Whenever NFL fans talk about the best teams to never win a championship, the early 1990s Buffalo Bills are always a team that immediately shoots to the forefront. They went to four straight Super Bowls but never won the big one. While that team has been explored, we wanted to highlight a different championship-caliber team from Bills history: the 1999 Buffalo Bills.
In 1999, the Bills made the playoffs with an 11-5 record, two games behind the AFC East-leading Indianapolis Colts. As the second Wild Card team, they traveled to Tennessee to take on the
Oilers Titans in the first playoff game in newly-relocated team’s city. The forward lateral that put Tennessee into the win column is the defining moment for a generation of Bills fans, but we need to explore how good that team really was.
The strength of that team was the defense under head coach Wade Phillips and coordinator Ted Cottrell. They finished number one overall in yards allowed and second overall in points allowed. At just 14.3 points allowed per game, and seven opponents held to ten points or less, they set franchise records. They completely shut down opponents in both phases, and were first against the pass and fourth against the run while being 28th in turnover percentage. They didn’t stop teams with big plays, they just did it over and over again with little ones. Sam Cowart led the team in tackles while Bruce Smith (7 sacks at age 36), Phil Hansen (6 sacks), and Marcellus Wiley (5 sacks) got after the QB. Kurt Schultz led the secondary in pass breakups with stalwarts Henry Jones, Ken Irvin, and Thomas Smith consistently corralling receivers. We’d be remiss not to mention space eater Ted Washington controlling the line of scrimmage.
The offense for most of the season was led by Doug Flutie, who emerged as the starting quarterback the year prior. He led the team to a 10-5 record before sitting out their Week 17 game as the team rested several starters. A top-ten rushing attack with Jonathan Linton and Antowain Smith following Pro Bowlers Sam Gash was supplemented by Flutie scrambles as the team frequently just “got the job done” with a middle-of-the-road offense, statistically. When your defense is All-World, you don’t need to be great on offense.
The team had a ton of experience between veteran future Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, and Andre Reed in addition to other team members who were battle-tested on playoff teams.
They beat the 13-3 Indianapolis Colts. They beat the Wild Card Miami Dolphins twice. They beat the NFC East champion Washington squad, who won a playoff game. They even beat the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card round before they went to the Super Bowl.
Okay, maybe that last thing didn’t happen. Buffalo was leading the Titans late in the game when a controversial play gave Tennessee the victory. The Titans went on to beat the Colts the next week and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Championship before losing to the St. Louis Rams by a yard in Super Bowl XXXIV. There’s a legitimate argument to be made that if Buffalo had won the game, they would have made the run through the AFC.
In 2000, the Baltimore Ravens rode a dominating defense to a Super Bowl victory with Trent Dilfer and a sub-par offense worse than Buffalo’s in 1999. That 1999 team, and more specifically that defense, should be talked about among the best to ever wear Bills jerseys.