For a time Sunday it looked like there would be no victory celebration for the Bills and their fans at Rich Stadium.
But suddenly, in overtime, Cornelius Bennett fell on a New York Jets fumble. Then Scott Norwood kicked his third field goal of the game after 3:47 of extra play and an outpouring of unbridled joy was unleashed.
Norwood's kick from 30 yards out gave Buffalo a 9-6 victory over the doggedly tough Jets and cemented the Bills' first AFC East championship since 1980.
Within seconds after Norwood's kick sailed between the uprights at the West end of the stadium, the field was engulfed by a yellow and orange horde of thousands of fans, many wearing bright slickers to ward off the day's rain and sleet. The goalposts at the scoreboard end of the stadium fell to the celebrants in less than a minute. Then they brought down the goal at the tunnel end of the stadium. It was the most tumultuous scene the stadium has enjoyed since 1980.
It was the earliest division clinching in the AFC since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978.
The Bills, who will seek their eighth straight victory at Cincinnati next Sunday, closed out the rest of the AFC East by winning their 11th game against one loss, the best record in the NFL. They are 7-0 against division opponents with one game left and have clinched a home-field advantage for the divisional round of the playoffs with a 9-0 record within the AFC.
It will be the first home playoff game for the Bills since 1966, and the first ever at Rich Stadium.
"Like Tony the Tiger, everything is grrrr-eat," said Bennett, who fell on Roger Vick's fumble at the New York 32 on the second play of overtime.
Robb Riddick, who ran 18 times for 103 yards in the game, carried four straight times after the fumble recovery in overtime to move the ball to the 12 before Norwood came on. Norwood, who tied Pete Gogolak's team record of 28 field goals in a season set in 1965, had kicked from 25 yards to tie it at 3-3 in the third quarter and hit from 26 to give Buffalo a 6-3 lead early in the fourth. Pat Leahy of the Jets made field goals from 23 and 40 yards.
The Bills were looking at a defeat when Leahy lined up for a 40-yard try with 25 seconds left in regulation. The Bills' hopes of wrapping up the title at home seemed lost because Leahy had missed only once all season from inside 40 yards and had made 47 of his last 49 from that distance.
This time, though, he failed because Bills defensive tackle Fred Smerlas reached up with his left hand to block it, and cornerback Nate Odomes recovered the ball and returned it 9 yards to the Buffalo 36.
"Who else but Fred Smerlas would come up with the biggest play of his career?" asked Bennett, who was to make a big one himself in overtime.
"I had a strange feeling we were going to block it, I really did," said Smerlas. "The field goal before, they had given me a gap. They were blocking down to block off the inside pressure and I hit a gapper. I figured if I turned sidewards, I'd be able to penetrate far enough maybe to get a piece of it. Fortunately, I did. I think it hit my hand and hit 'The House' (rookie tackle Howard Ballard) on the head."
"We try to block every one," said Bills coach Marv Levy. "We did not send in our field-goal defense on the play. We sent out our PAT (point after) defense.
"The difference between PAT and field-goal defense is, in field-goal defense you leave somebody available to take care of fakes. You don't rush all. You're never concerned about a fake on a PAT. You just let it all hang out."
After Smerlas saved the Bills' bacon, Buffalo almost pulled it out on the next play when quarterback Jim Kelly's unleashed a long pass from the Buffalo 36 that bounced off the fingers of wide receiver Andre Reed at the Jets' 9. Reed had gotten behind New York cornerback James Hasty.
The Jets, who seemed to get a majority of the breaks in the game, won the toss before overtime and elected to receive. On the second play, a second and six from the New York 23, Bills linebacker Darryl Talley met Vick in the backfield, but bounced off. The Jets fullback then ran right, but cornerback Derrick Burroughs stripped him of the ball and Bennett pounced on the fumble.
Although they pounded the Jets for 229 yards rushing -- Thurman Thomas had 88 on 17 attempts to go along with Riddick's 103 -- the Bills had to overcome costly penalties, dropped passes and the ejection of strong safety Leonard Smith as well as injuries to secondary defenders Burroughs (jaw) and Mark Kelso (concussion).
In addition, there was the wet weather and slick field to contend with and, also, there were the Jets.
