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1981 Buffalo Bills: So close, but yet so far

Publish Date: 08/29/2023
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

1981 Bills

The 1980 Buffalo Bills under Chuck Knox’s coaching, won the AFC Eastern division with an effective combination of tough defense, an effective running game and a passing attack capable of producing big plays. As such, they made another postseason appearance but fell short in reaching their first Super Bowl. In 1981, the Bills made the playoffs again as a wild card, and the future looked bright.

Buffalo’s defense had only one Pro Bowler in 1981 – Fred Smerlas at nose tackle -but its overall effect was immense. Under Tom Catlin’s guidance, Buffalo ranked sixth in points allowed.

Joe Cribbs was the star running back, amassing 1,097 yards running and 603 more receiving, earning himself a Pro Bowl selection in 2010.

34-year-old wide receiver Frank Lewis made an impactful statement, amassing over 1,200 yards receiving. Jerry Butler also proved reliable, with over 800 receiving yards.

Joe Ferguson was a hot and cold quarterback, often coming close to bust. By contemporary standards, his 51 percent completion rate and 3,600-yard passing performance was adequate, with an incredible 7.3 yards-per-pass average. Yet he did throw interceptions; though this wasn’t excessive by today’s standards it contributed greatly to their ranking as 20th in scoring points in their league.

No issues whatsoever were experienced in the season opener against the New York Jets at home, where Ferguson completed 15/24 for 254 yards and two touchdowns while Butler was his primary target, amassing over 100 receiving yards and scoring two touchdowns to extend their lead 17-0 by third quarter; eventually, they defeated them 31-0.

Next was a road trip to the Baltimore Colts where Ferguson took full advantage of their notoriously lousy defense by throwing four touchdown passes and winning 35-3. A rare Thursday Night game would follow with the Philadelphia Eagles-defending NFC champs-at home against Buffalo where Buffalo led 14-10. Unfortunately for them though, their offense never ran the ball well. At the same time, Ferguson’s throwing accuracy fluctuated as 14/30 for 187 yards led them downhill as the Philadelphia Eagles took control in the second half and won 20-14.

Buffalo traveled to Cincinnati, where the Bengals had just come off of a 6-10 campaign but were set for 12-4 success this season. Ferguson excelled as he engaged Ken Anderson – eventually the league MVP – in a passing duel; both quarterbacks threw for 287 yards each, scoring three touchdowns without an interception.

Lewis took part in his own rivalry against Chris Collinsworth – an up-and-comer destined for mainstream fame in a battle that went all the way into overtime, ultimately falling 27-24.

Cribbs ran for 159 yards in a 23-17 win against Baltimore, while Ferguson registered 338 yards and another perfect 3/0 TD-INT performance.

Buffalo had begun to rebound, but their trip to Shea Stadium proved detrimental as New York was slowly recovering after their slow start and joined Buffalo and Miami in competing for AFC East supremacy. At Shea, winds gusting 17 mph caused havoc; Buffalo failed to run the ball, losing this battle 200-43; they managed to remain close until late in the third quarter when things unravelled for a 33-14 loss.

Cribbs ran for 123 yards as Buffalo survived an intense home game against Denver thanks to three field goals by Nick Mike-Mayer without relying on chip shots; the final score was 9-7 – a significant victory against an opponent that would contend for the playoffs.

November began with a 22-13 victory against Cleveland, which had won its division title in 1980 but had fallen far out of contention this season. Cribbs caught two touchdown passes from Ferguson – one for 58 yards in the first quarter and another 60-yarder late in the game – that proved crucial.

Ferguson displayed his strengths and weaknesses for Monday Night audiences when Buffalo visited Dallas to play Tom Landry’s vintage Cowboys team that won 12 games that season. Ferguson threw for 301 yards and led Buffalo to an early 14-7 lead at halftime before throwing four interceptions and ultimately losing 27-14 against Tom Landry’s legendary Cowboys squad. Next came the St Louis Cardinals (an underwhelming Cardinals team), Ferguson committed another four-interception game while losing 24-14.

Hooks saved Buffalo from an upset loss by catching his final pass of the day from Ferguson – an audacious play that kept them over 500 and just half a game behind Miami and New York, who both tied earlier that day for 7-4-1 records.

