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NFL – Throwback Thursday: Air Coryell

06 Dec

On this week’s NFL slate of games, the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers meet, both trying to improve their playoff chances. This week’s Throwback Thursday feature harkens back to a game played between these 2 clubs on September 22, 1985 at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. The Chargers, located in San Diego at the time, were in the midst of an offensive era known for explosive plays, drawn up by their coach Don Coryell. Engineered by future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts and masterminded by the coach, the team’s offense was labeled as “Air Coryell”. Meanwhile, the Bengals were coached by a guy known to be a bit of a mad genius himself – Sam Wyche. This game was an early season matchup, and an important one for both clubs. The perennially contending Chargers had started off the year with a win and a loss, while Cinci had dropped both of their first games, so they were in desperation mode.

In the first half, the Chargers got a couple of short field goals from Bob Thomas and a couple of short touchdown passes from Fouts to one of his tight ends, Eric Sievers. The Bengals countered with a scoring toss from their southpaw signal caller, Boomer Esaison, to Cris Collinsworth and a one yard TD run by James Brooks, leaving San Diego with a 20-13 lead at the half. Knowing he had to match Fouts’ heroics on offense, Esaison put together a solid third quarter, guiding 3 touchdown drives that ended with a Larry Kinnebrew 4 yard TD and passes to paydirt to Collinsworth and Stanford Jennings. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, the Chargers picked up a pair of touchdowns themselves, on a Fouts to Pete Holohan pass and a backbreaking 58 yard Lionel James run, leaving the teams tied at 34-34 entering the final quarter. When Kinnebrew scored again, on an 8 yard run, to open the fourth quarter scoring, the Bengals took a 41-34 lead and were indeed accomplishing their goal of matching the vaunted “Air Coryell” attack score for score. The Charger defense stiffened after that, however, while the offense produced another electrifying touchdown, this time on a Fouts to James 60 yard pass, along with another Thomas field goal to eke out a 44-41 win in a thrilling barnburner of a game.

Collinsworth’s efforts in the game were gallant – he caught 10 passes for 161 yards and the 2 TDs, but it was no match for the heroics of the 5’6″ James. Nicknamed “Little Train”, he rushed for 127 yards on 12 carries and caught 5 passes from Fouts for another 118 yards, racking up the pair of touchdowns. Overall, the 1985 season wasn’t kind to either club. The Chargers went on to record a rare mediocre record of 8-8, while Cincinnati managed only a 7-9 mark. Despite the losing record, Wyche’s Bengals still finished second in the AFC Central Division, with Cleveland taking the division crown at 8-8.

 

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San Diego’s Lionel “Little Train” James

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Sneakers Game

29 Nov

For the second week in a row, our Throwback Thursday feature ventures way back into the NFL’s past, to December 9, 1934, when two teams who meet on this week’s slate of games, the Chicago Bears and New York Giants, faced each other for the league championship. Whereas last week’s post remembered a Thanksgiving clash between the Bears and Detroit Lions from the ’34 season, this week’s covers the plight of the undefeated Chicago club in the title contest that went down in NFL lore as the “Sneakers Game”. The heavily favored Bears were defending league champions and their imposing “Monsters of The Midway” defense, combined with a frozen Polo Grounds field that made traction difficult, helped the Chicago club to build a 13-3 lead after three quarters of play. The Bears were limited on offense also, managing only 2 Jack Manders field goals and a one yard Bronko Nagurski touchdown run up to that point.

At halftime, one of the Giants’ players mentioned to coach Steve Owen that the players could get better footing if they were wearing sneakers, so Owen sent a friend who helped the team on the sideline during games, a tailor named Abe Cohen, to nearby Manhattan College, in search of the sneakers. The school’s athletic director, Brother Jasper, emptied the lockers of the basketball team and gave the players’ sneakers to Cohen, who rushed back to the stadium. He arrived midway through the third quarter with 9 pairs of sneakers, and key players from the New York team donned the footwear for the rest of the game. The result? Quarterback Ed Danowski supplied 2 touchdowns, on a 9 yard run and a 28 yard pass to Ike Frankian, while star halfback Ken Strong rushed for a pair of scores, from 11 and 42 yards out. The increased traction gained by Brother Jasper’s contribution led the Giants to outscore the Bears 27-0 in the final quarter to secure a rousing 30-13 upset of George Halas’ proud, previously unbeaten Bears.

