By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There have been plenty of surprising outcomes in the history of pro football. It can be argued, though, that one stands alone.
And it was pulled off by the Buffalo Bills of 1968.
It seems like everyone in Western New York remembers that game. The New York Jets came to town on September 29, 1968. The Jets were one of the best teams in the AFL, led by Joe Namath. New York came into the game unbeaten at 2-0, while the Bills were 0-3. It figured to be a mismatch, and the Jets quickly jumped off to a 7-0 lead. But Bruce Alford kicked a field goal for the Bills, Ben Gregory followed with a touchdown, and Tom Janik ran an interception of Namath back 100 yards for a score. Buffalo had a 17-7 lead early in the second quarter.
New York answered with a pair of touchdowns, and led, 21-20, early in the third quarter. Alford kicked another field goal to give the Bills back the lead. Then Buffalo’s cornerbacks, Butch Byrd and Booker Edgerson, both returned interceptions for touchdowns. The Bills had a 37-21 lead in the fourth quarter. Namath threw for two more scores to cut the lead to 37-35, but that was as close as the Jets could get.
Namath finished the day 19 for 43 for 280 yards passing with four touchdowns and five interceptions. Matt Snell ran for 124 yards, and both Don Maynard and George Sauer were above 100 yards in pass receiving yardage. Meanwhile, Buffalo quarterback Dan Darragh went 8 for 18 for 79 yards passing. The Jets won the total yardage battle, 427 to 197.
All right, the Bills’ victory was obviously a fluke. The three interception returns for touchdowns remains close to the pro football record of four. Stuff like that happens.
But it’s the rest of the season that gives this game its unique quality. The Bills went back to their losing ways after beating the Jets in War Memorial Stadium. They finished 1-12-1, with the tie coming against the Dolphins. Meanwhile, New York went on to go 11-3, winning the AFL East title. Then the Jets beat the Raiders for the AFL championship game. From there, it was on to the Super Bowl – where New York shocked the Baltimore Colts, 16-7. That game might be the most famous upset of all time.
But the Bills’ win over the Jets is in a class by itself when it comes to surprises. It’s the only time in pro football history that a team won one game in an entire season … and that win came against the league champion.
Here’s a list of one-win teams in either the AFL or NFL dating back to 1960, followed by the name of the team it beat and its record:
Year – One-Win Team – Lost to It (Record)
2016 – Cleveland – San Diego (5-11)
2009 – St. Louis – Detroit (2-14)
2007 – Miami – Baltimore (5-11)
2001 – Carolina – Minnesota (5-11)
2000 – San Diego – Kansas City (7-9)
1996 – N.Y. Jets – Arizona (7-9)
1991 – Indianapolis – N.Y. Jets (8-8)
1990 – New England – Indianapolis (7-9)
1989 – Dallas – Washington (10-6)
1982 – Houston – Seattle (4-5)
1980 – New Orleans – N.Y. Jets (4-12)
1973 – Houston – Baltimore (4-10)
1972 – Houston – N.Y. Jets (7-7)
1971 – Buffalo – New England (6-8)
1969 – Pittsburgh – Detroit (9-4-1)
1968 – Buffalo – N.Y. Jets (11-3)
1967 – Atlanta – Minnesota (3-8-3)
1966 – N.Y. Giants – Washington (7-7)
1962 – Oakland – Boston (9-4-1)
1962 – Los Angeles – San Francisco (6-8)
1961 – Washington – Dallas (4-9-1)
1960 – Washington – Dallas (0-11-1)
Besides the Bills of 1968, only three one-win teams defeated a team with a winning record: Dallas 1989, Pittsburgh 1969, and Oakland 1962. Only one other playoff team lost to a one-win team – the 1991 N.Y. Jets.
I won’t bore you with the complete list of one-win teams before that, but I did check it. A total of 14 teams won exactly one game in a season between 1936 and 1959. Only once did the loser of such a game finish with a winning record; in 1941, Brooklyn (7-4) had been surprised by Pittsburgh.
Before 1936, the schedule becomes uneven and teams start disappearing in midseason. Therefore, it’s not really fair to compare it to “modern” football. However, the closest comparison to the Bills-Jets game in 1968 comes up in 1925.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s say hello to the Hammond Pros. Hall of Famer Fritz Pollard was the coach of the Pros, a squad that entered the NFL as an original member in 1920. Hammond was something of a travel team, only playing one home game in six years. It never played more than seven games in a season.
Hammond finished 1-4 in 1925, but the win was a stunner. The Pros beat the Chicago Cardinals, 10-6, on September 25. Ray Neal recovered a fumble in the end zone for the Pros to give them the victory. Meanwhile, the Cardinals bounced back from that opening game loss to finish 11-2-1 and be declared the league champions.
With all due respect to the Pros, their win in 1925 probably doesn’t match the Bills’ accomplishment. Since they only played five games, they might have done some more damage had their played more games in that season. It’s not exactly a fair comparison.
Therefore, let’s put the Bills at the top of the list for biggest win by a one-win team. I’m sure those players would have traded it for three or four others, but at least they made a little history in the midst of their misery that season.
“We had a good time that afternoon and won the game – our only game,” Bills punter Paul Maguire told The Buffalo News much later.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)