1981 - A Return to the Playoffs
10-6 record, third of five in AFC East, fourth-tied of 14 in AFC, sixth-tied of 28 in NFL
Coming off their firs division crown, Buffalo had some big changes on tap. First, they moved training camp from Niagra to Fredonia, presumably to expand their fanbase. The draft was a questionable one. In the first round the Bills selected running/fullback Booker Moore, despite having a Pro Bowl running back on the roster in Joe Cribbs. Shortly following the draft Moore was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an auto-immune disorder that results in weakness or paralysis. Moore was able to recover and play fullback for Buffalo from '82 to '85. The entire class was underwhleming, a departure from the two previous drafts.
Once again, Joe Cribbs and the passing attack of Joe Ferguson and the duo of wideouts Frank Lewis and Jerry Butler powered the Bills offensive attack. Cribbs topped 1000 yards again but scored only three touchdowns allowing fullback Roosevelt Leaks to punch in six scores. Cribbs also was third on the team in receiving behind Lewis and Butler. Ferguson had a franchise-best 3652 passing yards to go along with 24 touchdown passes. His season passing yards total still ranks third-most all time in Bills history and during the season he passed . The 34 year-old Lewis set the Bills single-season receiving marks by catching 70 passes and gaining 1244 yards through the air, becoming only the third receiver in Bills history to top one thousand yards (Dubenion '64 and Briscoe '70). Cribbs and Lewis were named to the Pro Bowl where they were joined by Fred Smerlas. Jerry Butler added 842 yards and 8 touchdown grabs to lead the Bills to a top 10 offense. While only ranking twentieth in points scored, the Bills were 8th in yards gained, 9th in passing yards, and 13th in rushing yards. The defense was once again stout placing in the top ten in points allowed (6th), yards allowed (7th), and passing yards allowed (4th). The rushing defense was still a problem allowing 2075 yards to come in 17th in the league.
The Bills looked good out of the gate going 2-0 against division foes New York and Baltimore. They stumbled in the next two weeks losing close games before two more wins. After a loss to the Jets the Bills won two more conference games including a 9-7 win over the Denver Broncos. The Bills just couldn't seem to get on a streak though losing their next two games. Sitting at 6-5 the Bills still had time to get things in order - and they did. The Bills rattled off four straight single digit victories including a week 14 win over the Chargers in San Diego. The defense allowed 482 yards of offense, 343 from Dan Fouts' arm but a Chuck Muncie fumble recovery on Buffalo's 26 with 1:52 left preserved a 28-27 victory and the Bills playoffs hopes. In week 17 the 10-5 Bills would face the hated Miami Dolphins and their 10-4-1 record with the division championship on the line. Buffalo was only able to muster two Nick Mike-Mayer field goals and lost 16-6. Now the Bills needed some luck just ot make the playoffs. The 9-5-1New York Jets wre playing the Green Bay Packers and the 10-5 Broncos were facing the Chicago Bears. If Denver and New York both won, they would beat Buffalo for the last Wild Card spot. Instead only New York won. Denver lost 35-24. The Broncos and Bills finished the year with equal 10-6 records. Denver had lost the division on a tiebreaker and now lost the Wild Card due to the Bills' Week 8 win. Buffalo earned the 5th and final wild card spot. Despite a 10-6 record, Denver would sit home.
In the Wild Card game, the Bills were matched against the New York Jets. The Bills and Jets had split games that year with Buffalo handing New York a 31-0 beatdown in Week 1. In Week 7 the Jets got their revenge beating Buffalo 33-14. The stage was set for a showdown. The Bills jumped to a 24-0 lead by the second quarter. New York fumbled the opening kickoff and Buffalo returned it for a score to start things off. New York got the ball back and punted and soon after Joe Ferguson completed a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Frank Lewis. Two more Jet interceptions led to 10 points and the rout was on at 24-0 - or so fans thought. Jets quarterback Richard Todd threw a 30-yard touchdown, and kicker Pat Leahy added two field goals to cut Buffalo's lead, 24-13 by the end of the third quarter. In the fourth quarter the Bills finally got back on the board when Joe Cribbs ran for a 45-yard touchdown, increasing the Bills lead to 31-13. But Todd then led the Jets 80 yards in 8 plays and completed a 30-yard touchdown. Then after forcing a punt, New York drove for another score, aided by a pass interference call against Bills defensive back Mario Clark that nullified an interception. The Jets finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the score to 31-27. The Jets got the ball back with 2:36 remaining and then drove 69 yards to the Buffalo 11-yard line, aided by another penalty that wiped out an interception. However, Bill Simpson's second interception of the day at the 1-yard line halted New York's comeback with 2 seconds left. The Bills had finally secured their first NFL playoff win over a decade after joining the NFL and their first playoff win since the 1965 AFL Championship game. Frank Lewis continued his stellar year catching 7 passes for a franchise postseason record 158 yards and 2 touchdowns. Both quarterbacks threw 2 touchdowns and were intercepted four times
Next up, Buffalo would face AFC top seed Cincinnatti. The Bengals opened the scoring on their first two drives to jump ouot to an early 14-0 lead. Late in the second quarter, Ferguson's 54-yard completion to Jerry Butler set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Joe Cribbs, cutting the score to 14-7 by halftime. In the third quarter, a 44-yard touchdown run by Cribbs tied the game, but he was injured on the play and was forced to sit out the rest of the game. Cincinnati scored again but was countered by a Ferguson 20-yard touchdown pass to Butler. With 10:39 remaining in the game, Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, giving Cincinnati the lead, 28-21. The Bills drove to the Cincinnati 21-yard line with about three minutes left to play, and it appeared that Ferguson completed a fourth-down pass to gain a first down. However, Buffalo was called for a delay of game penalty, and Ferguson's pass attempt on the next snap fell incomplete. The Bengals were then able to take over and run out the clock, winning by the final of 28-21.