The Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos both know the anguish of losing Super Bowls. The Broncos are learning a lot about the anguish of losing plain, old games.
Thurman Thomas ran for two late first-half touchdowns and Carwell Gardner scored early in the third quarter as the Bills beat the Broncos 27-20 Monday night in a meeting of the losers of seven of the last eight Super Bowls.But the Bills didn't clinch it until John Elway threw out of the end zone from the 4-yard line with 21 seconds left in the game.
Denver, considered a Super Bowl contender when the season started, fell to 0-4. The only other time Denver began that badly was 1964 and it got Jack Faulkner fired as coach, a fate that could be awaiting Wade Phillips if Denver fans get their way.
The Bills took advantage of two turnovers for two TDs for 14 points in their spurt.
Thomas, who gained 103 yards in 17 carries before leaving with a right knee injury early in the third quarter, went in from 16 yards with 1:54 left in the half and from 27 with 18 seconds left in the half after Bruce Smith sacked Elway and forced a fumble.
Then Gardner scored 1:42 into the second half after Mickey Washington's interception, the fifth thrown by Elway this year.
The Bills (3-1) trailed 7-3 late into the second quarter against a team that had allowed an average of 37 points in its first three games and four starters to injury in the first 18 minutes - running back Rod Bernstine, cornerback Ray Crockett, offensive tackle Russell Freeman and defensive end Dan Williams.
The Bills took a 3-0 lead on Steve Christie's 36-yard field goal with 4:28 left in the first period.
Elway, who finished 26 of 45 for 280 yards, hit Anthony Miller on an 11-yard slant 1:18 into the second period to make give the Broncos their only lead.
The drive was vintage Elway: a 31-yard strike to Shannon Sharpe on a third and 19 from his own 19 and a 22-yard scramble to the 12 set up the score. But on his next series, he missed Miller wide open for what could have been a long TD play.
Buffalo appeared to take the lead on a 65-yard punt return by rookie Jeff Burris. But as the teams lined up for the extra point, referee Bob McElwee announced that a Bill had been holding on the play, negating the TD.
So Buffalo drove 68 yards in nine plays with Thomas running 16 yards off tackle with 1:54 left in the half, Buffalo's first touchdown in eight quarters.
Thomas scored again after Bruce Smith stripped Elway and Cornelius Bennett recovered at the Denver 27. On the first play, Thomas burst off the left side and into the end zone with 18 seconds left in the half.
It got worse on the first series of the second half.
Elway, who had an interception returned for a touchdown in each of Denver's first three games, threw one that Washington returned 27 yards to the Denver 25. Four plays later, after Thomas injured his knee carrying the ball to the 3, Gardner crashed into the end zone and it was 24-7.
But Denver came back, Elway leading a drive of 57 yards in nine plays capped by Leonard Russell's 2-yard dive for a TD. Then the Broncos drove 51 yards to set up Jason Elam's 28-yard field goal with 1:55 left in the third quarter and it was 24-17.
But Christie added a 28-yarder early in the third quarter after a 72-yard drive. Elam's 43-yarder cut it back to seven with 7:21 left.
Punter Chris Mohr tripped Glyn Milburn to stop a likely TD after Milburn had returned a punt 24 yards to the Denver 48 with just more than four minutes left. The Broncos reached the 4 but Elway's fourth-down pass failed.