1996 - Kelly's Last Hurrah
10-6 record, second of five in AFC East, third of 15 in AFC, sixth of 30 in the NFL
The purge of high-priced starters and quality depth players due to salary cap restrictions continued. Cornelius Bennett became the second linebacker icon to leave Buffalo in two seasons, fullback Carwell Gardner joined the relocated Baltimore Ravens and 1995 leading receiver Bill Brooks left via free agency as well. To replace Bennett the Bills signed Lions linebacker Chris Spielman and Quinn Early was brought in to replace Brooks. With eyes toward replacing aging veterans Andre Reed and Kent Hull, the Bills also drafted wide receiver Eric Moulds and center Dusty Ziegler in the 1996 draft. Tight end Jay Riemersma was a seventh-round draft pick.
The Bills beat the New York Giants in overtime to start the year despite being down 17-0 early. In the overtime session Bruce Smith became the second-leading sack artist ever, trailing only Reggie White, and forced a fumble that Spielman picked up. A Christie field goal would win it. The Bills won in Week 2 on a dramatic goal line stand. Phil Hansen stopped Patriots running back Dave Meggett on the Bills two-yard line to preserve a 17-10 Buffalo win. In Week 3, the Bills lost to the Steelers for the fourth time in four year on a Monday Night. In Week 4 the Bills faced the defending Super Bowl champs when the Cowboys came to Orchard Park. Without Jim Kelly Todd Collins got his second career start and executed an opening drive touchdown drive capped by Thurman Thomas and his franchise record-tying 57th touchdown run. Alex Van Pelt came in for an injured Todd Collins and the defense held once again intercepting Troy Aikman to win 10-7. The defense held the vaunted Cowboys triplets to 192 total yards (too bad it wasn't in the Super Bowl...). Another game, another three point win as Todd Collins led the Bills over the Colts in Week 6 following the bye to earn first place in the division. The Bills defense recorded 6 sacks, but Henry Jones was lost for the year with a broken leg. Kelly returned but was ineffective throwing 3 interceptions and no touchdowns in a 21-7 home loss to the Dolphins. The next week was the Steve Christie show. Christie connected on a team record 6 field goals and Thurman Thomas became the all-time leading rusher in Bills history in a 25-22 win with the sixth field goal coming as time expired. Following a loss to the Patriots the Bills won four straight games. Against Indianapolis in Week 14 Todd Collins would start again for an inured Jim Kelly. Collins connected with Quinn Early in the second quarter for the longest play from scrimmage in Bills history - a 95-yard touchdown pass. The Colts would win in overtime dropping the Bills to 9-4 and a tie for the AFC East lead. Buffalo lost in Seattle the next week and Miami, running their loss streak to 3 games. The Colts and Bills both entered Week 17 at 9-6 with the Patriots at 10-5. A win would clinch a playoff spot and with some luck and a win the Bills could clinch the division. The Chiefs were also 9-6 making the game a playoff game with only the winner advancing. Battling the flu, Jim Kelly led the Bills to a win in his final regular season game in Orchard Park. The Bills scored the last 17 points of the game and won 20-9, clinching a playoff spot for the eighth time in nine years.
In the playoffs the Bills faced the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Bills opened the scoring with a Kelly to Thomas pass. It was Thomas' 19th postseason touchdown - a new playoff record. A Jim Kelly pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown to tie the score at 7 before another long touchdown drive by Buffalo reestablished a seven point Bills lead. After 10 points by the Jaguars the Bills tied it at the two minute warning of the second quarter on a Steve Christie field goal. A Jeff Burris pick-six gave Buffalo a 27-20 lead but Mark Burnell would throw a touchdown pass and a Bills fumble game Jacksonville the ball again. With just over three minutes to play the Jaguars booted in the go-ahead field goal off the upright and held a 30-27 lead. Jim Kelly was shaken up and watched Todd Collins take the final snaps of Kelly's career. Jacksonville went on to lose in the AFC Championship game to the Patriots.
Buffalo dropped to the middle of the pack offensively with Jim Kelly in and out of the line up frequently. They finished 15 in points, 16 in yards, 17 in passing yards, and 8 in rushing yards. It was Jim Kelly's lowest passing yards since his second year in the league when he played 12 games. The defense under Wade Phillips was once again impressive ranking 6 in points, 9 in yards, 8 against the pass and 14 against the run. Bruce Smith was named to the All-Pro team with 13.5 sacks. Guard Ruben Brown made his first Pro Bowl appearance and was joined by Bruce Smith and Bryce Paup on the AFC squad. Head coach Marv Levy was added to the Bills' Wall of Fame joining Ralph Wilson as the only members to be inducted while still with the team in their original capacity. Levy is the franchise's all-time leader in games coached and wins and is the only coach to lead any team to four consecutive Super Bowls.