Dominant D carried Bills to a third AFC title

Jerry Sullivan

Football: AFC Playoffs: Buffalo Bills Jeff Wright (91) and Phil Hansen (90) in action vs Houston Oilers Lorenzo White (44) at Rich Stadium. Orchard Park, NY 1/3/1993 CREDIT: John Biever (Photo by John Biever /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X43813)

It’s funny, the things you remember. Phil Hansen’s most vivid memory of the 1993 AFC championship game is of Chuck Lester, the Bills’ assistant linebackers coach, pulling him aside before the game and saying ‘You’re going to make a big play for us today.’

Hansen, who had emerged as a play-making left defensive end in his second NFL season, didn’t think much of it at the time. Lester was renowned for firing up players before games. He felt that planting a seed of belief could help a player be ready when his big opportunity presented itself.

Sure enough, Phil got his chance. Early in the second quarter in Miami, Hansen anticipated a throw to the flat by Dan Marino. He reached up, deflected the pass at the line and snatched it out of the air for an interception, putting the Bills in business deep in Miami territory. 

Four plays later, Steve Christie kicked the first of his record-tying five field goals to give the Bills a 13-3 lead. The Bills cruised from there, rolling past the Dolphins, 29-10, to reach a third straight Super Bowl – a feat that had been achieved only by the Miami teams of 1971-73.

That Bills season is remembered mainly for the comeback win over Houston in the wild-card game. The title game in Miami is a hazy memory. Jim Kelly came back in for Frank Reich. Thurman Thomas had his usual big game. The defense throttled Marino, who was under constant pressure and had 97 yards passing through three quarters.

The play that stuck in most people’s memory was Hansen’s interception. He played his entire 11-year career in Buffalo, appearing in 14 playoff games. That pick against Marino is one he’ll never forget.

How could he?

“That picture was in Sports Illustrated the week after my interception,” Hansen said by phone on Thursday. “For years to come, I was signing that page for people. Oh, yeah. Little kids would bring it up and I’d be signing the picture of me intercepting the ball.”

Beating the Dolphins was a big deal in those days. The Bills and Dolphins were heated rivals. Kelly and the Bills got the best of Miami in many big games. But that year, there was a feeling that the Dolphins were ready to take the Bills down in the title game in Florida.

“We felt like an underdog,” said former offensive tackle Glenn Parker. “We had to come back against Houston. We had to go to Pittsburgh. They were like, ‘This is our year, we’ve got you at home.’ To us, it was an insult,. We were, ‘All right, let’s go down there and see.’”

It wasn’t as close as the 19-point difference. The Bills dominated. Some questioned the wisdom of putting Kelly back in after Reich had played so well against Houston and Pittsburgh. But Kelly mainly had to throw to his running backs and let the defense do the rest. 

The Bills eventually fell apart against Dallas in the Super Bowl. But the defense had an inspired run in those playoffs, holding its opponents without a touchdown for nine consecutive quarters, from halftime of the comeback win over the Oilers to the fourth quarter of the title game in Miami.

“I remember we were not going to be denied,” Hansen said. “It was like a pandemonium thing that day. There’s no way they were going to win. We were playing at a high level, and I mean a high emotional level. I wish we could have carried that over to a Super Bowl.”

Bruce Smith was a force. In post-game interviews, he called it his best game ever and said his heart had been pumping so fast beforehand he thought he might have to see the doctor. Early in the game, Smith sacked Marino, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Darryl Talley. 

The Bills converted that into a field goal. Early in the second quarter, Kelly threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Thurman Thomas, making it 10-3. Thomas had 96 yards rushing and 70 more on five receptions. His backup, Kenneth Davis had four catches for 52 yards. Kelly went 17-for-24 passing and 10 of the receptions were to running backs. 

“The game plan was really good,” Parker said. “We put in a quick screen that week. It was a fast little dish to Thurman, to get him out quick. The line barely had to block. Usually on a screen, you kind of get the guy coming. We didn’t even do that. 

“It was so quick, we were out on the edge. He got so many yards just off the screen pass. Then because they couldn’t stop that, they started softening up and we were able to kill them with the run.”

The Bills had 48 runs for 182 yards that day. It seems like a different game, compared with what they’re doing nowadays with Josh Allen. Last week in the divisional round win over the Ravens, the Bills handed the ball off to a running back only once in the first half.

“Well, it starts with the fact that we had a great running back,” Parker said. “We had a great passing game, and that opened the run. The game has changed, but only in the way that people go about using the run game nowadays. It’s still as important as ever. 

“if you notice, the teams that run the ball well still win. You can’t just pass all the time — although Buffalo tried very hard the last game.”

Defense still matters, too. Taron Johnson’s 101-yard interception return was one of those singular defensive moments that turn a playoff game — the way Carlton Bailey did in 1992 and Hansen a year later. 

“I have pretty good memories of that,” Hansen said. “I remember a teammate, a wide receiver named Brad Lamb. We kind of grew up together on that team. He sprinted all the way across the field to congratulate me. You’d probably get a penalty today for that. I remember that, I don’t know why. That and the picture in Sports Illustrated.”

Hansen also remembers talking to the horde of NFL media in the interview room after the game. He can still see Chuck Lester, standing quietly against a wall in the interview room, waiting for Phil to finish his session with the press. 

“As I was walking through the tunnel, back to the locker room, Chuck was beside me, saying ‘I told you so! I told you so! I told you this was going to happen!’” Hansen said. “Like he was some great prophet.

“Man, it was good. It was a fun time.”

Tomorrow: Thurman runs wild against KC 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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