ORCHARD PARK – When the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins take to the field on Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium, it will be the fifth meeting between these longtime AFC East rivals in the postseason.
This will tie Miami with Kansas City as Buffalo’s most frequent playoff opponent since the franchise’s birth in 1960. Buffalo will become Miami’s most frequent opponent since its birth in 1966.
All four previous Bills-Dolphins games were played in the 1990s, when their rivalry was among the best in the NFL, and each game was fascinating in its own way, with Buffalo winning three.
Since the early 2000s, the Bills–Dolphins rivalry has been mostly irrelevant as the teams have almost never been good at the same time. In fact, this is the first time since 1999 that the Bills and Dolphins have qualified for the postseason in the same year.
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Here’s a look back at the previous four playoff games between the teams:
January 12, 1991: bills 44, dolphins 34
A classic first foray as Jim Kelly and Dan Marino’s offenses combined for 923 yards for 78 points, making it at the time the highest-scoring playoff non-overtime game in NFL history.
And when it all happened on a snowy day at Rich Stadium, the country was in shock as President George H. Bush made it clear that a Gulf War was imminent. In fact, when several of the Bills came to the podium in the post-game interrogation room, the television was tuned not to the NFL but to a dire situation that was about to happen just a few days later, on the other side of the world.
“Just pray that nothing happens there,” Kelly said. “However, all we can do is go about our business at home.” And the business was getting rid of the dolphins.
Kelly, who returned to the game after missing the last two games of the regular season with a knee injury, threw for 339 yards, 271 of which plus all three TD passes split between Andre Reed and James Lofton. Thurman Thomas rushed in for 117 yards on the run, and the defense, despite giving Marino 323 yards, intercepted two of his passes, each setting up Scott Norwood for a field goal.
Buffalo increasingly used attack without focus towards the end of the season until Kelly was injured. But in this game, Kelly begged Marv Levy to let him run it, and Levy gave his blessing. “We planned to start off on offense without focus, and as long as we had so much success with it, we stayed with it,” Levy said.
The Bills took a 20-3 lead in the 18th minute of the game, but at 55 seconds into the fourth quarter, Marino threw a TD pass to offensive lineman Roy Foster and Miami was 30-27. They duly woke up, the Bills responded with a 5-yard TD run for Thomas, and 36 seconds later, after Miami lost the kickoff, Kelly hit Reed with a 26-yard TD pass and it was over.
“We chose what we thought was best,” Kelly said of conducting the meeting without focus. “The key to our offensive is mixing. With all the weapons I have in attack, you can do things like that.
January 17, 1993: bills 29, dolphins 10
The Bills saw their four-year struggle in the AFC East come to an end in 1992 when they finished with the same 11–5 record as Miami but lost in a tie-break. Kelly suffered an injury in the season finale loss in Houston, which cost the Bills the division, and Frank Reich took over and led the Bills to two wins – a historic comeback against the same Oilers, followed by a beating of the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Kelly returned at the AFC Championship Game in Miami, although some fans openly questioned whether Levy should stick with the red-hot Reich. Even Reich laughed at this.
Kelly didn’t have a great day because he only threw for 177 yards, but he didn’t have to be great. Thomas and Kenneth Davis threw Buffalo for 182 yards, Steve Christie scored five field goals, and the defense sacked Marino four times and forced four of Miami’s five losses in a dominant victory that left no doubt which team was superior.
“We knew we were the best team in the AFC,” said defenseman Shane Conlan after the Bills tied an NFL record by qualifying for a third Super Bowl in a row. “We were a bit unlucky and lost a few games, but talent-wise we knew we had a great team.”
TD Kelly’s pass to Thomas helped the Bills take a 13-3 lead after the first half, and when Miami lost the start of the second half, Davis scored on a two-yard run less than two minutes from the end of the third to take a 20-3 lead, and Miami never he even came close to returning to the game as the crowd at Joe Robbie Stadium sat in sunburnt silence.
