Three times denied in the last quarter, the San Diego Chargers today beat the Buffalo Bills, 20-14, on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Dan Fouts to The Unknown Receiver with two minutes to play.
"We have so many weapons I feel like I'm a spare tire trying to get out of the trunk," said Ron Smith, the wide receiver who slipped into obscurity behind brilliant pass catchers John Jefferson, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow.
Only four times all season had Smith caught a pass. He last made a catch two months ago. Twice today he dropped passes from Fouts. Then, just when it seemed that anonymity would be his forever, Smith sprinted down the middle and took Fouts' pass in high-flying stride, leaving Buffalo safetyman Bill Simpson to dive without hope at his winged heels.
So with 2:08 left in this American Football Conference playoff game, Ron Smith became the smiling hero whose name will be on every San Diegan's tongue for years. His touchdown brought the Chargers from behind when they seemed determined to lose.
Three times in the fourth quarter, victory was theirs for the taking. Three times they handed it back to the Bills. Chuck Muncie's dive to the half-yard line was turned into a five-yard loss because he was in motion too soon. San Diego got three points then, not seven, and still trailed, 14-13, when they gave the ball away on their next two tries -- Fouts' pass falling off Smith's fingertips into the hands of Buffalo, and Mike Fuller having the ball chopped out of his hands on a punt return.
Of the NFL's playoff teams, none has a worse takeaway number than San Diego's minus-9. But as the Chargers are burned in the fire of fumbles and interceptions, so do these guys with lightning bolts on their hats strike hot.
After these three failures, and with time running out on the Chargers' first playoff victory in 18 seasons, with San Diego Stadium rocking to the roar-pleadings of 52,028 Super-Charged Fans (as they call themselves) -- with victory again available, but under the severest pressures, Fouts threw his 37th pass of the day, a smoking strike flying 120 feet into Smith's mitts at the 20-yard line.
Fouts was wonderful, 22 completions for 314 yards and two touchdowns -- the other a nine-yard gem to Joiner at the start of the third quarter when the Chargers, their ears ringing from a halftime scream by Coach Don Coryell, began to work on Buffalo's 14-3 lead.
That Buffalo led at all was testimony to Joe Ferguson's willingness to play when hurt. The quarterback went all the way on a left ankle so painful he had it taped, untaped, retaped. He also took a pain pill to work the second half. First hurt two weeks ago, Ferguson's ankle was twisted on the fifth play today. He missed only one series, and was 15 for 29 for 180 yards, but he had no mobility to escape San Diego's league-leading sackers.
Using strategy reminiscent of the Redskins' attack on San Diego's linebackers, Buffalo marched 72 yards for its first touchdown -- the big play being a 37-yard pass interference penalty against linebacker Ray Preston, who was overmatched against running back Joe Cribbs.
Cribbs made a strong run at the right side to move the ball six yards to the San Diego one. From there, Roosevelt Leaks scored, giving Buffalo a 7-3 lead. The Chargers' Rolf Benirschke had kicked a 22-yard field goal at the end of San Diego's first drive.
As it happens, the Chargers' first drive was also their last. Buffalo's defense, statistically the best in the NFL, did not allow San Diego the ball control that has made it statistically the league's best offense. The clock shows that: Buffalo had the ball lmore than 33 minutes, San Diego only 26 minutes and change.
So powerful is the Buffalo defense, so concentrated was the violence here today, that the Bills sent two Chargers off the field with broken bones in the first quarter. Defensive end Charles DeJurnett has a broken fibula, and tight end Greg McCrary (a key man in San Diego's two tight-end formation) has three broken processes on his spine.In addition, the Buffalo secondary banged up Jefferson and Joiner, leaving Jefferson temporarily immobile on the turf and wrenching a big fumble out of Joiner.
That fumble came late in the second quarter as San Diego, able to make only one first down after that long game-opening drive to Benirschke's field goal, worked from deep in its own territory. Throwing on first down (as he would all day, completing 13 of 16 first-down passes for 171 yards), Fouts passed to Joiner for 12 yards out to the 36.
Cornerback Charles Romes struck Joiner such a mighty blow that the Charger fumbled, Bill Simpson recovering for Buffalo at the San Diego 33. From there Ferguson needed only four plays to make it 14-3. Frank Lewis, who had turned a short pass over the middle into an 18-yard gain, scored on a nine-yard pass.
"At the half, Coryell got hot at us," Jefferson said. "That was good. It got us to going. He screamed and we did some screaming of our own. We got hot at ourselves."
The first time these hot guys touched the ball in the third quarter, they went 70 yards in 94 seconds. They ran four plays.
The first was an 18-yard burst up the middle by Muncie, obtained in an early-season trade with New Orleans.
The second play, Fouts hit Joiner down the middle for 44 yards to the Buffalo eight.After Muncie lost a yard, Fouts found Joiner in the end zone and San Diego trailed only 14-10.
The fallacy of the ball-control argument today is that even while Buffalo had the ball seven more minutes, it did less with it. Buffalo had 244 yards total offense, San Diego 397. Buffalo's single long touchdown drive required 12 plays and four minutes and 20 seconds; San Diego went 139 yards on nine plays in 3:29 -- for two touchdowns.
And when it came time to make the big play, it was San Diego doing it on both offense and defense.
While leading 14-10 midway in the third quarter, Buffalo had a chance of its own to put this one away. Lou Piccone blocked a punt by San Diego's Rick Partridge, Kevin Parker recovering at the Chargers' 38-yard line.
But on the Bills' fifth play with that precious possession, Ferguson's third-down pass from the 24 was intercepted by Glen Edwards.
"The interception was due to an adjustment in Jerry Butler's pass route and a bad pass on my part," Ferguson said.