Head coach Eddie Erdelatz called it “far and away our worst performance” and he wasn’t kidding. On a damp, blustery day in Buffalo, the Bills hit on big play after big play and thumped the Raiders 38-9. The lowering, gray skies and steady light rain kept attendance down to a paltry 8,876, but those who did show up saw their team at peak performance.
The Raiders, at 3-3, came into the game as one of the hottest teams in the AFL and a win, coupled with a Boston win over the Broncos, would move them to the top spot in the league’s Western Division. The Bills, at 1-4, entered the game with the league’s top defense, but with an offense that hadn’t found much success. They had made a change at quarterback just a week ago, picking up Johnny Green, a Steelers castoff, and started him in place of Tommy O’Connell, an old Browns hand. In that game the Bills lost a tight one to the Titans, but head coach Buster Ramsey was encouraged by his play and planned to keep him in there against Oakland.
The Raiders made a small change prior to the game, too. Billy Reynolds, a return specialist who was a late-week pick up for the team, had been activated for the contest. And in the backfield, Billy Lott, whose status had been uncertain because of a hamstring pull, would play, but JD Smith would start the game at fullback.
From Oakland’s perspective, the game started disastrously and never improved. Buffalo won the coin toss and their opening play from scrimmage was a 42-yard run by halfback Willmer Fowler. The next play was a 38-yard touchdown pass from Green to fullback Wray Carlton. The Raiders, behind Tom Flores at quarterback, couldn’t get anything going on offense. Wayne Crow intercepted Green on the Bills’ next drive, but that was the high-water mark for the team in the first quarter. Late in the period, Buffalo put together another scoring drive, sparked by a 36-yard pass to tight end Tom Rychlec and capped by another touchdown toss to Carlton, this one good for 23 yards.
On their next drive, early in the second period, Green threw his third touchdown pass, a 55-yarder to his speedy wide receiver, Elbert Dubenion. Down by three scores and with nothing going on offense, Erdelatz pulled Flores in favor of Babe Parilli and there was immediate improvement, for a time. Parilli connected with end Charlie Hardy on a 24-yarder that put the Raiders in Buffalo territory for the first time, then drove his team to the one where Smith leaped over the pile to score. The Raiders made it to the Bills 10 on their next drive, but Larry Barnes’ field goal attempt was wide, and Buffalo still led 21-7.
The Raider defense next forced a three-and-out from the Bills, but punt returner Jack Larscheid was separated from the ball almost as soon as it touched him by a hard-hitting Buffalo coverage man and tackle Donald Chelf recovered for the home side at the Oakland 37. The Bills wasted no time making good on the opportunity, scoring on Carlton’s third touchdown reception of the day, this one from 32 yards out. The half ended without further damage to the Raiders.
Flores came back in for Oakland in the third quarter, but he was soon intercepted by Jim Wagstaff and the Bills turned it into a Joe Hergert 26-yard field goal. There was excitement a little while later when the teams exchanged interceptions on consecutive plays, but the period ended without further scoring.
The Raiders weren’t done with the blunders, though. Smith fumbled a punt early in the fourth quarter to give the Bills another opportunity, and though the defense held Buffalo to a field goal attempt, when Hergert’s boot fell short, Eddie Macon tried to return it at the five and promptly fumbled it back to the Bills. Three plays later, Green carried it across from the one on a quarterback sneak and Buffalo led, 38-7. Larscheid returned the ensuing kickoff 61 yards and Parilli came back into the game, but on first-and-goal from the nine, he was picked off by linebacker Archie Matsos to snuff the last serious Raider drive. The Raiders did score again when, after forcing the Bills to punt, center Dan McGrew snapped the ball well over the head of punter Billy Atkins and through the end zone for a safety. After that, the reserves entered the game and the Bills nailed down the win.
Afterward, the Raider players were remarkably undiscouraged, but Erdelatz didn’t sugarcoat it. “It’s a good thing for us the game lasted only 60 minutes,” he said, “because the longer it went, the worse we got. We did nothing right against a team that did everything right. Buffalo put together a terrific team effort and didn’t get anything they didn’t deserve. Today, they were as good as any team we’ve seen, and we’ve beaten Houston and Dallas.”
Parilli echoed his coach’s sentiments. “I never saw anything like it,” said the five-year NFL veteran, “The coaches kept telling us all week that they were tough. They were tougher to move than any team we’ve played.”
In the other locker room, the mood was naturally ebullient. Ramsey was quick to praise his rookie quarterback. “I have to thank my good friend (Steelers’ coach) Buddy Parker for Green,” he said, “He was so sure of Johnny’s potential that he kept him working with the Steelers even after he got Rudy Bukich to back up Bobby Layne. All Johnny needs, and he needs a lot of it, is experience, and it looks like he’s going to get it from now on. I don’t think Green played up to his complete potential today. He’ll get even better.”
Ramsey also had good words to say about his halfback. “I congratulated Fowler after the game,” he said. “He did a real job for us on pass protection. Oakland shot their weak-side linebacker all day. Fowler’s only a 180-pounder but he blocked that big guy charging at him every time. The linebacker never got a hand on Green.”
Bills owner Ralph Wilson said “this is my happiest day in football. Give the coaching staff the praise. Our boys have tried hard all the way.”
Asked about the game’s poor fan turnout, he said, “Who cares about how much money we lost today? It will come back. The fans have been faithful. Now that we have shown them that we have a good team that can explode, they’ll be with us strong for the Houston and Dallas games.”
Looking at the numbers, the teams were even in first downs and roughly even in rushing. The difference came in the passing game. Each team completed 15 passes, but the Bills kept hitting the big ones and outgained the Raiders 249-129.
Neither Oakland quarterback played particularly well. Flores completed just 6 of 13 for 40 yards and Parilli completed 8 of 24 for 89 yards. Each threw an interception, as did halfback Tony Teresa, who went 1-for-2 on the day. Larscheid led the team in rushing with 32 yards on nine carries. The team’s top receiver was tight end Gene Prebola, who caught four passes for 25 yards.
Green was inconsistent for the Bills, connecting on 14 of 32 passes, but when he did hit, he was in the money, with four touchdowns and 244 yards. The Buffalo rushing attack was nothing much to speak of. Fowler led the way with 36 yards for the game on seven carries. He opened the contest with that 42-yard run but gave some of it back the rest of the way. Carlton was the game’s top receiver with five catches for 110 yards and those three touchdowns. Matsos got two interceptions on defense.
The Bills, improving to 2-4, would stay at home to face the 5-1 Oilers, 42-28 winners over the Titans. The Raiders, meanwhile, would stay in the East, and had just five days to prepare for a Friday night game in the Polo Grounds against those same Titans.
Buffalo Evening News
Hayward Daily Review
Official American Football League gamebook
San Mateo Times