ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- As he watched Houston safety Bubba McDowell cruise 58 yards with an interception return that gave the Oilers a 35-3 lead in the opening minutes of the second half yesterday, Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy didn't like his team's chances of overcoming the deficit.
"There was a lot of time left, and there was a glimmer of hope," Levy said. "But it's about the same chance you have of winning the New York lottery."
But it turns out that Levy had a winning ticket -- the arm of backup quarterback Frank Reich, who engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history. Reich threw four second-half touchdown passes and enabled Steve Christie to kick the winning 32-yard field goal in overtime for an incredible, 41-38 AFC wild-card playoff win at Rich Stadium.
Bills fans throughout Western New York had to be kicking themselves yesterday -- because 9,000 tickets were unsold on Friday, the game was not televised here. What the fortunate 75,141 saw was an emotional comeback that surpassed the 28-point margin the San Francisco 49ers overcame in 1980 in a 38-35, regular-season win over the New Orleans Saints.
And it was only fitting that Reich led the comeback. In 1984, he brought Maryland back from a 31-0 halftime deficit, taking the Terrapins on six straight scoring drives to beat Miami, 42-40 -- the biggest comeback in the history of Division I college football.
"During this game, I didn't think about it that much. But certainly the experience helped," said Reich, who completed 16 of 23 passes for 230 yards and four touchdowns in yesterday's second half. "Just like then, this was a total team effort. It takes an effort from all 47 players to make a huge comeback like that."
Even with 47 players working as one, no one could have imagined such a comeback with three of Buffalo's best players watching from the sidelines.
Quarterback Jim Kelly was out after spraining his knee in last week's 27-3 loss in Houston, linebacker Cornelius Bennett didn't dress because of a hamstring injury and running back Thurman Thomas -- thought to be the key to Buffalo's success with Kelly out -- rushed once in the second half before leaving for good with a hip injury. Thomas finished with just 26 yards.
With Houston quarterback Warren Moon completing 19 of 22 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, the Bills appeared headed to their first home playoff loss since a 1966 defeat to the Kansas City Chiefs at the old War Memorial Stadium. The four touchdown passes were a Houston playoff record that Moon seemed a good bet to pad in the second half.
"In the first half," said Houston coach Jack Pardee, "everything we did was just right."
Which made the loss harder to deal with for a Houston team that scored each time it touched the ball on the way to a 28-3 halftime lead.
"It was 28-3, and I told our guys they had to live with themselves," said Levy, who addressed his team's offensive unit in the locker room. "There was anger in what I said, but I told them whether we came out winning or losing, I wanted them to feel proud of themselves."
Buffalo defensive coordinator Walt Corey also was angry -- an unusual mood for him, he said -- as he addressed his embarrassed defensive unit on the other side of the room.
"By the end of the half, I knew this was going to require a different type of halftime speech," Corey said. "I gave them one ++ that I think they'll remember for a long, long time."
But Corey did more than yell. He changed the Bills defense.
Corey's key adjustment: ditching the dime package the Bills liked to use against the run-and-shoot in favor of a basic 3-4 defense. The result: While Moon was able to complete 17 of 28 passes for 153 yards the rest of the game, the Bills kept what had been an unstoppable Oilers offense out of the end zone.
That accomplished, Reich engineered the rest. McDowell's interception at the start of the half made it 35-3, but Houston's squib kick hit a Buffalo player in the back, with the Bills recovering at midfield.
Reich completed his first three passes on Buffalo's next drive that ended with a 1-yard scoring run by Kenneth Davis (who replaced the injured Thomas) for Buffalo's first touchdown that made it 35-10.
Three plays after a successful onside kick, Reich hit a wide-open Don Beebe down the left sideline for a 38-yard scoring pass that made it 35-17. Suddenly, the Bills -- and their fans -- were starting to think the unbelievable.
"I think the onside kick and Beebe's touchdown might have started the whole thing," said Buffalo wide receiver Andre Reed. "I think [Houston] might have got a little fat [defensively] and lackadaisical because they were up so much."
zTC Reed took advantage. He was wide open down the left sideline on a 26-yard scoring pass that made it 35-24 with 4:21 left in the third. Four plays after Buffalo safety Henry Jones intercepted Moon, Reed caught an 18-yard scoring pass on fourth-and-five that had the Bills within 35-31 with 2:00 left in the quarter.