"They came in here fired up. They really gave us a football game," said Kelly.
The Jets obviously were embarrassed by the 37-14 loss to the Bills last month and determined to do something about it. At times, the play was a throwback to the NFL's sandlot era of the 1920s. There were cheap shots, late hits and some parboiled tempers.
It all seemed to start when Hasty, the Jets' talkative rookie cornerback, tackled Kelly around the head as Kelly ran out of bounds on a scramble near the Bills' bench. Kelly jumped up and confronted Hasty.
Hasty's act went unpunished by referee Dick Hantak's crew and there was a feeling that by not taking action -- NFL officials can call unnecessary roughness for a blow to the head -- they were buying future trouble.
That Buffalo series ended when Hasty intercepted Kelly's pass at the New York 2. Jets quarterback Pat Ryan hit Al Toon for 21 yards to move the ball out to the 23. Three plays later, Ryan passed to Wesley Walker on the left sideline in front of the Jets' bench. Leonard Smith made the tackle, throwing Walker down by the shoulder pads and drawing a 15-yard penalty for a hit out of bounds. Quickly, Jets players, including the ever-present Hasty, surrounded Smith and the Buffalo defensive back punched one of them. He was disqualified for that punch.
The completion to Walker for 23 yards and the penalty to Smith put the ball at the Buffalo 36. The Bills, jumpy now, drew two offside penalties in a row to put it at the 26. The Jets got as far as the 5, where on third and 1 Johnny Hector was thrown for a yard loss and Leahy kicked a field goal from 23 yards out.
The Bills went nowhere on their next possession, and as they tackled return man JoJo Townsell, fighting broke out. New York special teams standout Nuu Faaola tackled Butch Rolle of the Bills, then Hasty jumped on his back. Offsetting penalties were called for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Things had gotten ugly.
"When they grabbed Kelly by the head, I thought it started to get a little bit out of hand," said Smerlas. "They (the officials) should have done something at that particular instance, but they didn't. And those guys were grabbing and pushing and punching and trying to take us off our game plan.
"We were a little bit rattled."
The Bills regained their poise in the second half, but still couldn't get the ball into the end zone, mainly because their passing game was going nowhere.
Buffalo took the second-half kickoff and marched 58 yards, all on running plays and one pass interference penalty, to a first down at the New York 12. However, Kelly's first-down pass fell incomplete, and after Thomas ran for 6 yards, Harmon was thrown for a 2-yard loss when he tried to run for the first down out of the shotgun formation. That brought on Norwood for his second field-goal try of the game. The Bills kicker had hit the crossbar from 47 yards out with one second left in the first half. He nailed this one to tie it at 3-3.
An 18-yard pass to tight end Pete Metzelaars and the running of Riddick highlighted the next Buffalo scoring drive, which began late in the third period and ended with Norwood's 26-yard field goal at the 3:04 mark of the fourth. Again, the Bills had a first down at the 12 but were stymied.
"We ran it well until we got to the red territory. Then they kind of stuffed us," said center Kent Hull of the Bills' failures to cash in with touchdowns on scoring chances.
The Jets came right back and went 52 yards to tie it on Leahy's second field goal. A 20-yard completion from Ryan to Walker was the big gainer in the drive.
Buffalo's best chance to break the tie before regulation ended came after Kelly hit Metzelaars on a 35-yard pass play to the Jets' 25 with 4:11 left. On the next play, Thomas fumbled and Scott Mersereau recovered for the Jets, who began the drive that ended with the blocked field-goal try.
Smerlas and Bennett came up with the big defensive plays and Norwood's kicking was the difference for the fifth time this season, but the Bills had many heroes. Sherm Cocroft at free safety, Dwight Drane at strong safety and Wayne Davis at cornerback, when Burroughs missed some time, filled in well.
Thomas ran well after missing the Miami game last Monday, but Riddick alternated with him and ran even better.
Riddick carried 15 times for 90 yards in the second half when the Bills ran 29 times for 142 yards.
"Robb was hot and we left him in there," Levy said.
"We are in the playoffs now," admitted Levy, who has refused to look beyond the next game all season. Still, he issued a word of caution."We won a game today, and, if I can, permit me a little bit of hyperbole. We have liberated Paris but it's 600 miles to Berlin."