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Bills Have A Miracle Of Their Own
An article by Bills Thunder webmaster.
by Rick Anderson
September 4, 2000

The Bills got their payback for last year's Music City Miracle when they beat the Tennessee Titans 16-13 Sunday night in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Last year it was the "Home run Throwback" that killed the Bills in the wild card playoff game. This year is was Alex Van Pelt who performed a miraculous deed as he came off the bench to replace an injured Rob Johnson and led the Bills to their winning field goal with 35 seconds remaining in the game.

This game had all the makings of the Music City Nightmare all over again. Like the wild card game, Sunday's game had ferocious hitting and stellar defensive efforts by both clubs. As in January's memorable match, the Bills drove down for what appeared to be the winning field goal by Steve Christie with only seconds remaining to put Buffalo ahead 16-13 (his kick in January put the Bills ahead 16-15). Everyone knows what happened in January. After the wild celebration the Bills staged after Christie kicked the "winning" field goal, Christie pooched the kickoff in the air down to the Titans 25. Lorenzo Neal caught it and handed off to Frank Wycheck who ran to his right six steps, stopped and threw it directly to the left sideline to Kevin Dyson. Dyson had clear sailing in front of him and three blockers who took out the only Bill (Christie) between him and the victory. Christie had no chance of even getting close to Dyson.

Sunday night, the thought of a long kickoff return was on everyone's mind, especially Christie. This time he kicked the ball two yard deeps into the endzone (the first time all night) and Derrick Mason took it out. Mason, who had already returned one 57 yards with Christie stopping him, ran the ball straight up the middle and then veered to his right. He found a big gap in the Bills' kickoff coverage and blazed through it with only Christie blocking a clear path to the endzone. Christie defended his ground like Dominik Hasek defending the goal on a breakaway. The Bills' kicker was able to get his right arm on Mason to slow him down just enough to allow two Bills defenders to catch up with him and bring him down at the Bills 49.

"It felt like that game all over again, but we didn't want to live that out," Marcellus Wiley said after the game . "It was, 'Here we go again,' especially when he (Mason) kept running. Everybody was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' But lightning doesn't strike twice and I don't think they deserved two miracles."

With only 23 seconds left, the Titans had to get within field goal range to tie it at 16 and force an overtime. Steve McNair threw an 8-yard pass to Eddie George near the right sideline, but George was stopped before he could get out of bounds to stop the clock. With no time outs left, McNair had to spike the ball to kill the clock with only 4 ticks left.

Punter Craig Hentrich came out for an apparent 60-yard field goal attempt and Wade Phillips immediately called a time out to determine what the Titans were really up to. Before the Bills winning field goal drive, Hentrich had gone back to punt when the Titans were faced with fourth and one and suddenly went under center as if to run a play. That time the intention was to draw the Bills offsides to get the first down. This time the Titans were actually serious in going for the 60-yarder.

Hentrich, who is a longer kicker than the Titans main kicker, Al Del Grecco, lined up for the enormous kick. The stadium was filled with anticipation (with most Bills fans holding their collective breath) as Hentrich kicked it from the 50. The ball sailed towards the left upright and had the distance but was wide by a good 3 feet. The Bills had their payback and their fist victory of the 2000 season.

Rob Johnson proved to the football world that he could take a licking and keep on ticking. The Titans game plan was to throw everything at Johnson and pound him to the ground. He was sacked 5 times and was roughed up even more after throwing the ball. One time Titan's all-pro left end Jevon Kearse hit Johnson so hard after he released the ball that fans were wondering if Kearse had cracked Johnson's rips. Johnson got up time after time. It was reminiscent to former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly who wrote the book on tough quarterbacks. However, it was on a play where Johnson planted his left foot wrong that forced him to leave the game for good. Johnson went back to pass near the Bills goal line, and after planting his foot he got a burning pain in his foot and lower leg. He immediately went down a second before two Titans converged on him for the hit.

"I would've liked to have come back in," Johnson said . "Obviously, after three-and-a-half quarters of getting kicked, you'd like to be there in the end."

The Bills trainers tried to see if they could get Johnson back after the Titans scored the tying touchdown. The Bills head trainer, Bud Carpenter checked Johnson's leg and knew that he was through for the night.

"Bud asked me to do things and I couldn't do it," Johnson said. "I'd have liked to have gone back in."

So instead of Johnson coming back, the Bills had to go with a player who was only two days away from selling his house in Buffalo and retiring from football. Alex Van Pelt strapped on his helmet and took charge of the Bills struggling offense. His play was very shaky at the start, but he led the troops down the field in the last minute to assure the victory. The key play was when Van Pelt connected with Eric Moulds for a 36-yard play that set up Christie's winning field goal. Van Pelt short screen to Moulds was all he needed as the Bills star receiver broke a couple would-be tacklers and got all the way to the Titans' 20. A couple running plays ate some more time off the clock and Christie was good from 33 yards out with only half a minute left in the game.

