In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
In a battle of two of the league’s premiere teams at Candlestick Park, the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers play the first NFL game without a punt. The Bills would win the back and forth battle 34-31, as the two teams combined 1,086 yards of total offense, with Jim Kelly leading Buffalo with 403 yards with three touchdowns, while Steve Young passed for 449 yards with three touchdowns for the 49ers.
It could have been called the Chris Berman Bowl because the San Francisco 49ers against the Buffalo Bills became his annual preseason Super Bowl prediction. It was with good reason, as either one of the two teams appeared in the big game over seven years, beginning in 1988, with both teams appearing in their conference championship in five of those seven years.
The Buffalo Bills were coming off two bitter Super Bowl losses, while the San Francisco 49ers were coming off a rare season in which they missed the playoffs in 1991, despite posting a record of 10-6. The 49ers were at the dawn of a quarterback controversy. Joe Montana had missed the entire 1991 season with an elbow injury and was still not ready to play as the season began. In his absence, Steve Young had emerged as an NFL All-Pro keeping San Francisco in contention for a record fifth Lombardi Trophy even though Montana was in the sunset of his career. The Bills were the dominant team in the AFC that could not find a way to win the Super Bowl.
The 49ers and Bills started the season with wins, as they met in Week 2 at Candlestick Park. The Bills crushed the Los Angeles Rams 40-7 in their opener at Rich Stadium, while the Niners rolled over the New York Giants at the Meadowlands 31-14. The 49ers missed an early opportunity to score as Mike Cofer missed a 33-yard Field Goal attempt. The 49ers would get a second chance to draw first blood when Larry Roberts got a strip sack on Jim Kelly. Four plays later, Steve Young connected with Odessa Turner on a 23-yard touchdown pass to give San Francisco a 70 lead. The Bills would get on the board at the end of the first quarter on a 41-yard field goal by Steve Christie. Despite Jerry Rice being knocked out of the game from a concussion in the first quarter, the 49ers' offense continued to fire on all cylinders as Young and Turner connected on a 57-yard pass that set the stage for Tom Rathman to make it 14-3 with a bruising two-yard score. The Bills answered with a 73-yard drive that was capped by a 20-yard pass from Kelly to Thurman Thomas. The two teams traded field goals over the next two possessions before the Niners ended the first half seven-yard touchdown reception by John Taylor to take a 24-13 lead.
Down by 11 points at halftime, the Buffalo Bills quickly got back in the game in the third quarter as Jim Kelly connected with Pete Metzelaars on a 53-yard scoring pass. The 49ers appeared to be on their way to answering Buffalo’s quick score when Keith Henderson fumbled at the Bills' 44-yard line, with Cornelius Bennett coming up with the recovery on defense. The Bills went down the field in four plays, with Kelly connecting with Metzelaars on a 24-yard touchdown pass to take a 27-24 lead. Turnovers would be the theme of the third quarter as the two teams fumbled the ball back and forth on the next two possessions. Late in the third quarter, San Francisco appeared to be the first team that was going to punt, facing third down and 20 near midfield. However, John Taylor broke free on a pass from Steve Young and scored his second touchdown from 54 yards to take the lead back 31-27 in favor of the 49ers. On the first possession of the fourth quarter, the Bills drove deep into San Francisco territory before Merton Hanks picked off Jim Kelly. The Bills would quickly get the ball back, as Nate Odomes picked off Young. The Bills would take full advantage, driving 72 yards, with Thurman Thomas’ 11-yard touchdown run capping the drive to regain the lead at 34-31 with 3:03 left in the game. The Niners would drive down the field looking to answer, but Mike Cofer missed a game-tying 47-yard field goal attempt allowing the Bills to win the game. It marked the first time in NFL history that neither team punted as Klaus Wilmsmeyer of the 49ers and Chris Mohr of the Bills were not needed.
The Bills, coached by Marv Levy, would go on to finish the season with a record of 11-5; in the playoffs, they would stage the most remarkable comeback in NFL history to beat the Houston Oilers 41-38 in the Wild Card round as they went on to play in their third straight Super Bowl, losing to the Dallas Cowboys 52-17. The 49ers, meanwhile, went 14-2 as the brewing quarterback controversy came to a head late in the season as Joe Montana was declared ready to play. Instead of turning to their four-time Super Bowl champion, coached by George Seifert kept Steve Young under center. Young was shaky in his first playoff experience as the 49ers were stunned by the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game 30-20. The Niners would trade Joe Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs after the season. The Bills would play in a fourth Super Bowl, with Steve Young winning his own Lombardi Trophy in the 1994 season. Despite their long period of dominance and the predictions of Chris Berman, the Bills and 49ers never met in the big game, as one team always fell short as the other represented their conference in every Super Bowl between 1988 and 1994.