Jim Kelly took a lot of hits as the starting quarterback of the Buffalo Bills. He missed regular season and playoff games, and almost missed a Super Bowl. Even in his last game as a Bill, Kelly had to be carted off the field at Rich Stadium. In that moment, many Bills fans knew the greatest era in team history was gone for good.
1996 was not an especially great year for Kelly. His single-season yardage total was a career low in a non-strike shortened season. He passed for the fewest touchdowns in his career. It was also the season with the fewest passing attempts and the most interceptions, too.
But the Bills, led by a strong running game and great scoring defense, won 10 games - including their final regular season tilt to clinch the fourth seed in the AFC playoffs and the right to host the five seed Jacksonville Jaguars in the wild card round. The upstart Jaguars had clinched the fifth seed in only their second year in the league led by the steady Mark Brunell.
Kelly began the game with a touchdown pass to Thurman Thomas, but the Jaguars picked Kelly off on the next possession, and Clyde Simmons returned it 30 yards for the equalizer. After Thomas punched another one in on the ground, the Jaguars kicked a field goal to make it a fast-paced 14-10 at the end of the first quarter.
The Jaguars' Natrone Means took it into the end zone in the second quarter to give Jacksonville their first lead of the game, before Steve Christie tied it at 17 at the half. Christie and the Jaguars' Mike Hollis alternated field goals in the third quarter, then a Jeff Burris interception return gave Buffalo the lead. A Jimmy Smith touchdown tied the game just less than halfway through the fourth quarter.
On a subsequent possession, Kelly was nailed by a Jaguar safety and lost the ball, with Jacksonville recovering at the Bills' 42. It was the last thing Kelly would do in an NFL game, as he sustained a concussion and was carted off the field. Jacksonville turned the fumble into a victory, kicking the winning field goal with just over three minutes remaining.
Not every career can end with a Super Bowl victory, but it would have been nice for a warrior like Kelly to not leave the field for the final time on the back of a John Deere. To this day, Kelly says he has problems with his memory because of the concussions he sustained during his football career.