Chicago players were upset but accepted the fact that they’d been had. In a post-game interview, Nagurski admitted, “We knew something was wrong because all of a sudden they had good footing and we didn’t. The sneakers were the difference…they just out-smarted us.” In the NFL’s strange but true department, this scenario repeated itself 22 years later when these same 2 clubs met again for the championship, this time at Yankee Stadium. The Giants wore sneakers again on a frozen field and the advantage in footing led to a 47-7 blowout win over the Bears to win the 1956 title.

 

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Sneaker-clad Giants’ players in the 1934 NFL title game

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Thanksgiving Game In Detroit Is Born

22 Nov

The week 12 NFL schedule this week includes the annual Thanksgiving Day games played in Detroit and Dallas, plus the third contest, played at night. This year, the Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions meet in an NFC North showdown, which allows this week’s Throwback Thursday feature to travel back in time to the first Turkey Day game played in Detroit. It was played on November 29, 1934 at the University of Detroit Stadium, and both teams were strong contenders in the NFL. In fact coach George Halas’ Bears entered the game undefeated, while the Lions boasted a 9-2 record. Other pro football teams had played on Thanksgiving for years prior to the Motor City’s debut on this day, but the Lions’ owner at the time, George Richards, wanted to start the yearly tradition with his team as a promotion to boost attendance, and he had a major advantage which convinced other NFL owners to allow him to claim the Turkey Day game. He owned a local radio station, WJR, which was a major affiliate of the NBC Radio Network, and was able to secure a deal to get the game broadcast nationally live across the network. The annual game grew into a traditional staple on the NFL schedule. In conjunction, Detroit holds an annual Thanksgiving parade, originally started in 1924 by the J.L. Hudson Department Store, which has been dwarfed over the years by New York’s Macy’s Parade that is nationally televised.

As for the Motor City’s inaugural game, the two strong clubs provided an exciting contest. Passing yardage was at a premium in those old “ground and pound” days, and this game was indicative of the times. Chicago threw for 77 yards while the Bears’ “Monsters of The Midway” defense held the Lions to a meager 37 yards through the air. The hometown Lions kept pace with Halas’ Bears in the first half. In fact, a pair of short touchdown runs by fullback Ace Gutowsky gave Detroit a 16-7 halftime lead. Gutowsky isn’t exactly a household name in pro football history, but he did hold the Lions’ franchise records for single season and career rushing yardage into the 1960s.

The proud Bears battled back in the second half. A pair of third quarter field goals by Jack Manders cut the Lions’ lead to 16-13, and in the final quarter, another Bears’ and NFL legend, Bronko Nagurski, tossed a short scoring pass to Bill Hewitt to give the Bears a hard-fought 19-16 victory. The ’34 season was a bittersweet one for Halas’ Bears. They went on to finish undefeated in the regular season, only to lose 30-13 to the New York Giants in a championship game that became known as the “Sneakers Game”.  The story of that game will surely be the subject of a future TBT post.

 

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Bears and Lions battle on Thanksgiving Day 1934

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: San Diego’s Revenge

15 Nov

Last week’s TBT post featured a game in which the lowly 1968 Buffalo Bills managed a monumental upset victory over that season’s eventual Super Bowl champions, the New York Jets. This week’s story is similar in that it also involves 2 American Football League rivals of the 1960s, this time from the Western Division, the San Diego (now Los Angeles)Chargers and the Denver Broncos. The 2 clubs, both flagship franchises of the AFL, meet on this week’s NFL slate of games. The game we feature this week was played on December 22, 1963 at one of the AFL’s venerable old venues, Balboa Stadium in San Diego. Another similarity to last week’s feature is that the 2 teams were at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the Chargers a dominating force in the league and the Broncos a doormat. Earlier that year, the lowly Broncos had stunned the Chargers by a rousing 50-34 margin in a barn burner of a game that was typical of the AFL in that era. The similarity ends there, however, as, in this rematch, San Diego was able to extract revenge for the embarrassing defeat they suffered in Denver in October of that season.

