On a play which will be linked with "The Immaculate Reception," the "Hail Mary" and "The Catch," Kevin Dyson scored on a 75-yard return off a lateral from Frank Wycheck on a kick return with three seconds left to lift the Tennessee Titans to a wild 22-16 victory over the Buffalo Bills in an AFC wild card game.
The Titans (14-3) will visit either Indianapolis or Jacksonville in the divisional playoffs next weekend.
The touchdown came after Steve Christie kicked a 41-yard field goal to give Buffalo a 16-15 lead with 16 seconds remaining. Buffalo drove 38 yards in six plays to set the stage for Christie after Al Del Greco kicked a go-ahead 36-yard field goal for the Titans with 1:48 left.
On the ensuing kickoff, Lorenzo Neal fielded the ball at the 25 and handed it to Wycheck, who ran to his right, stopped and threw an overhand pass across the field to Dyson. After catching what could arguably have been called a forward pass, Dyson raced down the left sideline behind a wall of blockers.
"We worked on that play yesterday," said Titans coach Jeff Fisher of the winning return. "The play is called Home Run Throwback, it's a play you usually work on Saturdays, the day before a game. That play was designed with Frank Wycheck in the middle to try and put the ball out laterally."
Christie was the only player who had a chance to make the tackle, but was easily shoved away as Dyson raced to the end zone untouched in the waning seconds.
"I was thinking about maybe having Kevin Dyson run out of bounds at about the 20-yard line," Fisher said. "I was fearful that the clock would expire and we wouldn't reach the goal line, but he found a way to get it in. A great job."
It was the first kick return for a touchdown by the franchise since Mel Gray in 1988.
The officials reviewed the controversial play at their own discretion in the final two minutes of a game and ruled the toss by Wycheck was indeed a lateral.
"It wasn't really in the hands of the officials, it was in the hands of someone higher up," Fisher said.
The referee was Phil Luckett, who was involved in his third high-profile controversial call in two seasons. It was Luckett who botched a coin toss at a Thanksgiving Day game between Detroit and Pittsburgh in 1998. A week later, his crew allowed a questionable touchdown by Vinny Testaverde of the New York Jets that may have cost the Seattle Seahawks a playoff berth. Those calls inspired the return of instant replay.
"I hope for the referee's sake it was legit," said Bills quarterback Rob Johnson.
It was a miracle finish for the Titans (14-3) in their first-ever playoff game at Tennessee and a heartbreaking loss for the Bills (11-6), who lost in the wild card round for the second straight year.
Ironically, the franchises previously engaged in a wild card game seven years ago which featured the best comeback in NFL playoff history. The-then Houston Oilers built a 35-3 lead in the third quarter, but the Bills scored four touchdowns in under seven minutes and rallied for a 41-38 overtime win.
Christie had the winning 32-yard field goal in that game and it appeared he broke the hearts of the Titans again with his 41-yarder today.
Many of the Tennessee players, including quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George, were understandably downcast on the sidelines after Christie's kick. They were later jumping and hugging in a wild celebration after Dyson's return sent the sellout crowd of 66,672 at Adelphia Coliseum in a state of delirium.
"This is one of the best finishes that I have been associated with as a player," McNair said.
The Titans have won all nine of their home games this season.
Bills coach Wade Phillips gambled and opted to start Johnson over Doug Flutie, who led the Bills to 10 wins and a playoff berth. But after an impressive performance against Indianapolis in the season finale, Johnson was named as the starter for the playoff game.
In the face of a fierce pass rush most of the day, Johnson completed just 10-of-22 passes with no touchdowns or interceptions. Possessing less mobility than Flutie, Johnson was sacked six times.
Jevon Kearse, the second rookie defensive end ever elected to start in a Pro Bowl, was Johnson's chief nemesis. He had two sacks and forced a fumble by Johnson out of the end zone for a safety.
McNair threw for only 76 yards, completing 13-of-24 passes with an interception and ran for a touchdown. He was just 5-of-7 for 20 yards in the second half.
"Buffalo has a great team," McNair said. "Their defense made it tough on us all day.
Pro Bowl back Eddie George led the Tennessee offense with 106 yards on 29 carries.
Antowain Smith rushed for 79 yards and two touchdowns for the Bills
Bills star defensive end Bruce Smith had 2 1/2 sacks, three less than his total this season.
A safety caused by Kearse, a one-yard touchdown run by McNair and a 40-yard field goal by Del Greco staked the Titans to a 12-0 halftime lead. Del Greco missed a 43-yard attempt.
Tennessee dominated defensively in the half, compiling five sacks and limiting the Bills to 64 total yards. Buffalo also committed nine penalties for 44 yards, including one which allowed Del Greco to convert a second-chance field goal.
After stagnating offensively in the first half, Antowain Smith broke off a 44-yard run on Buffalo's first play from scrimmage in the second half. Four plays later, he scored on a four-yard run to pull Buffalo within 12-7.
The Bills took their first lead of the game when Smith scored on a one-yard run with 11:08 left in the fourth quarter, but failed on the two-point conversion when Johnson's pass went off the hands of Kevin Williams.
Kearse broke a scoreless tie 3:41 into the second quarter when he raced around right tackle Marcus Spriggs and sacked Johnson, jarring the ball loose through the end zone. Johnson dropped the snap, tripped over a lineman's feet and staggered into the end zone before he was popped by Kearse.
Derrick Mason returned the ensuing free kick 42 yards to the Buffalo 28. Five plays later, McNair ran right for a touchdown on a bootleg with 7:55 left in the second quarter.
Following an 11-play, 56-yard drive, Del Greco missed a 45-yard field goal. But the Bills were penalized for defensive holding, and Del Greco made amends by kicking a 40-yarder on the final play of the half.
Buffalo drove 62 yards on its first drive of the second half, two yards less than its total in the entire first half. Antowain Smith set the tone with his 44-yard run and capped the drive with a four-yard touchdown 2:32 into the third quarter.
Smith's one-yard touchdown 3:52 into the fourth quarter capped a nine-play, 65-yard drive and gave Buffalo its first lead. The drive was highlighted by a 37-yard pass from Johnson to Eric Moulds and a roughing-the-passer penalty on Kearse on a third-down play.
A 16-yard punt return by Isaac Byrd and 17 yards rushing on five carries by George helped set up Del Greco's 36-yard field goal with 1:48 left.
The Bills drove 38 yards in 1:38 with Johnson completing two passes to Price for 23 yards.