Video: Roland Hooks Hail Mary Catch Nov. 22, 1981

Roland Hooks Hail Mary Catch Nov. 22, 1981

Cribbs was out for his home game against the Redskins, who were generally an average team but significantly improved in the second half of Joe Gibbs’ first year as head coach. Hooks was at it again, rushing for 108 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown run to break a 14-14 tie during third-quarter action. This allowed them to hold onto their 21-14 victory, keeping pace with the Jets and Dolphins.

The San Diego Chargers had eliminated Buffalo from playoff contention in 1980 with a devastating defeat, featuring Cribbs back in their lineup but being outdone by their performance in the red zone versus an aggressive Chargers offense and poor defense; Lewis caught five passes for 113 yards as Buffalo prevailed 28-27 by scoring touchdowns while forcing multiple field goal attempts by San Diego.

Video: 1981-12-06 Buffalo Bills vs San Diego Chargers

1981-12-06 Buffalo Bills vs San Diego Chargers

Buffalo now had victories over Denver and San Diego – two top contenders of the AFC West – while also benefiting from the New York Jets’ loss in Seattle, as their chances to secure one of the two wild-card spots became clearer. At 9-5 Buffalo was trailing Miami by half a game but ahead of New York in terms of race for the two wild cards.

Buffalo visited New England and managed a first-quarter touchdown run by Leaks, while Cribbs caught a pass from Ferguson for a 39-yard score en route to a 19-10 win thanks to Cribbs’ 153 rushing yards.

Buffalo’s victory secured them a playoff berth. While New York might overtake them, their only other wild-card contender would have been either Denver or San Diego’s second-place team, which couldn’t finish higher than 10-6. Still, Buffalo already held ten wins, so they were safe in Miami as they attempted to defend their AFC East crown and win back-to-back titles.

On a late Saturday afternoon kickoff in Miami, Buffalo struggled offensively. Ferguson completed 14 of 29 passes for just 140 yards while throwing two interceptions; Cribbs ran well enough, amassing 94 yards; however, he failed to produce any big plays; Buffalo did well enough despite only forcing one turnover against three for Miami Dolphins.

Miami defeated Buffalo 16-6.

Oddsmakers estimated the Bills and Jets as relatively evenly matched, so New York was given their customary homefield advantage of being three-point favorites when they kicked off in the early afternoon of December’s last Sunday. Buffalo wasted no time getting started right away!

Charles Romes grabbed a fumble and returned it 26 yards for a score before Ferguson connected with Lewis for another 50-yard scoring strike after another field goal from Ferguson hit Lewis again from 26 yards out to make it 24-0 by the early second quarter.

Buffalo’s defense struggled to hold up, By the third quarter it was 24-13 before Cribbs scored on an impressive 45-yard touchdown run to make it 31-13, and it appeared that Buffalo may finally turn back the tide.

But that was far from the case. Thanks to Todd’s 377 passing yards, the Jets came storming back and cut into Bill’s lead at 31-27 before driving deep into red zone territory with time remaining for just two plays before an interception by Bill Simpson at the goal line swung the game in his direction and preserved their victory.

Video: 1981 NFL Wild Card Game NY Jets vs Buffalo Bills

1981 NFL Wild Card Game NY Jets vs Buffalo Bills

No one anticipated an unprecedented shootout featuring little running game as 17 mph winds buffeted Shea Stadium – yet that is exactly what transpired during an unforgettable AFC wild-card matchup.

Buffalo returned to Cincinnati for their second matchup against the Bengals since, and once again staged an incredible contest. Buffalo rallied from 14-0 down after falling , eventually coming within one play of winning 28-21 before losing again late in the game, facing 4th-and-4.

Lou Piccone had only caught five passes during the year. When he ran a short out to the right side and caught one from Ferguson for the first down, it was one of his proudest moments in Bills history – only for it all to be undone by a delay of game penalty (one after taking a timeout) which rendered it irrelevant; Buffalo now faced 4th-and-9 conversion attempt unable to be converted, ending their season prematurely.

Video: 1981 Bills

1981 Bills

Buffalo had only a two-year run of success before their season was cut short by a strike-shortened 1982 season, although better times lay ahead; Marv Levy would soon arrive in a few years and lead the Bills to four consecutive AFC Championships – but in 1981 the bills were just a couple plays away from an AFC Championship game and possible Super Bowl trip.

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