San Diego’s coach, Sid Gillman, was known as a guru of the modern passing game, as he had orchestrated the offensive juggernaut that was the Los Angeles Rams in the 1950s. Now the head man with the Chargers, Gillman’s club was also known for attacking opponents with the long pass, with quarterbacks Tobin Rote and John Hadl alternating at tossing bombs to prolific receivers like Lance “Bambi” Alworth and Don Norton. The Chargers used their rushing attack, which was also a major strength, to dominate this game, however, as Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln ran for a combined 249 yards and 3 touchdowns. As far as the passing game, Rote and Hadl each tossed a single touchdown throw to a tight end rather than a wide receiver, Rote hitting Dave Kocourek in the second quarter, and Hadl finding Jacque MacKinnon for the final touchdown in what turned out to be a 58-20 rout. The Chargers, perhaps exacting a final bit of revenge, went for and converted a two-point conversion on MacKinnon’s TD.

The game was the regular season finale for both clubs, with the Broncos finishing in the basement of the Western Division with a 2-11-1 record. The Chargers, finishing 11-3 and atop the division, rode the momentum of the big win to post another one-sided score in the league championship, routing the Boston Patriots 51-10.

 

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Broncos vs. Chargers game program from 12/22/1963

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Tough Day For Broadway Joe

08 Nov

The 1968 American Football League season was a magical one for New York Jets’ future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, who led his team to the AFL title with a win over previous champ Oakland, then “guaranteed” that his Jets would beat the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the Super Bowl. Of course, he delivered on that promise and the rest is not only history, but pro football lore. There was a major speed bump in that ’68 season for Broadway Joe, however, and it came against the AFL’s lowliest of the low, the Buffalo Bills, on September 29 of that year. With the Jets and Bills facing off this week on the NFL schedule, we’ll explore that game for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature.

The Bills’ organization at the time was in total chaos, with their back-to-back AFL championship seasons of the mid-1960s long in the rear view mirror. However, one component of the Bills’ glory years was relatively intact – their proud defensive unit. On this day, that defense rose up to provide a monumental effort against Namath and the Jets. They didn’t, by any means, completely shut down the Jets’ offense. Led by Matt Snell’s 12 carries for 124 yards, the Jets ran the ball effectively, while their passing game wasn’t throttled either, as Namath threw 4 touchdown passes, 2 to George Sauer and one each to Don Maynard and Snell. New York outgained the Bills with 427 yards compared to 197 on the day. The difference? The Jets turned the ball over 6 times, including 5 interceptions by Namath. Buffalo’s old War Memorial Stadium, better known as “The Rockpile”, was never one of Namath’s favorite places to play, but on this September Sunday he couldn’t get out of town fast enough. In between his TD tosses, the Bills turned 3 of their 5 interceptions into pick-sixes. Tom Janik returned his 100 yards for a score in the second quarter, while the Bills’ All-AFL cornerback tandem of Butch Byrd and Booker Edgerson ran back their picks 53 and 45 yards respectively in the fourth quarter to provide the winning margin in a shocking 37-35 upset. The win was Buffalo’s only victory of the ’68 season as they finished 1-12-1, a record that allowed them to draft O.J. Simpson in the college draft. The Jets, meanwhile, as previously noted above, were able to put this nightmare behind them as they went on to capture the AFL’s first Super Bowl triumph to cap off their season.

 

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Buffalo’s Butch Byrd heads for the end zone with his pick six

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Seahawks Break Through

01 Nov

Week nine of the NFL’s 2018 regular season schedule includes a matchup of 2 clubs who at one time were AFC West rivals – the Los Angeles Chargers and Seattle Seahawks. We’ll travel back to November 16, 1981 for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature game, played between these two franchises. It was a Monday night game, and the Chargers, of course, were still based in San Diego. The contest took place at Seattle’s Kingdome, when the Chargers were at the height of their “Air Coryell” era when they dominated opponents with their explosive offensive attack. The Seahawks, meanwhile, were still a relatively young club, having only come into existence as an expansion team in 1976. They were coached by Jack Patera, who was in his sixth year as their  head man, having been hired as their first coach in ’76. Patera, who passed away recently of pancreatic cancer, carried the extra burden into this game of having never beaten the Chargers in 8 previous tries since they entered the league.

