It’s a game that has it all: it goes down to the final play, there are kickoffs fumbled for touchdowns, punt returns for TDs, large comebacks, long pass, one of the wild plays in NFL history, and 50 yard runs. Sometimes a game is exciting because of what surrounds it, like the 1981 Lions game or the 2002 Championship vs. the Eagles, and sometimes it is just an incredible game on its own. In 1986, if you can forget the records, the Buccaneers and Bills had an absolute shootout. Here it is, what I consider the 3rd most exciting game in Buccaneers history. Tomorrow, I hope to finish it off with number one and number two.3) 1986: Buffalo Bills at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (34-28 TB). In the midst of the worst days of Tampa’s history, a game unlike any other was played between these two balls clubs. Then again, it did feature two future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Jim Kelly and Steve Young…and a classic it was. Things appropriately begin on Tampa’s first drive, when a fumble by TE Jerry Bell is strangely reversed under the old replay system before it was done away with. Thankful for their good fortune, the Bucs convert the gift into a 49 yard field goal by K Donald Igwebuike. The real reason the reversal is significant however, shows up when Buffalo tries a trick reverse on the kickoff return. Future NFL Commentator Ron Pitts fumbles the handoff, knocks it backwards, and reserve Tampa Bay FB Franklin falls on it for a 10-0 lead! Yes, it’s true. For 20 years, the Buccaneers’ kickoff coverage team had more touchdowns than their kickoff return team!. Come the second quarter, the strangeness continues. On a play that NFL Films ranked as a top 50 strangest play in NFL history, QB Steve Young attempts to complete a pass to WR Gerald Carter between the hash marks. LB Steve Talley bats it up in the air, where it lands on another Bill who cannot get it and hits it up in the air to yet a third and fourth Bill defender. Leaving their hands, the ball then pops up over Gerald Carter who is trying to get his bearings as it goes over his head and RB James Wilder alertly dives to the ground with his arms outstretched to get his team a first down. As wild as it was, the drive would stall when DE Bruce Smith takes Steve Young down at midfield. Upon a missed handoff from Kelly to RB Riddikk that the Buccaneers get, more wildness would be set up by another Igwebuike field goal. This time on the ensuing kickoff, Bill WR Sam Richardson has the kickoff hit his feet and with two Bills knocking each other down, the ball is punched out to the 2 yard line where once again the kickoff coverage team gets the ball back for the offense! One play later, Young scores on the bootleg, one of 5 TD’s I believe he scored that year. At the half, the score is unbelievably 20-0 with the home team ahead. In the second half, the fireworks continue. The Kelly to Andre Reed show was just forming in the NFL. After a 15 yard catch by Reed, Kelly goes deep to Andre again and draws a pass interference in the end zone against unknown CB McKeever, and TE Pete Metzelars brings in a two yard toss for their opening score less than a minute later. On the Bills’ next possession, despite starting at their own six, act two of the Pete Metzelars show is put on display on a beautifully set up screen pass. Kelly rolls to his right, then turning around and catching everyone by surprise, he gently tosses the ball across the field. Metzelars gets it, and with a host of blockers in front of him, goes in from 42 yards after juking out Buc S Greg Swoope. The score is 20-14, but back comes Tampa. Finding his own weapon in Gerald Carter, Steve Young hits him with a 45 yard pass down the right sideline to their opponents’ 25, and after Carter draws a pass interference of his own in Buffalo’s end zone, Young takes it in with the sneak and the lead is back up to 27-14. At this point, our orange clad marauders began to try to run out the clock, which was not a bad idea until, taking a punt from his own 50 when Buc punter Garcia outkicks his coverage, Ron Pitts atones for his earlier blunder. Going straight up the middle and without having to make a real cut, he goes to the right and crosses the goal line to cut the deficit in half. Needing the momentum back in a game where old “mo” went back and forth, Steve Young counters by throwing a great pass to unheralded WR Leonard Harris in which Young trusts Harris to cross behind a moving defender to catch the ball for 30 yards near midfield. At the men in blue’s 46 (the Bucs were in white), RB James Wilder shows why he is a legend by cutting back on a left end sweep and leaving everyone in the dust for the score, holding up his arms and strutting his stuff as he goes in. It’s now 34-21. Even with Kelly hitting WR Jerry Butler on 4th down to cut the lead to six with three minutes left after being hit out of bounds by S Ivory Curry, Tampa is in good position. Young has thrown some clutch passes to TE Calvin Magee and hard running James Wilder added to it, and bring their team to the Buffalo 31. Tampa is poised to put the game away as Iggy comes onto the field, but old Buc fans know what will happen. The kick goes wide left. Kelly and the Bills have one more chance. With 40 seconds left and on their own side of the field, Kelly throws a poor pass which Scott Brantley is ready to intercept. Unfortunately, he and safety Swoope collide into each other, and knock each other down with the ball going between their parting bodies. It then falls into the hands of WR Jerry Butler, who races down the field and only a literal shoestring tackle by a diving LB Kevin Murphy at the eight keeps the Bucs from falling behind. It is first and goal with 20 seconds left. With no time outs, though, Buffalo is in a bind, especially when a receiver is tackled inbounds, and they have to down the ball at the 5 with four seconds left. The final play will decide it. Going to his left, Jim Kelly stops and while getting hit, throws to his RB Riddikk who looks to be briefly open in the middle. The ball just misses him, and the Bucs hold on in a game that has been forgotten by many but for all that happened in it, is truly one for the ages in terms of having fans on the edges of their seats.
I loved this game. One of the greatest experiences ever. I mentioned this before in other threads as one of the greatest games of my life. Winning that game was as sweet as any other this team has own, short of the NFC Championship or the Super Bowl.
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