The Bills defense, who had lost the likes of Bruce Smith, Thomas Smith and Kurt Schultz, was out to prove to the world that they still are the best defensive unit in the league.

"We were the best defense in the league last year and we looked like it again tonight," said Phillips during the post game news conference. "Any time you have a great defense you have the makings of a good football team."

The Bills D put almost as much pressure on McNair as his counterpart got from the Titans snarling defense. McNair was sacked 4 times for a loss of 33 yards and threw 31 times for 152 yards and no touchdowns. He also was picked off once. The Bills stuffed the run, allowing only 53 yards on the ground, once again shutting the famed Eddie George. George was a non-factor in this game, rushing for only 37 yards, a 2.2 yards per carry average.

Outside of the only Titans touchdown when George plowed in from 2 yards out, the Bills denied Tennessee three other times the Titans were inside the Bills redzone. The Titans had to settle for two field goals and were stopped when they went fourth and inches deep in the Buffalo zone. That may have been the defining moment of the game. There were 11 minutes left in the contest and Tennessee had the ball on the Bills 9. Titans' coach Fisher decided that going for a first down was the thing to do.

"Going for it, going for the touchdown, taking the shot was the best decision at that point," Fisher said.

McNair went back to pass but Sam Rogers put pressure on the Titans quarterback which forced him to throw quickly. His pass was broken up by Bills veteran Henry Jones as it was about to be caught by tight end Erron Kinney along the left side of the endzone. By stopping that play, it changed the momentum of the game and revved up both the Bills and the crowd. Fisher still defended going for the touchdown.

"Knowing that if you don't get it, you've got them backed up - you've got a chance to hold them, and get the ball in good field position, in which we did," Fisher defended his decision. "We ended up tying the ball game on that. So it was just one of those decisions. I don't think that was too tough of a decision. You could take the field goal, but then you are back in that field position battle. I felt at that point field position was at our advantage and therefore I went for it on fourth down."

The Bills defense was hitting everything in sight and with the ferocious hitting by both teams, it rivaled a Stanley Cup playoff game. Antoine Winfield is becoming known as a ferocious hitter. He made two crunching hits and being of a small stature, he is developing a reputation of a Steve Tasker-like player. On one play Winfield stood up Michael Roan after the Titans tight end caught a pass. Winfield's hit was so solid that Roan was flipped in the air and landed short of a first down.

The Bills defense, which played a solid game in Nashville last January, stepped it up a couple more notches on Sunday.

"We went out and did what we do, play good defense," Keith Newman said. Newman made his first start for the Bills and had two sacks to his credit. "This lets people around the NFL know we lost some people but we still have a great defense. We had to keep McNair in the pocket. If you can keep him in the pocket, then he can't run around and make plays on you."

The Bills offense was not that much better as Johnson led all rushers with 60 yards on 6 carries. He completed 9 of his 18 passes, but the best one came when he scrambled away from blitzing Titans, rolled out to his right and found Peerless Price in the right corner of the end zone. Price brought down the ball with one hand while cornerback Dainon Sidney was all over him.

Johnson, before he got injured, proved not only his toughness but also showed some brilliance in getting the Titans to jump offsides. Johnson would bark the signals at the line and do a sudden change up in his voce inflection, causing the Titans eager blitzers to jump. This happened on numerous occasions throughout the game, especially during the touchdown drive.

Price was the Bills leading receiver, grabbing 4 for 42 yards. Jeremy McDaniel, who last year was on the practice squad, came out of the woodwork and caught 3 crucial passes for 40 yards. Bills running game was practically nonexistent as Antowain Smith gained only 42 yards on 17 carries. Shawn Bryson rushed only 16 yards on 10 carries.

The Titans blew a couple sure touchdown passes in which they could have taken control of the game. Late in the first half, Titans' tight end Frank Wycheck, who was the hero of the Home Run Throwback, dropped a perfect pass in the middle of the endzone. The Titans had to settle for a field goal and went into the locker room at halftime losing 7-6 instead of being up by 3.

"That's a play a professional has to make," said Wycheck in disgust. "There's no excuse for a dropped ball like that."

Even worse than Wycheck's drop was the one by Eddie George in the third quarter. McNair found George wide open at the Tennessee 45, but the Titans' running back seemed to take his eyes off the ball and the ball plopped off his fingertips. George apparently was thinking about running for the touchdown even before he had possession of the ball. That was a costly mistake for the Titans.

When you play a team like Buffalo, you've got to catch balls," said Titans head coach Jeff Fisher.

The Titans also were tagged with 12 penalties for 112 yards. They were definitely not the disciplined team that had beaten the Bills in January.

The Johnson injury couldn't have come at a worse time. The Titans came down and scored their first touchdown (and only one) of the game and took the momentum away from the Bills. The Bills trainer tried to see if Johnson would be able to get back in, but it was a no go.