The Seahawks finally broke through on this night, winning handily 44-23 as their defense did a reasonably good job of containing San Diego’s vaunted passing attack, which was led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts. Although tight end Kellen Winslow had a terrific night statistically, with 7 catches for 106 yards, Seattle’s secondary basically shut down the Chargers’ vaunted wide receivers, Charlie Joiner and Wes Chandler, holding them to a combined 4 receptions for 61 yards. The bulk of the Charger offense, in fact, came from their rushing attack, with Chuck Muncie grinding out 151 yards on 20 carries. The Seahawks used a balanced attack to engineer the win, as their savvy southpaw signal caller, Jim Zorn, threw for 212 yards and a pair of scores, while running backs Theotis Brown and Dan Doornink led a rushing attack that amassed 156 yards and 3 TDs on the night. Brown and Doornink each scored twice, Brown on short plunges and Doornink on a short run and an 80 yard catch-and-run on a pass from Zorn.

 

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1981 Chargers vs. Seahawks game program

It was a satisfying victory for Patera and the Hawks, one that was a long time coming. It wasn’t really a portent of things to come for either club, however. The Chargers rebounded to finish 10-6 and qualify for the playoffs, where they advanced to the AFC Championship game with a dramatic overtime win in Miami. Seattle didn’t gain a lot of momentum from this Monday night moment, finishing 6-10. Patera survived the season but was fired early on the following year during the 1982 player’s strike.

 

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Seahawks’ QB Jim Zorn barks out signals

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The AFL’s Firewagon Football

25 Oct

The old American Football League, which played for 10 seasons before merging with the NFL, was always known for its’ exciting “firewagon” style of football, featuring lots of big plays that included kick returns, runs and passes which ran up high scores that engaged the fans of the new league. When discussions of the AFL’s exciting style of play happen, the teams usually mentioned are the Houston Oilers, led by George Blanda and the league’s champions in its’ first 2 seasons, and the Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers, coached by passing game guru Sid Gillman. However, it wasn’t just those clubs that put on high-scoring exhibitions in the AFL years, and for this week’s Throwback Thursday feature, we’ll highlight a game played on November 1, 1964 between a pair of old AFL rivals who meet on this week’s NFL slate of games – the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos.

The game was a one-sided affair for most of the first 3 quarters as Chiefs’ quarterback Len Dawson engineered a passing attack that focused on throwing to his pair of outstanding backfield mates – halfback Abner Haynes and fullback Curtis McClinton. The pair combined for 9 receptions totaling 209 yards and 3 touchdowns. In all, Dawson threw for 6 scores, also hooking up with Frank Jackson, Chris Burford and Fred Arbanas for six-pointers as the Chiefs ran up the score to take a 42-10 lead over the hapless Broncos, who entered the game with only a single victory on the season to their credit. Late in the third quarter, however, Denver inserted backup QB Jacky Lee into the game in place of Mickey Slaughter. Lee was an interesting case in that he started his AFL career with the Oilers and was “loaned” by them to the Broncos in ’64, then returned to Houston 2 years later. Upon entering this game, Lee immediately lit a fire under his flailing club, firing long touchdown throws of 62 yards to Hewritt Dixon and  82 yards to Al Denson to close the score to 42-24. The resurrection of the offense also inspired the Bronco defense to rise to the occasion, as Tommy Janik  intercepted Dawson and galloped 22 yards for a score, followed by Ed Cooke’s 42 yard fumble return to the end zone that cut the Chiefs’ lead to 42-39, with momentum clearly favoring the back-from-the-dead Broncos. Kansas City righted the ship, however, putting together a late-game drive culminating in a 7 yard touchdown run by Haynes that put the Chiefs up 49-39, which ended up being the final score. Along with Dawson, Haynes was the star of the day for K.C. as he rang up 261 total yards  to go with a pair of touchdowns.

