Thirty years later, the memory of 51-3 resonates

Jerry Sullivan

Football: AFC Playoffs: Buffalo Bills Kent Hull (67) lined up during game vs Los Angeles Raiders at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Orchard Park, NY 1/20/1991 CREDIT: John Biever (Photo by John Biever /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Set Number: X40919 )

My God, where did the time go? It was 30 years ago Wednesday that the Bills crushed the Los Angeles Raiders, 51-3, at Rich Stadium to reach the Super Bowl for the first time. 

Everyone knows that they became the only team ever to lose four straight Super Bowls. What doesn’t often get mentioned is that the Bills are also the only team in the modern era to win four straight conference championships.

“It’s forgotten because we didn’t win a Super Bowl,” said Darryl Talley, an outside linebacker and emotional leader of those four teams. 

Still, those were four glorious moments in Buffalo sports history, and deserve to be remembered. So as we prepare for the Bills’ long-awaited return to the AFC title game next Sunday at Kansas City, I thought it would be good to reflect on those four games over four days.

The first one was the most memorable. It got the Bills to their first Super Bowl. It also took place during the height of the Gulf War. Patriotism and Bills fever were at their zenith that day. I can remember all the American flags and the emotional anthem at cold, windy Rich Stadium. 

The Raiders never knew what hit them. The Bills, in the early days of their no-huddle offense, led at halftime, 41-3, setting a record for points in the first half of an NFL playoff game (it was tied by the Jaguars against Miami nine years later). 

“That’s incredible,” said Kenneth Davis, who scored three touchdowns that day. “But you know was really incredible about it, and what I love so much? The fans! The fans there are wonderful. I’m one of 12 kids, the ninth child and the fifth son. The fans in Buffalo are like my family.

“You talk about mental imagery,” Davis said. “I remember driving in to the games, how the fans knew our vehicles and would look in our faces and lead us into the stadium, before the police officers were there to handle traffic.”

The family was beside itself in that remarkable first half. Thurman Thomas, whose 12-yard touchdown run made it 14-3, had 170 yards of total offense in the FIRST HALF. Thomas had 20 rushes for 109 yards and five receptions for another 61 yards in the first 30 minutes. 

Talley picked off Jay Schoeder’s pass and returned it 27 yards for a touchdownlate  in the first quarter to make it 21-3. It was one of six Bills interceptions, five against Schroeder. Talley had two picks, one of two times in his career that he had multiple interceptions. 

“I remember it was a dig route, similar to the one Taron Johnson picked off against the Ravens,” Talley said. “But his was on the right side, mine was on the left side.”

Talley, a true student of the game, said he had done exhaustive study on the Raiders offense before the game. He could recognize their pass patterns, and he knew that if he faked a move to his right, Schroeder was likely to throw the ball short to Darryl’s left. That’s what happened. He jumped the route and was gone. 

“I had them scouted really well, as well as I did the Dolphins,” Talley said by phone from Florida this week. “Because I was like, ‘This is a chance to go to the Super Bowl. You got to make this. You got to win this’. That’s when everything was on the line.”

Jim Kelly was 17-for-23 passing for an even 300 yards, an amazing 13 yards an attempt. James Lofton had five catches for 113 yards and two touchdowns, including an early 13-yarder that started the scoring. Even Steve Tasker got in the act with two catches for 53 yards, the only receptions he had in his first dozen NFL playoff games. 

The Bills played in 16 playoff games over a six-year run from 1988-93, including their AFC championship game loss to the Bengals after the ’88 season. That’s the equivalent of a full NFL season. The Bills later acknowledged that it had taken a toll on them when they went 7-9 in 1994.

“I’m proud of that,” said Davis, who played in 14 of those playoff games and retired after the ’94 season. “I started on varsity as a sophomore (in Temple, Texas). We went to the playoffs three years in a row and never won a state championship.”

It was a surreal scene that day in Orchard Park. I remember sitting in the press box at halftime, watching news about the Gulf War and a reporter known as the Scud Stud. The game had become an afterthought. Not for Talley, who was as fierce and unyielding as anyone who ever donned a Bills helmet. 

“No, no, no,” Talley said. “No no no. My feeling was, ‘You better not let them get up.’ I grew up in Cleveland. If you’re fighting in the street and you let ‘em get up, they might get up and hurt you or kill you. Guess what? I don’t want you to get up and hit me. I want to do all the hitting.”

Talley found out what can happen when a team lets up with a big lead two years later, in the famous comeback win over the Oilers. That’s the one home memory that would rate ahead of that stunning 51-3 win. 

He only wishes today’s Buffalo fans could experience what the faithful did back in the Super Bowl days, when 80,000 Bills fans made the stadium an electric atmosphere, which Talley often talked of “plugging into” on game day.

“It’s like being put through a generator,” Talley said. “All the hair stands up on your arms. I want these guys to get that feeling. If you’re having a bad day, you can plug yourself into that and now all of a sudden you’re having a decent day.”

They don’t get any more decent than 51-3. 

(Tomorrow: Carlton Bailey’s career moment)

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Trending Stories