A mixed bag of results in the Buffalo Bills first nine Thanksgiving Day games
When the Buffalo Bills travel to New Orleans to meet the Saints on Thanksgiving night, it will be their 10th appearance on America’s favorite football holiday and only their fifth since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
But during their heyday in the American Football League, the Bills were a fixture on the Thanksgiving football smorgasbord as they played five times in a span of eight years, more than any other AFL team.
While the Detroit Lions and Cowboys have hosted Thanksgiving Day NFL games on an almost yearly basis, Detroit since 1934, Dallas since 1966, there was no designated franchise that played host to a Thanksgiving game during the 10-year lifespan of the AFL between 1960-69.
There were 13 turkey day games played in the AFL and they were hosted by the Kansas City Chiefs (3), San Diego Chargers (3), Oakland Raiders (2), New York Titans (2), Denver Broncos (2), and Houston Oilers (1).
The league wasn’t interested in playing a national game at Buffalo’s decrepit War Memorial Stadium, especially in late November, but it was fine with scheduling the Bills as the road team against New York in 1961, San Diego in 1964 and 1965, and Oakland in 1966 and 1968.
Buffalo lost the first game in New York and the last one in Oakland, but in between it won all three games between 1964-66 when it won three consecutive East Division titles and two AFL championships. During that period, the Bills beat San Diego twice and Oakland once.
The only four times the Bills have played on Thanksgiving since the merger, they were again on the road, beating St. Louis in 1975, losing to Detroit in 1976 and 1994, and defeating Dallas in 2019.
Here is a summary of the nine Bills’ Thanksgiving Day games:
Nov. 23, 1961 — Titans 21, Bills 14
Not a good day for the Bills’ offensive line which allowed 10 sacks for a total of 78 yards, the last coming in the final seconds with Buffalo facing fourth-and-goal from the New York 9.
Quarterback M.C. Reynolds, subbing in for beleaguered Johnny Green who had suffered seven of the sacks, drove the Bills from their 20, but he threw three straight incomplete passes prior to getting sacked by Ed Cooke to end the game.
“I was disturbed by the effort we made, particularly on offense,” said coach Buster Ramsey, whose team fell to 5-7 and last place in the East. “Our defense did a fairly good job stopping their running game, but again, we beat ourselves with mistakes in key situations.”
The Bills would finish 6-8 and Ramsey was fired after just two seasons at the helm, soon to be replaced by Lou Saban.
Nov. 26, 1964 — Bills 27, Chargers 24
Eleven days earlier, Buffalo’s bid for a perfect season ended with a 36-28 loss to Boston, and in between that game and the trip to San Diego, the 9-1 team endured some big-time turmoil.
Saban cut Cookie Gilchrist because the star fullback had refused to go into the game for a series at the end of the first half, though Saban would say his rash decision was for “a combination of many things. His only concern is himself and how much yardage he gains. We’ve gotten 2 1/2 good seasons from him and we appreciate what he has done. But there is only so much you can take.”
Saban was convinced by team leaders Jack Kemp and Billy Shaw to reinstate Gilchrist after he apologized to his teammates, and Saban acquiesced. It was amid this cloud that the Bills flew out to San Diego, where they quickly fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter, and then began the fourth quarter down 24-14.
However, proving that they were championship-caliber, the Bills rallied with 13 unanswered points, the last three coming from Pete Gogolak who kicked a game-winning 33-yard field goal with three seconds to go. Gilchrist rushed for 87 yards.
“That’ll be the damndest turkey you ever see,” crowed Saban. “I never had a more satisfying win. This was a big one. We had to have it with Boston breathing down our necks. Gogo really hit one when we needed it, didn’t he? These guys just never quit, never lost their poise when things looked tough in the fourth quarter.”
Nov. 25, 1965 — Bills 20, Chargers 20
Having beaten the Chargers three times in 1964 including in the championship game, the Bills suffered an embarrassing 34-3 home loss to San Diego in October.
In the rematch, the Bills were down 20-17 with 6:23 left after San Diego’s Paul Lowe recovered a John Hadl fumble in the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. But Kemp, who had been knocked out briefly with a shoulder injury, responded with a game-tying drive.
Buffalo took possession at its own 25 with 1:16 left. Kemp hit Paul Costa for a 35-yard gain on third-and-10, then threw 16 yards to Bo Roberson. With 18 seconds to go, Kemp scrambled for nine yards to the 15 before stepping out of bounds, and Gogolak was summoned to kick a 22-yard field goal with six seconds remaining.
The result clinched at least a tie for the East Division title, to which Saban said, “That’s all right, the players said they’d rather drink champagne (next week) in Houston.”
Nov. 24, 1966 — Bills 31, Raiders 10
The Bills made a third straight holiday trip out west, only this time the location was Oakland, and this game almost seemed like the end of an era for Buffalo.
Unlike the previous two years the Bills had struggled in 1966 and were 3-3-1 at the midway point, but then came a five-game winning streak, the last of which was this game against the Raiders.
The Bills scored the final 24 points and rolled up 465 yards of offense. Kemp threw for 241 yards, fullback Wray Carlton rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns, and the defense held the Raiders to 11 first downs.
