On an unseasonably warm, 50-degree day, the Bills gave the Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd a different reason to talk about April. Make that Bobby April, who Mike Mularkey had hired as his special-teams coordinator after Rams head coach Mike Martz fired him at the end of the 2003 season. As it turns out, Martz just might have made a mistake with that move.
After St. Louis jumped out to an early 10-0 lead, Buffalo fought back with two Mark Campbell touchdown catches and Rian Lindell’s short field goal to tie the game at 17 just before the half.
The first half may have been even, but the second was anything but that. Jonathan Smith kick-started the Bills’ run with a 53-yard punt return, weaving his way through the Rams defense before Brandon Chillar finally managed to drag him down at the 5. From there, it only took Drew Bledsoe one play to find Campbell for his third touchdown of the day.
St. Louis quickly went three-and-out again on its next series, bringing on veteran Sean Landeta for another punt, and April’s “Special Forces” struck again. They wouldn’t need an assist from the offense this time, with Nate Clements doing the honors on an 86-yard touchdown return to put the Bills up 31-17.
(Aside: when I got home from the game that evening, I found that a poster on one of the Rams message boards claimed to have seen April waving across the field at Martz as Clements streaked down the sideline. Never could confirm that rumor, but four years later, the mental image still makes me laugh.)
And they weren’t done yet. Lindell popped the kickoff up to the 30-yard line, where old friend Erik Flowers was lined up with the Rams’ return team. Unfortunately for Flowers, Jason Peters – still a backup tight and special-teams terror back then – arrived simultaneously with the ball. Peters won, and the Bills were back in business. Offensive penalties kept them out of the end zone, but Lindell kicked his second field goal to push the lead to 34-17.
Meanwhile, the defense was beginning to make Marc Bulger’s life miserable. They sacked the beleaguered Rams quarterback six times, including three by Lawyer Milloy, and picked off three of his passes after halftime. Star running back Marshall Faulk fared no better, managing just 6 yards on 13 carries. And by the time Lindell added the final three points at the end of the third quarter, the 72,393 fans in attendance knew there would be no comeback on this day.
NOTES: Willis McGahee had a quiet 100-yard game ... Bledsoe wasn’t great, completing just 15 of 24 passes for 185 yards, but he did throw those three touchdown passes ... Campbell became the first tight end in team history with three touchdown catches in one game ... For what it’s worth, the Rams released Landeta the next day and fired April’s replacement at the end of the season ... The Bills stood at 4-6 after the win, kicking off a six-game winning streak that put them back in the playoff picture. They’d end the season at 9-7, with the Week 17 loss to Pittsburgh keeping them out of the postseason ... St. Louis finished 8-8, but in the NFC, that was good enough to earn a playoff berth. They’d go on to beat Seattle in the wild-card game before getting thumped by the Falcons in a second-round matchup.
LAST TIME IN ST. LOUIS: December 10, 1995 – Bills 45, Rams 27
The Bills, clinging to a one-game lead in the AFC East race and on a two-game losing streak, got back on track by traveling to St. Louis and pounding the Rams. Time and time again, Thurman Thomas (24 carries – 129 yards) and Darick Holmes (12-90) sprinted past an overly aggressive Rams front four, allowing the Bills to amass 222 yards on the ground. And when the Rams backed off their upfield charge, Jim Kelly picked them apart, throwing four touchdown passes for the tenth time in his Hall of Fame career despite playing with a bruised throwing shoulder.
The Rams led 10-7 at the end of the first quarter on Mark Rypien’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Todd Kinchen, but scores by Thomas and Holmes put the Bills up 21-13 at the half. The Kelly-to-Steve Tasker combination owned the third quarter as the special-teams star, in the lineup due to Andre Reed’s hamstring injury, toasted the Rams safeties for two touchdowns.
The defense was doing its part, too. They held Rams running backs to 73 yards and sacked Rypien four times, two by Bruce Smith, and didn’t allow them back into the end zone until the game was well out of hand. Rypien and backup Dave Barr combined for 401 passing yards, but with a three-touchdown lead for most of the fourth quarter, the Bills were more than happy to let them pile up meaningless statistics.
NOTES: Bill Brooks caught his eleventh touchdown pass of the season, breaking the team record formerly shared by Elbert Dubenion, Bobby Chandler, and Andre Reed ... Holmes ran for touchdowns of 1 and 38 yards, the first multiple-touchdown game of his career ... The Bills improved to 9-5, staying a game ahead of Indy and Miami. They would go on to capture their AFC East title in years and end Don Shula’s coaching career with an emphatic wild-card win before falling to Pittsburgh in a second-round playoff game.