NFL At 100: Miracle sent Bills, Titans opposite directions
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Titans and the Buffalo Bills tend to make NFL history whenever these teams meet in the playoffs. The former Houston Oilers got both payback and a finish that will be remembered forever the previous time they got together.
The Music City Miracle came with 16 seconds left in a wild-card game Jan. 8, 2000. Lorenzo Neal caught a kickoff and handed off to Frank Wycheck, and he threw the ball across the field to Kevin Dyson, who sped 75 yards for the winning touchdown in the final seconds of a stunning 22-16 comeback victory for the Titans.
That TD return ranked fourth among the NFL’s greatest plays.
The Titans called the play “Home Run Throw Back.”
In Buffalo, it’s “Home Run Throw Forward” or the “Immaculate Deception” for what’s seen as an illegal forward pass — even if replay review upheld the lateral by the slimmest of margins. A Buffalo media guide including the game report termed the play “suspicious.”
How did that game affect each franchise in subsequent seasons? Let’s look.
Little did the Bills know when they walked off the field in Nashville what awaited the franchise that lost four straight Super Bowls earlier in the 1990s.
The cold, damp day would be their last playoff game for 17 seasons and the last game in a Bills uniform for Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith, all released barely a month later on Feb. 10, 2000. That move might’ve cursed the Bills, at least that’s what Thomas thought.
Buffalo cycled through coaches with Sean McDermott the ninth, including interims, since Wade Phillips last led the Bills to the playoffs. McDermott helped end the drought on Dec. 31, 2017, as the Bills finally became the last team in North America’s four major professional sports to make the playoffs in the 21st century. They beat Miami 22-16 and got some help to clinch a wild-card berth.
A final score matching the Music City Miracle final, coincidentally.
“I noticed that about probably two hours after the game,” Thomas said. “It was kind of like, ‘Oh, wow, wait a minute.’ and actually a friend of mine’s kid was like, ‘Hey, wasn’t that the score of the Tennessee game?’ He’s a 20-year-old.”
The Bills lost their wild-card game that postseason, a fifth straight playoff loss, after ending the longest active streak of not making the playoffs among the four major sports.
Rob Johnson had driven Buffalo to the go-ahead field goal with 16 seconds left. After the Bills ended the playoff drought in 2017, Johnson wondered if anyone had ever figured out if Wycheck’s throw really was a lateral.
“They all do that scientific crap now, I wonder if they ever proved that was a lateral,” Johnson told The Associated Press.
Dyson’s thrilling TD, the first of his career, was just the start of a sensational playoff run and an amazing decade for the Titans.
After edging the Bills, the Titans beat Peyton Manning and the Colts in Indianapolis, then downed Jacksonville for a third time that season in the AFC championship game to reach the franchise’s first Super Bowl. Against the St. Louis Rams, Dyson had another shot at NFL immortality but came up a yard shy of the end zone on the final play, which could have tied the game.
The Titans kept winning.
They went 104-72 between 1999 and 2009 for a .591 winning percentage. Only Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia won more in that span than Tennessee. The Music City Miracle year was the first of six playoff seasons featuring three division titles and a second AFC championship game appearance to tie for fourth-most playoff seasons behind the Colts, Eagles and Patriots.
Tennessee added a seventh postseason berth in 2017 and won another wild-card game.
Told Bruce DeHaven had warned the Bills to beware of something on the kickoff that day, Wycheck feels bad for the Buffalo special teams coach who felt he was fired later on for that play. But make no mistake: Wycheck knows he lateraled the ball to Dyson, never close to being a forward pass as he threw like a second baseman or shortstop trying to turn a double play.
“Just flick it back,” Wycheck said. “That’s just the way I kind of jumped and threw it. And then I fell backward, and that was like the illusion of it.”
And history was made, even if the story still is told differently in Buffalo and Tennessee.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow contributed.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker