I still remember it like it was yesterday. The Buffalo Bills took a playoff lead with 16 seconds left on the clock, and then … they blew it.
You may think I’m referring to last year’s divisional playoff between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Bills. I could have been, but in this case, I’m actually referring to the 1999 AFC Wild Card game between the Tennessee Titans and the Bills. The Bills wouldn’t make the playoffs for another 18 years after this loss.
The Bills are, unfortunately, the only team in the last 30 years to lose not one, but two playoff games after taking a lead with less than 25 seconds remaining on the clock.
A lesser fan base might have abandoned their team after losses like these.
What you need to know is that you don’t become and stay a Bills fan because it is easy. You become and stay a Bills fan because in the words of former Buffalo Head Coach Marv Levy: “When it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us.”
Last year’s loss against the Chiefs made Bills fans like me even more eager to see the Bills finally win a Super Bowl.
And when you looked at the statistics a few weeks ago, it looked like that optimism would pay dividends.
Heading into Week 17, the Bills were tied for the best record in the AFC. They held the tiebreaker over the Chiefs for a first-round playoff bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Then, it happened: the moment in which football took a backseat and even the toughest of men became visibly emotional.
The near death of Bills safety Damar Hamlin in front of a national television audience is probably the most stunned I’ve been watching a live event unfold on television since the September 11 attacks.
The event had many parallels for American viewers to the sudden collapse of Denmark midfielder Christian Eriksen due to cardiac arrest at Euro 2020 had for international ones.
But for however tragic Hamlin’s near death experience was – like Eriksen’s subsequent recovery – the days afterward have been even more uplifting.
His amazing survival and recovery, along with how Buffalo and, really, the world rallied around him, embodied Levy’s words.
The NFL ended up canceling the Bills game against the Cincinnati Bengals during which Hamlin’s injury occurred. While that was the correct call, it had the side effect of allowing the Chiefs to have one more win than the Bills because Buffalo played one less game.
The Bills now have to play in the first round of the playoff as the Chiefs get the first-round bye.
Still, I feel more optimistic than I have felt in all my years as a Bills fan. I imagine it’s how Buffalo fans felt during the 1990/91 season – the one that ended up with the Bills losing on a last second missed field goal by Scott Norwood to an underdog New York Giants squad (A side note: I’m too young to actually remember that game).
Again, as I said before, a lesser fan base might have abandoned their team after losing like that. Instead, Norwood was cheered at a downtown rally following the loss. The Bills would go on to become the first team to make four consecutive Super Bowls … and subsequently lose each of them.
A reason for optimism
So why do I feel so good after such letdowns?
Part of it may blind optimism. Part of it may be the high I’m feeling after the Bills defeated the New England Patriots last weekend, a game in which Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown and then became the first player since 2010 to return two kickoffs for a touchdown.
It feels like fate is finally on our side. After all, it was three years and three months since the Bills had returned a kick for a touchdown; quarterback Josh Allen threw for three touchdowns; and the Bills defense had three interceptions against the Patriots. Hamlin’s jersey number is, of course, No. 3.
Of course, I’m not one who traditionally relies on fate. I’m literally the only “data reporter” at CNN.
So let’s talk about cold hard stats.
This weekend, the Bills will play the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round. They’re favored to win by double-digits.
After that, the road likely gets trickier in the AFC divisional game, the AFC Championship game and the Super Bowl.
I know, though, we have the best team. Whether it be ESPN’s FPI, FiveThirtyEight’s Elo or Football Outsiders DVOA, the Bills are the top team in the league according to the metrics. The last of those indexes has the Bills as only the seventh team in the last 40 years to finish in the top five leaguewide in offense, defense and special teams.
To paraphrase another famous quote from Levy, there truly is no place I would rather be as a Bills fan than right here, right now.