Bills 20, Chargers 13
Doug Flutie hadn't taken a snap in the regular season, but with the San Diego Chargers desperate for the sort of magic Flutie has produced so often in the past, Coach Marty Schottenheimer went to him halfway through the final quarter today in the Bills' 20-13 victory.
On his first play, from his 12-yard line, Flutie clearly justified the move to sit beleaguered starter Drew Brees. With the wind at his back, he whipped a line-drive throw toward wide receiver Curtis Conway, who was streaking downfield one-on-one with Buffalo safety Pierson Prioleau. The ball hit Conway's hands in full stride, bounced high in the air, was juggled twice and finally came back down in his possession for a stunning 47-yard completion to the Bills 41.
"When I saw [Conway] catch that first ball, I'm saying, 'Oh boy, here we go, Doug's gonna do it again,' " Schottenheimer said an hour later. "Too bad we just couldn't keep it going."
What was too bad for the Chargers was very good for the Bills, who weathered an all-out aerial circus orchestrated by ringmaster Flutie in the final minutes. Buffalo's own little magician, second-year running back Travis Henry, swept around right end and whooshed 26 yards into the end zone with 52 seconds remaining for the winning touchdown that allowed the Bills to prevail and keep themselves alive in the muddled AFC playoff race at 7-7.
The Chargers are also still breathing, despite their fifth loss in seven starts to fall to 8-6. Figuring out any permutations in the AFC playoff race will take a month of Sundays to figure out, though in two Sundays it will all be decided, no abacus necessary.
"I don't worry about those other guys," Schottenheimer said. "We know where we are right now. The solution is in the locker room, and we do need some help."
On a raw and overcast afternoon with the wind-chill in the mid-twenties, the Bills ultimately prevailed with one of their better defensive efforts of the season. They also benefited from four defensive pass interference calls on San Diego, two leading to 10 Buffalo points on a day when quarterback Drew Bledsoe managed only 11 completions in 33 attempts for 107 yards.
Henry helped immensely with 144 yards in 22 carries, his sixth 100-yard game of the season. Many of those yards came after the Chargers seemed to have him stuffed, only to watch him break out of a tackle. "Making runs out of nothing," Bills Coach Gregg Williams said.
The Chargers were doing almost nothing on offense, a nasty trend in recent weeks as they have tumbled back to the pack after a 6-1 start. Brees has thrown only three touchdown passes in the last seven games, and had problems today dealing with the wind and a Buffalo defense that sacked him three times and whacked him often. His receivers didn't help, with at least six drops.
With about nine minutes left, Schottenheimer told Flutie to warm up. When the Chargers stopped a Buffalo drive, he told Brees he was done for the day. Out came the 40-year-old Flutie, who played here from 1998 to 2000 and remains one of the city's most popular athletes.
"My decision to change quarterbacks is based on instinct," Schottenheimer said. "The opportunity [for Flutie] to move around in the pocket, his ability to make plays, like that first throw right off the bat. I was looking for a spark to get a touchdown. I told [Brees] we were going to make a change. I said, 'I don't expect you to agree with it, but I expect you to support it.' He didn't agree, but he did support it."
As far back as training camp two-a-days, Schottenheimer had told both quarterbacks there would be such a scenario this season. The fact that it arrived in Buffalo, where Flutie once soared and Schottenheimer once played linebacker in the mid-1960s, seemed like perfect symmetry.
"It was fun to hear it from the crowd when I went in, and it was fun for me to step in in that situation" Flutie said. "We made a couple of plays, got ourselves in position to win, but just didn't follow through. For our team, it puts our back to the wall. I was happy to have the opportunity. But let's set the record straight. Drew is the starter on this team. He was very positive, very supportive. I told him afterward, 'Don't worry about it, you're the guy.' "
For a while, though, Flutie seemed prepared to add yet another chapter to his comeback career. After that first throw to Conway, the Chargers moved into position for a 53-yard Steve Christie field goal with the wind at his back to tie the game at 13 with 5 minutes 45 seconds to play. Both teams went four and out on their next possessions, until the Bills drove from their 36 for Henry's game-winning score.
After a Buffalo squib kick following Henry's touchdown run, the Chargers got the ball back at the 50 with 44 seconds left. Flutie completed a key third-and-four pass to Tim Dwight to the Bills 37 with 29 seconds left, but game officials were slow in getting the ball back in position for him to spike it and stop the clock. He threw twice into the end zone on the final two plays, but both fell incomplete.
Brees said he was unhappy with Schottenheimer's decision, but insisted he'll get over it. "Did I do anything to deserve it? Not necessarily," he said. "But if there's any place to put in Doug, it's in his old stadium. I understand it."