“We made history twice in a couple of weeks, but we want to make history in two weeks by winning the Super Bowl,” said defense attorney Cornelius Bennett. “If we can do that, I’ll have something to say to the kids when I’m old.”
Unfortunately, the Bills made a different story when they lost their third Super Bowl in a row.
December 30, 1995: bills 37, dolphins 22
The Bills won 3-on-3 against the Dolphins in the postseason and made history on a cold, windy day with an 11-degree frost. The Bills crippled Miami’s defense by rushing for 341 yards, the second-highest total in playoff game history, the most in the AFC.
Thomas led for 158 yards and had another 42 receiving even 200 yards from the throw-off. Darick Holmes added 87 yards, and Canadian Comet’s Tim Tindale gave the Bills a 34-7 lead early in the fourth inning, taking TD’s memorable 44-yard run up the gut for a career-high 67 yards.
All of which made Marino’s big day – 33 of 64 for 422 yards – rather meaningless. Not that he wasn’t responsible for some of Miami’s woes as he threw three interceptions and lost a fumble after a missed snap.
“What they can do strategically should give you problems for about a quarter,” said Miami defensive back Jeff Cross of the Bills, a rather straightforward approach to the game. “You should figure it out and start doing what we need to do better. We have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Certainly yes. Kelly did little – 12 yards out of 22 for 195 yards with a tank destroyer and two pickaxes – but it didn’t even matter because the dolphins were so thoroughly trampled to the ground.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Bills ranger Jerry Ostroski. “We (the line) were seen as perhaps negative in this football team and we had a hard time at first. We had to swallow a lot and take a lot of hits, but it took us a while to get the hang of it. The veterans were patient, everyone was patient with us. We decided we had to win this game for us. We locked our asses, we played hard. Thurman ran hard, Darick made some incredible runs, Tim Tindale. It was just a group effort.”
January 2, 1999: Dolphins 24, bills 17
Even losing to Miami for the first time in a post-season, the Bills made history as wide-fielder Eric Molds, who set the still standing NFL record for yards in a playoff game with 240, even though he ultimately fell short.
It was a fantastic game that lasted until the final nine seconds when Doug Flutie was sent off the Dolphins defensive by Trace Armstrong after the opening goal of 5 and cleared the ball in what was one of Buffalo’s four fumble losses after the regular season they lost a franchise record six.
A magical year ended for Flutie as he returned to the NFL after being exiled in Canada for nearly a decade, then snatched Rob Johnson’s Bills QB job from Rob Johnson and led Buffalo to an 11-5 record. He threw for 360 yards in the game and Molds caught nine, including a 32-yard destroyer, but a late-game penalty marred his performance.
“I thought I’d have a diagonal route, but it wasn’t there,” Flutie explained. “I held it and turned to look through the middle and was about to throw it over Jay Riemersma’s head from the end zone, but when I pulled back I was hit. It’s a three degree drop, not great protection and the ball should have come out sooner.”
In the first game, Molds caught a 65-yard pass but squandered it on Miami 29, and Marino turned around and led the Dolphins into a field goal. Miami took a 6–0 lead early in the second and then tried a surprise side kick, but Buffalo recovered and almost immediately Flutie hit Molds for 37 yards, setting up Thomas for a short TD run.
The teams traded third-quarter destroyers before Miami opened a 24-14 lead early in the fourth quarter to kick off a frantic finish. First, Andre Reed thought he had scored on a 15-yard pass from Fluti, but after being deemed not enough, he angrily got up to argue and hit the referee. This resulted in a 15-yard penalty and ejection, which proved costly as it forced the Bills to finally settle for a Christie penalty with 1:33 left.
“It’s frustrating when you call off a touchdown and they give you a 15-yard penalty and instead of scoring seven you have to go for a field goal,” said coach Wade Phillips. “The game looks very different at the end with Andre in the game and we are only three points behind.”
The Bills’ Kurt Schulz then recovered an offside kick on Bills 31, Flutie hit Molds for 30, and they finally made it to 5. If they had only needed a field goal to force overtime, perhaps the game would have been different. Instead, Flutie turned it around and the Bills season ended.