By the time the fourth one rolled around, the football world had become pretty weary of the Bills. National writers took shots, saying ‘Anyone but Buffalo’ in the Super Bowl.
Those Bills teams were filled with proud, defiant competitors. They felt the country’s disdain. They wrapped it around themselves like a cloak and used it as motivation, a chance to prove themselves to a skeptical nation.
No one, of course, felt it more than Thurman Thomas, who had come into the league angry after falling to the 40th overall draft pick, and carried that chip on his shoulder for the rest of his Hall of Fame career.
Thomas and the Bills were wired for their fourth straight AFC championship game, against the Kansas City Chiefs. By the time they kicked if off on Jan. 23, 1994 at Rich Stadium, the defense was tired of hearing about Joe Montana. Thurman was sick of people assuming he was past his prime.
“Yeah,” Thomas said Friday. “There were some things that were written about me, like ‘He hasn’t come through in a big game in awhile’ or ‘He hasn’t played well in a Super Bowl’.”
“I just wanted to prove something against a good Kansas City defense. I’d taken a lot of beats over the years, over four consecutive years. But I still had some gas left in this tank to take this team to a Super Bowl.”
He drained the whole tank that day. Thomas turned in one of the greatest performances in NFL playoff history, rushing 33 times for 186 yards as the Bills drilled the Chiefs, 30-13, to reach a record fourth straight Super Bowl. Thomas had 208 total yards. No other Bills had more than 50.
The 186 rushing yards remain a record for an AFC title game. It wasn’t a surprise for Thurman to rise up. In the Bills’ four consecutive title game wins, he had a combined 696 scrimmage yards. That’s an average of 174 yards a game — even better than his average when he led the NFL in scrimmage yards four years in a row in his prime.
“It was the ultimate step to the next goal, you know?” Thomas said. “Even if I didn’t have the game I thought I was going to have, I always knew I was going to be a big part of it, whether it was the running game or the passing game of picking up Steve Atwater on the blitz about 15 times in the Denver game (two title games earlier).”
“Those games were important. I’m glad that Jim (Kelly) and Marv (Levy) called my numbers all those times. In those situations, I just seemed to come through.”
Thomas scored on a 12-yard touchdown run midway through the first quarter to give the Bills a 7-0 lead. After the Chiefs got two Nick Lowery field goals, Thomas had a 3-yard TD run early in the second to make it 14-6. He never let up, setting a personal high for carries in a playoff game.
As always, he gave a lot of credit to his offensive line, a tough, mobile, intelligent group that had the Chiefs defense figured out that day.
“The blocking scheme we used for the majority of that game was kind of ad hoc on the sideline,” said former tackle Glenn Parker. “We talked to (offensive coordinator) Tom Bresnahan about it, and said ‘Hey, let’s do this instead’ and we killed them on it. They didn’t have an answer for it.”
“They had a safety down in the box playing the weak ‘backer position,” Parker said. “Well, the way they lined up, it was easier to have John Fina, the tackle, go get him and I actually pulled to take the end. That widened that safety out. Thurman was so good with his vision, he had the ability to slide sideways at a moment’s notice. They didn’t have an answer for it.”
The Chiefs had no answers for the Bills defense, either. The Bills shut down Marcus Allen and limited Montana to 9 of 23 passing for 125 yards. Montana left the game with a concussion after Bruce Smith, Phil Hansen and Jeff Wright congregated for a sack early in the third quarter.
Dave Krieg replaced Montana and got the Chiefs to within a touchdown, but Thomas and the run game took over from there. It was a typically dominant effort by the D in title games. In the Bills’ four straight AFC championship game wins, they allowed a total of 33 points.
“Man, just playing for the Super Bowl, why wouldn’t you be on a different level?” Wright said. “You’re on top of the world. You have a chance to make records for eternity. That’s what got us up. I mean, damn. It was awesome.To do it that many times only made us more hungry.”
Wright said Kelly turned to him on the sidelines in the waning moments of the third Super Bowl loss and said, ‘Let’s piss them off and get back again next season.’
“We laughed and had a couple of drinks over it,” Wright said, “and By God, we did it.”
On Sunday, the Bills will finally get back to the AFC title game again, after a 27-year absence. Fittingly, it’ll be against the Chiefs and another superstar quarterback in Patrick Mahomes, assuming he plays.
“I’m so damn excited,” Wright said from Arizona. “Their team reminds me of our team. I’m telling you, just the way they get fired up. Man, us guys when we were out on the field together, we were so juiced. We were ready to take on whatever came our way. It’s the same way these Bills are doing.”
Thomas agrees. So did every member of those great Bills teams who spoke about the old days and their affection for the current team.
“This team has that swagger,” Thomas said. “We were a force to be reckoned with. You had to bring your breakfast, your lunch, your dinner and a snack for afterwards, because we were going to be there playing football for 60 minutes.”
“They have that same confidence in who they are and what their abilities are. You can tell they’re having fun. Like us, these guys love going over there to the facility and practicing and being around the guys. And that’s how you bring a great team together.”