“I’ll bet there weren’t too many people who thought after those two opening losses we’d be where we are today,” said linebacker Harry Jacobs, referring to Buffalo’s 8-1-1 surge since losing lopsided games to San Diego and Kansas City to start the season.
However, a little more than a month later, the Bills would lose 31-7 to the Chiefs in the AFL championship game, and the team began a long and painful decline into obscurity.
Nov. 28, 1968 — Raiders 13, Bills 10
In Week 2 the Raiders had embarrassed the Bills 48-6 at the Rockpile and after that game, owner Ralph Wilson fired coach Joe Collier. Two-plus months later, the Bills had only one win and one tie, but they went out to Oakland and gave the eventual West Division champions all they could handle.
The Buffalo defense held the Raiders to 186 yards and 11 first downs, and the only touchdown Oakland scored came on a George Atkinson 33-yard interception return off Ed Rutkowski, normally a halfback who had been pressed into emergency quarterback duty due to injuries
Interim coach Harvey Johnson said after the loss, “They’re talking about the Bills being in contention with the Philadelphia Eagles for O.J. Simpson. I would have traded Simpson or anyone else for a victory over the Oakland Raiders. Our players outhit, outhustled and outplayed the Raiders on offense and defense. The only thing the Raiders did was outluck us.”
With a final record of 1-12-1, the Bills edged out the Eagles and were able to pick Simpson No. 1 overall in the 1969 combined draft.
Nov. 27, 1975 — Bills 32, Cardinals 14
Only twice since 1966 have the Cowboys not hosted a Thanksgiving game, and this was the first. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle wanted to spread the game around and he convinced Dallas to give up the game and allow St. Louis to host in 1975 and then again in 1977.
As it turned out, the Bills were the Cardinals’ first opponent, though they almost weren’t. Because of a snowstorm the Bills did not get to St. Louis until about two hours before the game, a frenetic two days of travel that oddly didn’t affect them at all.
“I told the players there’s nothing you can do about the situation, so just do the best you can,” Saban, back for his second tour of duty with Buffalo, said after the Bills rocked the Cardinals behind Jim Braxton’s career highs of 34 carries and 160 yards.
With Simpson rushing for 85 yards, the Bills finished with 264 and held possession of the ball for nearly 40 minutes. And the defense, which had allowed 116 points in its previous three games, held the Air Coryell Cardinals to 210 yards while intercepting Jim Hart four times and forcing him into three lost fumbles.
Nov. 25, 1976 — Lions 27, Bills 14
The Bills were in the midst of a season-ending 10-game losing streak, during which Saban had quit and offensive line coach Jim Ringo had taken over as head coach.
It was a miserable slog of a year, but at least in this loss, the eighth straight, Simpson made history at the Silverdome. He rushed for 273 yards, breaking the NFL single-game record of 250 that he had set in 1973 against the Patriots.
This was also his fifth career 200-yard game which broke Jim Brown’s record, it put him over 1,000 yards for the fifth time in his career, and it came against a defense that was No. 1 in the NFC. Outside of Simpson, the Bills managed only 49 yards of offense as quarterback Gary Marangi, playing for injured Joe Ferguson, completed 4 of 21 passes for 29 yards
Lions coach Tommy Hudspeth said, “O.J. is one hellacious back. There’s only one O.J., he’s in a class by himself, no doubt about it, but I’ll take a win over a record any day.”
Nov. 24, 1994 — Lions 35, Bills 21
The last time the Bills played on Thanksgiving also occurred in the Silverdome, but even though this Buffalo team had played in the previous four Super Bowls, the result was much the same as the game 18 years earlier.
Dave Krieg hit Herman Moore with a 51-yard TD pass on a flea flicker just 47 seconds into the game and the Bills never really recovered as Krieg threw for 354 yards and three TDs.
Buffalo did a great job in limiting Barry Sanders to 45 yards, while his old Oklahoma State teammate, Thurman Thomas, managed 58.
Jim Kelly completed 29 of 35 passes for 273 yards, but trailing 28-21 with a possession to tie the game in the fourth quarter, he threw an interception to Detroit’s Willie Clay who returned it 28 yards for the clinching touchdown with 1:07 remaining.
“Dave Krieg had the game of his life,” said Kelly. “I was telling everyone all week you can’t just key on Barry Sanders, you have to worry about Dave Krieg. I knew what kind of player he is. I don’t know if anyone took me seriously.”
Nov. 28, 2019 — Bills 26, Cowboys 15
Many have pointed to this game as a turning point for Josh Allen’s career. The Bills were 8-3 going into AT&T Stadium and had a bead on a playoff berth, but they were lacking a signature victory, one that would stamp them as a legitimate postseason threat.
But then Allen lit up the national stage as he threw for 231 yards and a touchdown, ran for 43 yards and a touchdown, and made a memorable play when he fumbled a snap on a fourth-and-1 sneak but was able to recover the ball and fight for the first down.
Cole Beasley, who spent the first six years of his career with the Cowboys, had a magnificent homecoming as he caught six passes for 110 yards and a TD.
“We’re not worried about that,” Beasley said of the Bills making a national statement. “They (the world) don’t need to know. We can lurk from the depths as much as we want. People can sleep on us all they want, and we prefer it that way.”