michaels’ leadership, the Jets won 10 of their last 13 games to finish with a 10-5-1 record and clinch the team’s first playoff berth since 1969.

The Jets’ turnaround was keyed by the defensive line of Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons, and Abdul Salaam, which unofficially accounted for 66 sacks during the 1981 season and came to be known as the “New York Sack Exchange”.

On a cold, rainy afternoon, New York fans traveled to Shea Stadium to see their beloved Jets host their first playoff game in 12 years as the Jets faced off with the Buffalo Bills in the 1981 AFC Wild Card Game.

The Jets won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff, with Bruce Harper taking the kick and returning it to the New York 25, where he was met by Bills linebacker Ervin Palmer

Palmer stripped the ball from Harper and was caught on a bounce by Palmer’s teammate, Charles Romes who ran in untouched for a 26-yard touchdown in the second quickest score in NFL playoff history to give Buffalo a 7-0 lead just 16 seconds into the game.

The Jets seemed to shake off the shocking fumble on the opening kick on their second offensive series as they drove from their own 30-yard-line to the Buffalo 30, where they had a 1st-and-10.

That is when quarterback Richard Todd dropped back and fired a pass for Wesley Walker, who was wide open at the goal line, only to have Walker drop the pass and sure touchdown.

Instead of a 7-7 tie, the Jets had to settle for a 52-yard field goal attempt by Pat Leahy, but his kick was short and the Bills got the ball back at their own 34-yard-line.

Charles Romes celebrates his fumble return for a touchdown on the game's opening kickoff.

After two plays gained the Bills 16 yards, Ferguson threw a pass for Frank Lewis, who made the catch at the Jets’ 33-yard-line and dodged Jets cornerback Donald Dykes to run in for the 50-yard touchdown and put Buffalo up 14-0.

It did not get much better for New York on its next possession as Todd was intercepted by Rufus Bess, who returned it 49 yards to the Jets’ 12-yard-line to set up another score.

Although they did not gain a 1st down, the Bills got points off the turnover as Nick Mike-Meyer drilled a 29-yard field goal to increase Buffalo’s lead to 17-0, with 4:36 to play in the opening quarter.

Following a Jets punt, the Bills took over at their own 30 and drove to the New York 16-yard-line, when the “Sack Exchange” finally rose up and made a play as Gastineau sacked Ferguson to stall the drive and force a 37-yard field goal attempt by Mike-Meyer, which was tipped by Gastineau forcing the kick to sail wide right and no good.

However, the Jets’ offensive woes continued as Todd was picked off for the second time, this time by linebacker Phil Villapiano, which led to a 26-yard touchdown pass from Ferguson to Lewis giving the Bills a 24-0 lead with 9:58 left in the second quarter.

Things seemed bleak for the Jets as they faced a deficit of 24 points and no team in NFL playoff history had ever overcome a deficit that large to win the game, up to that point.

But late in the second quarter, the Jets began to claw themselves out of their deep hole as the offense put together a four-play, 53-yard drive that ended with tight end Mickey Shuler’s first catch of the season, a 30-yard touchdown pass from Todd that got New York on the scoreboard with 2:47 left before the end of the first half.

Then on the Bills’ ensuing possession, Jets linebacker Greg Buttle picked off a Ferguson pass which led to a 26-yard field goal by Leahy that cut the deficit to 14 points at 24-10 as the first half came to an end.

Buffalo got the ball to start the second half but the drive ended in another interception by Buttle, which led to a 19-yard field goal by Leahy that made it 24-13 with five minutes left in the third quarter.

The Jets got a chance to cut the Bills’ lead even further on their next defensive possession as Dykes picked off a Ferguson pass and returned it 22 yards to the Buffalo 36.

The Jets made it to the Bills’ 19-yard-line when Todd was bitten once again by the interception bug, as free safety Bill Simpson picked it off Todd to kill the potential scoring threat.

The parade of interceptions continued on the Bills’ ensuing possession as Ferguson threw his third interception in successful possessions, with cornerback Jerry Holmes making the pick early in the fourth quarter.

The Bills thought they had the game won when Joe Cribbs ran for a 45-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.

However, New York could not move the ball following the interception and were forced to punt the ball back to Buffalo, who took over inside Jets territory at the New York 45, following a 30-yard punt.

That is when Ferguson pitched the ball to Cribbs, who proceeded to sprint down the right sideline for the 45-yard touchdown that seemingly “iced” the game at 31-13 with 10:16 to play in the game.

But like they had done all season, the Jets refused to give up and muster a furious 4th quarter rally.

With so little time left and needing three touchdowns to win, Todd and the Jets went to the no-huddle offense after the Cribbs touchdown run.

It took Todd and the Jets three minutes to drive 80 yards in eight plays, culminating with a 30-yard touchdown strike from Todd to Bobby Jones to trim the lead to 31-20, with 7:14 left.

The “Sack Exchange” forced a three-and-out to give the ball back to their offense, who took over from their 42-yard-line with 5:43 left on the clock.

Still using the no-huddle, it took two minutes for the Jets to get back into the end zone, which was a 1-yard run by Kevin Long to bring New York to the closest they had been all day, at 31-27 with 3:44 left.

The Bills went to Cribbs to get some 1st downs and run down the clock, but the “Sack Exchange” would have not of it and forced another three-and-out, to give the Jets a chance to pull out the greatest comeback in NFL playoff history.

Starting from their own 20-yard-line with 2:36 left on the clock, the Jets traveled to the Bills’ 38-yard-line in just two plays, a 29-yard catch by Shuler and a 13-yard catch by Jones, as the arrival of the two-minute warning.

But the Jets’ momentum seemed to stall as an incomplete pass and a quarterback sack forced a 3rd-and-20 from the Buffalo 48-yard-line.

That is where Todd found Derrick Gaffney for a 26-yard gain to keep the drive alive as the Jets had a 1st down at the Bills’ 22-yard-line.

Two plays later, the Jets were faced with another third-and-long, this time needing 15 yards, only to have disaster strike as Todd was intercepted but strong safety Steve Freeman, seemingly ending the game.

However, a defensive holding penalty on cornerback Mario Clark gave the Jets a 1st down at the Bills’ 22-yard-line.

Then, Todd connected with Scott Dierking for a seven-yard-gain on 3rd-and-6 to set up a 1st-and-10 at the 11-yard-line, but with just 14 seconds remaining.

Richard Todd complete 16 of 25 passes for 223 yards in the last 10:33 of the game, but threw a costly interception in the final seconds.

Todd threw an incomplete pass on 1st down, losing four seconds off the clock, to face 2nd-and-10 with ten seconds to go.

Todd took the snap, rolled to his right, and fired a pass intended for Gaffney in the end zone, only to have Simpson step in front of the pass at the Bills’ 1-yard-line and make his second interception, to kill the Jets’ dreams of playoff glory.

It was sweet redemption for Simpson, who had been beaten on the game-winning touchdown play in the Bills’ playoff loss the year before to the Chargers, as he made the play to save the Bills and give them a 31-27 victory.

The following week, the Bills traveled to Cincinnati to face off with the Bengals in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, and ended falling to Cincy 28-21.

Buffalo slipped to 4-5 in the 1982 strike-shortened season and missed the playoffs.

After the season, they lost Knox, who left to become head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

As for the Jets, they would advance to the AFC Championship Game in 1982 only to fall to the Miami Dolphins 14-0 on a muddy field.

Michaels too would leave his coaching position following the 1982 season and was replaced by offensive coordinator Joe Walton, who took the Jets to two more playoff appearances during the 1980s.

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