If there has been anything that has prevented Johnson from reaching his full NFL potential, it has been the injury factor. Once again Johnson has gone down with injury. That has been the constant rap on his career, especially since coming to the Bills. He has proven that he has the arm and can also scramble as well as most quarterbacks. He was the top runner in the game with 60 yards on 6 scrambles. But the toughness issue will forever haunt Johnson until he can go a whole season without injury.

"It's so frustrating," admitted Johnson. "I'm so sick of getting these little typ injuries. I think I can take a hit. It's the stupid kick to the back of the leg that got me. I don't think the guys had any doubt in their mind anyway. But again, I got hurt."

Johnson took more savage hits in Sunday's game than most quarterback receive in half a season. One time he was hit so hard in the head that he left the field very groggy. Then there was the hit in the ribs by Kearse that would have cracked the ribs of a lot of players.

Van Pelt came to Johnson's defense after the game during the post game press conference. "I don't think he needs to show anybody he can take a hit," the Bills perennial backup quarterback said. "We all know he can. He took some tremendous hits tonight that would have knocked anybody else out. It's not like he has a glass jaw. You saw what he went through tonight. He's as touch as they come."

Jim Kelly, the best and toughest Bills quarterback ever, can testify to that. He sat in the booth along side Bills owner Ralph Wilson and surely could feel the pain that Johnson was experiencing with the blind side shots he was receiving at the hands of the Tennessee blitzers. He also probably gained a new respect for the Bills No. 1 signal caller in seeing him get up time after time.

It is expected that Johnson will be able to recover from the never injury to his foot in time to start next week's game against the Green Bay Packers. He will have the foot reexamined Monday and throughout the week to see if he's able to take over the controls from Van Pelt next Sunday.

"I got kicked and I lost feeling in my leg," Johnson said after the game. " So I can't really go left to right very well. I think I have a little nerve damage now. It's kind of like a stinger of your shoulder. It's in the back. I guess it's right where it connects. I've got swelling right on the side, where there's two bones. They say (the doctors) you could get your feeling back in two hours or a couple of days.

Bills Talk

The Bills defense gets high marks for their stubborn effort Sunday night. "We're just doing what we have to do," said Ted Washington. "The coaches called the plays, and we execute. We don't care what people say. Call the defense, put the right guys on the field and we're just going to get after it all year long. You put your two best interior guys on the field and see what they can do. I guess we showed everybody what we can do together. Hopefully we can keep that going."

Keion Carpenter, who made a key interception in the first half, talked about the last second 53-yard kickoff return. "As long as (Mason) didn't get to the end zone, we got the defense out there and did our job."

"They came out and introduced their special teams and that got our guys kind of mad about all that because that was last year," said Phillips. "The difference is this year we played at home. Our defense played another great game against them. We showed a lot of heart. A lot of our players gave a little extra when it counted."

"I'm certainly glad to see Alex Van Pelt come in there. We got him ready in the preseason, he was ready to come in and do the job. Of course, he got the ball to Eric Moulds and I couldn't think of a better guy to have the ball when we need it. He made the big play for us."

The quote of the day has to go to Van Pelt. When he was brought up to the podium after the game to do the post-game press conference, he said, "Me being up here is kind of silly the way Rob played. He earned it. I made a 3-yard pass to Eric and he did the rest."

"I think that one thing that helped was that our O' line sort of settled down," Van Pelt said. "They showed us a lot of different stuff at first and then the last two drives the O'line's pass protection was great."

About Johnson, Van Pelt said, "He took some great hits. Rob's a big-play guy, he's always looking to make the big play. Sometimes he's going to get out there and take some hits. But he made some big plays tonight, there's no doubt about that."

Talking about his big pass play to Moulds, Van Pelt said, "it was just a spread formation. We have a read that takes us to one side or another. They had a guy one-on-one on Eric and nobody inside of him and he was running the slant route. That's our first read, you throw 5 yards and Eric did the rest. We were trying to get the ball to him all night. They doubled him every way they could. We were frustrated trying to get it to him. It takes just one play in a game like that to make a difference and he did a great job breaking tackles and going down to get us in field goal range."

Jeremy McDaniel was another one of the young Bills' players who stepped it up Sunday. Just a year removed from being on the Bills practice squad, McDaniel is getting more comfortable with the Bills offense and how he can contribute to it.

"I worked out with Eric Moulds during the offseason," McDaniel said. "He taught me a lot, I learned a lot from him."

McDaniel talked about the big reception he had: "It was outside coverage, it was a zone. I ran my route up field and I broke it off to the sideline because the corner was playing a short zone. I just caught the ball like I was supposed to."

Asked if the Bills were nervous when Johnson went down and Van Pelt had to relieve him, McDaniel said, "We weren't nervous at all because Alex Van Pelt can throw the ball (well) also. That's the reason why they brought him back this year. He did a good job being the second string quarterback. Every time he gets snap counts, he does it to the fullest."

Copyright 2000 Bills Thunder & Rick Anderson, all rights reserved.

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