Spot On: A Playoff Classic Featuring the Bills and Browns

Russell S. Baxter

Spot On: A Playoff Classic Featuring the Bills and Browns

By Brandon Fazzolari

Special to Pro Football Guru

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

It has been well-documented that the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills have had their fair share of struggles over the past 20 seasons. But, how bad has it really been? Consider this: Other than the 2002 season when the Browns finished 9-7 and the Bills compiled an 8-8 mark, at least one, and often times, both teams have been awful. To find the last campaign when both the Browns and Bills fielded truly excellent football teams, one must go back a whopping 30 years to the days New Kids on the Block were on the pop charts and “When Harry Met Sally” played at the cinema. Let’s take a look back at the 1989 Browns and Bills!

1989 Cleveland Browns

The Browns were led on offense by Pro Bowl wideout Webster Slaughter, multi-purpose Eric Metcalf and consistent Bernie Kosar at quarterback. The team’s strength, though, was their stingy pass defense starring the dynamic cornerback duo of Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. Pro Bowlers Clay Matthews and Mike Johnson anchored the linebacking unit and nose tackle Michael Dean Perry was arguably the best player on the football team.

Cleveland was wrapping up a very successful decade of football, one in which they qualified for the postseason on seven occasions. In 1989, they nabbed their fifth consecutive playoff appearance and claim their fourth division title in five years. Longtime Chuck Noll-assistant Bud Carson was in his first season as Cleveland’s head man and his even nature stood in stark contrast to the fiery demeanors of his AFC North coaching counterparts. Under his leadership, the Browns traversed a stressful schedule which featured four overtime contests. On opening day, they crushed Pittsburgh, 51-0. On the final night of the regular season, Cleveland went into Houston and clinched the division with a thrilling 24-20 triumph.

When Cleveland made the playoffs in 1989, there was an air of unfinished business. The Browns were dealt a pair of gut-wrenching losses in previous championship games at the hands of Dan Reeves and the Denver Broncos. In 1986, there was “The Drive” orchestrated by the amazing John Elway. In 1987, it was “The Fumble” by Earnest Byner who had performed magnificently prior to that mistake. Due to an injury to Kosar in 1988, the Browns overachieved just making it to the postseason where they dropped the wild card game to Houston by a single point. Marty Schottenheimer departed for Kansas City and the Browns were on to a season where they hoped they could finally get to the Super Bowl.

1989 Buffalo Bills

The 1980ss got off to a wonderful start for the Bills with their first AFC East title in 14 years. However, they got worse and worse and worse until they were the absolute worst club in the league from 1984-86. During that era, though, they arose from the dregs to become a winner primarily through the shrewd drafting of Bill Polian and the wise coaching of Marv Levy. Bruce Smith and Andre Reed were taken in the 1985 NFL Draft. Jim Kelly reported to the team in 1986 after a few seasons in the USFL. Steve Tasker was claimed off waivers during the 1986 season and Cornelius Bennett was traded for in 1987. Finally, in the 1988 NFL Draft, Buffalo chose the man who would become the finest offensive player in team history, Thurman Thomas.

The pieces were in place for what would become an outstanding 1988 season. Unfortunately, like Cleveland, they were dismissed in the AFC Championship Game. The team that knocked them out were Sam Wyche’s Cincinnati Bengals who incorporated a radical no-huddle offense to keep their opposition’s tired defenders on the field. Evidently, Levy, Kelly and offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda were intrigued by this concept and filed it under their “things we might try in the future” list.

But 1989 did not turn out like the previous season for the Bills. Following a tremendous comeback win at Miami where Kelly scored on a run on the final play, he and the team played lackluster football. Moreover, they seemed to be unable to get along earning the nickname, “The Bickering Bills.” Three consecutive wins with Frank Reich at the helm and playing in a weak division helped the Bills get to an 8-7 record headed into the final week of the season where they waxed the hapless Jets, 37-0. It was on to Cleveland.

Big Plays A-Plenty

Buffalo struck first on one of their signature plays of this era: Kelly throws a short pass to Reed and the receiver out of tiny Kutztown makes a move and darts to the end zone. This one went for 73 yards. The teams traded long scoring passes in the second with Kosar connecting with Slaughter and Kelly hitting veteran James Lofton. Late in the half, Cleveland put together a solid drive that culminated in a short touchdown pass from Kosar to tight end Ron Middleton.

The Browns picked up where they left off in the second half as Kosar and Slaughter hooked up for another long touchdown and a 24-14 advantage. They were thoroughly outplaying the Bills at this juncture of the contest. But, things were about to change as Buffalo made a transition that would alter the course of their franchise’s history. They implemented a hurry-up scheme that would leave the Browns breathless and hanging on for dear life. Cleveland, though, battled back with excellence on special teams.

After Thomas scored to cut the lead to 24-21, Metcalf returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. A long Matt Bahr field goal gave the Browns a 34-24 lead late in the game. On the strength of short passes to Ronnie Harmon and the un-coverable Thomas, Buffalo stormed back to cut the lead to 34-30. Scott Norwood’s PAT went awry when he slipped on an icy patch of the ancient Municipal Stadium grass so the lead stayed at four.

After the Bills regained possession, Kelly feasted on Cleveland's prevent defense once again. In 15 plays, including two fourth-down conversions, Kelly had the Bills down to the Browns’ 11.

“I’ve got to admit, during those final plays, The Drive crossed my mind,” said cornerback Hanford Dixon, referring to John Elway’s epic 98-yard march in the 1986 AFC Championship Game.

But with nine seconds left, the Browns got a break for once when Harmon dropped a pass in the left corner of the end zone. It was the last of nine Buffalo dropped passes. On the following play, Matthews intercepted Kelly at the goal line and the Browns survived. They would go on to lose to Denver yet again the following week in the AFC championship game. Meanwhile, the Bills used their "K-Gun" offense almost exclusively in 1990 leading to the first of four straight Super Bowl appearances.

Those were the days!

Brandon Fazzolari (@spot_bills) is a lifelong Buffalo Bills fan and a Vegas sports reporter for Vegas the Network.

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