Denver didn’t have much success as a franchise in any of the 10 years that the AFL played, as they never managed a winning record in any of the years in the decade of the league’s existence. However, they did supply their share of exciting moments that the AFL’s style of play exhibited throughout its’ life in the 1960s, helping expand the popularity of pro football with the public.

 

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Denver Broncos’ “borrowed” QB Jacky Lee

 

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: Falcons’ First Win

18 Oct

In past Throwback Thursday posts, we’ve featured a number of “firsts” that occurred over the years in pro football, including the first AFL game ever played, the New Orleans’ Saints first ever game, and this year, the Cardinals’ first game as the St. Louis Cards. This week, with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants meeting on the NFL schedule, we go back to November 20, 1966, when the Falcons’ franchise recorded the first victory in team history with a 27-16 win over New York. Welcomed into the National Football League as an expansion team in ’66, the Falcons had their top draft pick, linebacker Tommy Nobis, and not much else. They lost their first 9 games of the year, but this particular week they traveled to Yankee Stadium to battle an equally inept club in the Giants, who had a lone victory and a tie to show for their season so far.

Nobis had been a stalwart on defense for a bad team most of the year, and the team had another rookie first round draft pick leading the offense in quarterback Randy Johnson, who didn’t have much to work with on his side of the ball either. On this day, however, Atlanta had a secret weapon on their side – a highly motivated fullback named Ernie Wheelwright. He had been plucked by the Falcons off the Giants’ roster in the expansion draft held before the season to stock the new franchise. Wheelwright, a career journeyman with pedestrian statistics, was a key figure in beating his old team on this day, accounting for 86 yards from scrimmage and scoring 2 touchdowns on short throws from Johnson. The rookie QB threw 3 TD passes on the day and also ran for a touchdown in the final quarter to secure his team’s first win ever. Running back Joe Morrison was a lone bright spot in a dismal season for the Giants, and in this game scored a pair of touchdowns in a losing cause. Atlanta would ride the momentum from winning this contest to grab 2 more victories to finish the year at 3-11, escaping last place while the Giants continued their losing ways, finishing last behind the Falcons in the Eastern Division standings at 1-12-1. This era was not a very successful one for the proud Giants’ franchise, and finishing last behind an expansion team was a particular low point.

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Falcons’ linebacker Tommy Nobis

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Catch II

11 Oct

With this week’s NFL schedule including a matchup of the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, our Throwback Thursday feature will go back to an NFC wild card game played between these 2 iconic franchises on January 3, 1999. The game featured a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Green Bay’s Brett Favre and San Francisco’s Steve Young, but the offensive production for both teams in this contest came mostly from their running games. The star running backs on this day weren’t necessarily household names. Dorsey Levens, for most of his career a backup, racked up 116 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries for Green Bay, while Garrison Hearst totaled 128 yards on 22 carries for the Niners.

Although the running games were featured by both teams, Favre and Young used short passes to complete drives as the game went on. Up until the last 2 minutes of the contest, Favre completed 2 short scoring passes to Antonio Freeman, while Young connected with Greg Clark on a pair of touchdown throws, with both scoring plays totaling a whopping 9 yards. The team’s field goal kickers, Ryan Longwell of the Packers and San Fran’s Wade Richey, traded field goals all game long, and with 2 minutes left to play, the Packers took a 27-23 lead when Favre hit Freeman for his second TD of the game. That left Young with the opportunity to match Favre with some late game magic of his own. Although their weren’t a lot of aerial fireworks in this game, the signal callers, who were both recent Super Bowl winning QBs, showed their excellence in putting together scoring drives when it mattered. Young proceeded to lead his club downfield and with 9 seconds left, he hit his young, brash wide receiver, Terrell Owens, with a pinpoint post pattern throw covering 25 yards for the winning score, sealing a 30-27 victory for the 49ers.

