ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — With the game secured, intended messages sent, Greg Bell's clock rung, Frank Reich discovered, the unbeatens beaten and 1:33 remaining, a football game unraveled at the seams and unfolded into Monday night history.
The Buffalo Bills defeated the Rams, 23-20, before 76,231 at Rich Stadium on an eight-yard scoring pass from Reich to Andre Reed with 16 seconds remaining. But one play doesn't begin to tell the story of the Bills, who in a span of 1 minute 17 seconds, won a game, lost a game and snatched a game back, using a near-impossible scenario that included a quarterback making his first National Football League start.
It started routinely with Bill tailback Thurman Thomas, who was running out the clock on a presumed 16-13 victory, the Rams helpless after failing on fourth down at their own 22. Thomas headed into the line and was stripped of the ball by linebacker Mel Owens. Michael Stewart recovered at the 22 with 1:33 left and one last breath to be breathed.
Quarterback Jim Everett heaved a pass down the middle to Flipper Anderson, who somehow eluded defenders Kirby Jackson and Leonard Smith on a 78-yard touchdown play with 1:22 left, deadening a sellout crowd and sending the Rams into gyrations of elation on the sidelines.
The Bills were left with three timeouts and 64 yards to cover in just over a minute behind Reich, Jim Kelly's replacement and a man who once went three years without throwing a pass in this league.
It was thought that Reich had worked his one miracle for the evening, leading the Bills on a fourth-quarter drive that ended with a one-yard scoring pass--the presumed game-winner--to Thomas with 2:23 remaining.
Reich is a boot salesman by trade, a quarterback by perseverance. In his first four years in the league, Reich threw a total of 20 passes. On the game-ending drive, he tossed seven--all completions.
When he took control behind center at his own 36 with 1:17 remaining, the Anderson catch firmly embedded, there seemed little chance. But the Rams were laying back, and Reich chopped them to pieces, the first deep cut coming on an 18-yard pass to Thomas to the Ram 43. With 26 seconds left, Reich dumped a pass to Thomas for 15 yards to the Ram 22.
"We were trying to keep the big play from happening," Coach John Robinson explained later. "Whatever it was, it didn't work."
Then came a swing pass to Ronnie Harmon, who moved passed safety Vince Newsome for 14 yards to the Ram eight. Twenty seconds left.
What could Reich have up his sleeve? Who before Monday night could have cared?
Reich's final strike to Reed, running a post pattern, was brilliant. Reed lined up left and cut to the middle in front of cornerback LeRoy Irvin.
All night, the naive Reich stared in the eyes of Ram defenders, tipping his hand on many occasions. But on the game-winner he checked-off to the right, where Keith McKellar was in motion, but then fired back to Reed.
Reed crossed the goal's plane with 16 seconds left, briefly stopping Ram hearts while sending Reich into the night a hero.
"This was really a great thrill for me," Reich said. "I waited a long time for this opportunity and I'm just overjoyed for this team."
In three weeks or so, when Kelly's separated shoulder is healed, Reich returns to the bench, maybe for three weeks, maybe three years. With this memory, you guess it won't matter. For most of the game, Reich played the part of journeyman, but he made sure his flaws would be well-buried in the story.
It was a game in which the final two minutes outshone the first 58 by light years.
"Obviously," Robinson surmised later, "it was one of the more dramatic finishes you could imagine. It was going to be a miracle finish, but it just did not turn out that way."
It was not a miracle beginning.
Mickey Sutton, the ex-Ram cornerback who keeps following his former teammates around the league--he's already faced the Rams as a Green Bay Packer this season--set up the Rams' first score when he fumbled a wind-blown punt at his 16 with 7:08 left in the quarter. On third and eight at the 14, Everett dumped a pass over the middle to Buford McGee to get the Rams a first down at the four. One play later, Everett found McGee again on a three-yard scoring pass.
Yet the Bills' defense, inspired by Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett, and no doubt the running mouth of Greg Bell, refused let the Rams pull away.
With 6:13 left in the half, the Bills, with great pleasure, forced Bell to fumble for the first time in 112 carries this season. Jeff Wright recovered at the Ram 20, and although the drive stalled there, Buffalo made it 7-3 on Scott Norwood's 38-yard field goal.
The Bills shut down the Ram offense again on the ensuing possession, and got the ball back with 2:16 left at the Ram 49.
Reich hit Reed on passes of nine and five yards to help get Buffalo close enough for Norwood.