By quarter's end, the Bills had scored 28 points, breaking the playoff record of 26 by the Chicago Bears in their 73-0 rout of the Washington Redskins in the 1940 NFL championship game.
Despite the record-setting 15 minutes, Houston still had a four-point lead. But it was clear on the Houston sideline that the rally had sapped the Oilers' confidence.
"It was dead, empty," McDowell said of the Houston bench during the comeback. "We ended up third in the league in defense, and for something like that to happen was very disappointing. We were shocked."
But the nightmare wasn't over yet. Al Del Greco had a shot at a 27-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter that would have given the Oilers a seven-point lead, but the snap went through the hands of holder Greg Montgomery. Seven plays later, Reich found Reed again, this time on a 17-yard scoring play that gave Buffalo its first lead, 38-35.
Houston tied the game at 38 on a 26-yard field goal by Del Greco with 12 seconds left in regulation. But, in overtime, Moon was intercepted by Nate Odomes, who returned to the Houston 35. A 15-yard personal foul put the ball on the 20.
Three plays later, Christie kicked the 32-yard field goal for the win.
"A kicker dreams of the opportunity to kick that last one and this, being my first playoff game, I'm happy," Christie said. "After being down 35-3 and having a chance to kick for the win, this is unbelievable."
The win, which increased the Bills' playoff record to 6-0 in Rich Stadium, allows Buffalo to continue its quest for a third straight Super Bowl appearance.
Unlike last season, when the Bills had the home-field advantage, this journey will have to come on the road, starting Saturday in Pittsburgh.
"It's a tremendous thrill to have been a part of a game like this," Levy said. "You don't get involved in a game like this often. I'm just immensely proud of this team. Through all the peaks and valleys, this team has no quit."
In the Houston locker room, the Oilers were feeling the disappointment of a close playoff defeat for the second year in a row. A year ago, Houston appeared to have its second-round game against Denver locked up, only to watch John Elway put the Broncos into position for a game-winning field goal in the final seconds of a 26-24 Oilers loss.
"They say a lot of things have explanations -- but I don't see any explanation for this," said Ernest Givins, who caught nine passes for 117 yards. "One minute, you're getting ready to blow out a team that you're just as talented as. The next minute, you're fighting for your damn life. And the third minute, you're getting your butt kicked.
"We should be embarrassed by this one," Givins said. "There was a lot of determination. But we still lost the game. I'm upset and bitter. I've never seen anything like this happen."
But, surely, Frank Reich has.
What they're saying
Notable quotes from the Bills-Oilers game:
"There was a lot of time left and there was a glimmer of hope. But it's about the same chance you have of winning the New York lottery." -- Marv Levy, Bills coach
"Gale Gilbert [Bills backup quarterback] reminded me of [leading Maryland back from 31 points down in 1984]. He said, 'Hey, you did it in college. There's no reason we can't do it again now.' " -- Frank Reich, Bills quarterback
"How can you describe something like that? There's no other way you can put it. What else can you write about it or say about it but choke? It's as simple as that." -- Cris Dishman, Oilers cornerback
"You never expect a team to come back and win from that score [35-3]. If you say you do, that's ridiculous." -- Ralph Wilson, Bills owner
"All I've been doing is just sitting there trying to figure the whole thing out. I just don't believe it happened, but I guess it did." -- Warren Moon, Oilers quarterback
"We're on the sidelines and said, 'Hey, obviously we're going to need big plays, but we've just got to make one play at a time and just stay with it.' " -- Don Beebe, Bills wide receiver
"I said, 'Oh please let us do it. Please.' And we did it. It was like an out-of-body experience." -- Thurman Thomas, Bills running back
"One minute, you're getting ready to blow out a team that you're just as talented as. The next minute, you're fighting for your life. And the third minute, you're getting your butt kicked." -- Ernest Givins, Oilers wide receiver