It was a bit of a coming out party for Owens with his dramatic touchdown. He had been playing second fiddle to Niner legend Jerry Rice since arriving on the scene, and became quite emotional on the sideline after his game-winning heroics. In some ways, it was the start of a symbolic passing of the torch with the 49ers, as Rice was nearing the end of his reign with the team while Owens’ career was just beginning. Some people labeled the winning play “The Catch II” after the original “The Catch” made by another 49er, Dwight Clark, in 1982 on a throw from Joe Montana. Owens’ play wasn’t quite as dramatic, however. It happened in a wild card game while the Montana to Clark play came in an NFC Conference championship game and propelled San Francisco to its’ first Super Bowl appearance.

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An emotional Terrell Owens after his game-winning catch

 

 

NFL – Throwback Thursday: The Music City Miracle

04 Oct

The Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans clash on the NFL schedule for the upcoming week five, and our Throwback Thursday feature travels back to a wild card playoff game between these 2 clubs contested on January 8, 2000. It was a hard -fought game that was decided in the final seconds by a controversial play that was a throwback in itself – the name of the play was  “The Home Run Throwback”. Although the 2 teams only qualified as wild cards, they were both imposing clubs. The Titans had finished at 13-3 while the Bills, with an 11-5 record, boasted the #1 defense in the NFL in yards allowed. It was a defensive struggle from the start, and after a scoreless first quarter, the Titans took command as they sacked Buffalo quarterback Rob Johnson for a safety, then got a 42 yard return of the “free kick” following the safety by Derrick Mason to give themselves great field position. Tennessee QB Steve “Air” McNair finished off the short drive with a one yard touchdown run, and an Al Del Greco field goal later in the quarter sent the Titans into halftime with a 12-0 lead.

The Bills had gained only 64 yards in the opening half, and a controversial decision to change signal callers for this game was beginning to look bad. Doug Flutie had been the Bills’ QB all season, leading a low-scoring but efficient attack as the club rode the strength of their defense to most of their victories. In a meaningless regular season finale, Johnson was given a start against the Indianapolis Colts and was so impressive that the Bills’ brass decided to go with him in the playoff game instead of Flutie. Under enormous pressure to produce, Johnson came out in the second half and began to mount a comeback. The Bills took the opening kickoff of the half and used their running game, specifically star back Antowian Smith, to put together a 64 yard scoring drive. a 44 yard run by Smith highlighted the drive, and a 4 yard run for a touchdown by him finished it. Johnson led another touchdown drive, this time for 65 yards and highlighted by a 37 yard completion from him to Eric Moulds. The drive was capped off with another 4 yard TD run by Smith, and after failing on a two-point conversion try, the Bills found themselves with the lead at 13-12. McNair, who had only 76 yards passing for the day, pieced together a drive that netted the Titans another Del Greco field goal, putting Tennessee up 15-13 with a little under 2 minutes to play.  Johnson again led the Bills downfield, orchestrating a drive that led to a go-ahead field goal from Steve Christie that appeared to ice the game for the Bills, as only 16 seconds remained.

Then came the infamous play that would make this game one of the most memorable in NFL playoff history. Lorenzo Neal fielded Christie’s “pooch” kickoff, and handed it to Pro Bowler Frank Wycheck. Wycheck stopped, turned to his left and lofted a “lateral” across the field to speedster Kevin Dyson, who raced past the few Buffalo defenders who were on that side of the field to an improbable touchdown return to give his team a 22-16 victory. The play was extremely controversial in that it appeared that Wycheck had thrown an illegal forward pass. In fact, Bills’ coach Wade Phillips appeared to be very calm after the play, confident that it would be overturned on replay review. Replays showed Wycheck was clearly behind the yard line when he launched the pass, with Dyson clearly ahead of it when he caught the ball. However, referee Phil Luckett, after review, ruled that Wycheck’s arm was parallel to where Dyson was, so it was a legal lateral. Luckett’s role in the play was highlighted in the fact that he had been involved in a couple of controversies earlier in the season, botching the coin toss in one game and ruling a Vinny Testaverde QB sneak a touchdown even though replays clearly showed him being stopped a half yard short. Controversy aside, the touchdown stood and the “Music City Miracle” was born, although Bills’ coach Phillips always referred to it as “The Music City Mistake”.

 

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Kevin Dyson follows a convoy of blockers to “Music City Miracle” winning TD