The Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills met last season a week after the Steelers’ winning sequence of eleven games abruptly ended against Washington. The Steelers were still playing for the AFC’s top seed but found the (9-3) Bills had no intention of making life easy for their rivals.
Pittsburgh scored first with James Washington’s 19-yard touchdown catch. A 51-yard interception return by Taron Johnson began the Bills comeback which Josh Allen continued early in the second half. Allen’s two touchdown throws on consecutive drives rocked the Steelers who left Orchard Park with a 26-15 loss. Now on to a classic matchup in this series.
AFC Divisional game January 6, 1996; Three Rivers Stadium
Before they contested this playoff game, the Pittsburgh had the edge in postseason performances. The Steelers were 4-0 in Super Bowls while the Bills were 0-4. Bill Cowher was 1-3 in post season games including a heart-breaking loss to the San Diego Chargers in the AFC Championship game the previous season.
Despite the team’s poor playoff record under Cowher, defensive end Ray Seals was philosophical. “I think we’re going through a process here, the road to the Super Bowl. The first time you come close, the second time you go – hopefully.”
In the wildcard game against the preseason AFC favorites Dolphins, the Bills overwhelmed Miami 37-22, but went into Pittsburgh as 6-point underdogs. “Everything they did against Miami worked,” said Seals. “But Miami isn’t physical on defense, and we are, and that’s the big difference.”
The Bills main offensive weapon was running back Thurman Thomas who had put together seven straight 1000-yard seasons. Buffalo’s All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith was ruled out with the flu, and they were also missing three other starters on defense.
The Steelers had Neil O’Donnell at quarterback and Bam Morris to lead their ground game with Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene the dynamic duo on defense together with Chad Brown who was returning after missing six games through injury.
Steelers Take Early Lead
The Steelers sprang out to a 20-0 lead as the Bills’ defense exposed the lack of starters while Neil O’Donnell was finding success hitting his receivers. John Williams one-yard touchdown run began Pittsburgh’s dominance in the first quarter while Buffalo could only counter with a missed field goal.
O’Donnell found Ernie Mills in the second quarter with a 10-yard touchdown pass he threw high over the defenders before Norm Jonson added field goals from 45 and 38 yards.
A short field of 49 yards gifted by Steelers punter Rohn Stark presented Buffalo an opportunity they sized upon. They went to a no huddle offense and used four plays and finished with a one-yard touchdown run from Thomas with 45 seconds remaining in the half.
O’Donnell used that brief time to lead Pittsburgh 53 yards and provide the chance for Johnson to kick a 34-yard field goal giving the Steelers a 23-7 half time lead.
A Carnell Lake interception midway through the third quarter saw Johnson add his fourth field goal, this one from 39 yards, field goal before the Steelers dominance began to fade.
Buffalo’s Jim Kelly left the field briefly with a separated shoulder injury after a hit by Bill Johnson and Greg Lloyd. Ex-Steeler quarterback Alex Van Pelt came on for Kelly and hit rookie tight end Tony Cline with a 2-yard touchdown pass. The score reduced the Bills’ deficit, but the Steelers still held a lead of twelve points.
At the beginning of the final period, another bad punt from Stark left the ball on the Steelers 36-yard line. Kelly, back on the field, took six downs plays find Thomas with a touchdown pass of nine yards. With the gap now down to five points, Steelers fans were fearing a repeat of the previous year’s AFC Championship loss.
Those concerns were cast aside when O’Donnell steadied the rocking ship with a scoring drive of 76 yards. He completed passes to Mills, Yancey Thigpen and Andre Hastings before Morris finished with a 13-yard touchdown run.
Levon Kirkland’s interception led to the final score and another touchdown run from Morris, this one from 2 yards to complete the Steelers’ 40-21 victory.
Steelers Tie Post-season Records
Norm Johnson’s four field goals tied Gary Anderson’s playoff record and the Steelers’ 40 points tied their postseason record set at Baltimore in 1976.
After the game, Neil O’Donnell observed, ”This season our team is a lot more a team – not offense and defense. Last year it was, ‘Come on defense, stop them. Come on offense, let’s score some points.’ This year, you look at everyone. It’s really a close-knit group this year.”
Coach Cowher acknowledged, “We certainly made it interesting, but we didn’t panic. We can take a punch.”
The Steelers went on to knock off the Colts 20-16 in the Championship game before succumbing to the Cowboys 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX.
The following year, O’Donnell was with the Jets after signing a $25 million 5-year contract. He led the team to five defeats before separating his shoulder and missing the rest of the season.