Do you BILL-lieve in miracles?
OK, so the end of the Bills 17-season playoff drought wasn’t nearly as miraculous as that upset of the mighty Soviets by the U.S. Olympic hockey team that inspired Al Michaels to deliver perhaps the most famous call in sports broadcasting history.
But what happened Sunday was highly improbable, and, finally, after cycling through 10 head coaches, a busload of draft and free agent busts and a generation of heartbreaking losses, the Bills are – drum roll, please – going to the playoffs for the first time since Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office.
They entered today’s final regular season games with anywhere between a 12 to 18 percent chance depending on whose playoff simulator you believed.
The Bills took care of what they needed to take care of, as defensive tackle-turned-fullback Kyle Williams bulldozed in for his first NFL touchdown and Jordan Poyer intercepted a pass with 49 seconds remaining to secure a 22-16 victory against the Dolphins in Miami.
Then, the real nail-biting drama began.
Buffalo needed Cincinnati to knock off Baltimore, and the odds of that happening seemed daunting after the Ravens took a late-game lead. Facing a fourth-and-one, and trailing by three with just under a minute remaining, Bengals quarterback Andy “Freaking” Dalton connected with Tyler Boyd on 49-yard touchdown pass. The Ravens failed to mount a comeback on their final drive, giving Cincinnati the 31-27 victory that punched Buffalo’s ticket to its first playoff game since the infamous “homerun throwback” loss to the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 8, 2000.
That defeat to the Titans set in motion 17 seasons of misery and near-misses.
General managers, coaches and players paraded through the revolving door at One Bills Drive, producing one broken promise after another.
And before this season kicked off, it appeared that it might get worse before it got better. There was talk of tanking in order to take advantage of what portended to be a bountiful 2018 draft.
But a funny thing happened on the way to what was supposed to be a lost season.
An energetic young coach and a young general manger with a keen eye for talent came to town with a vision and a plan. Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane told us to trust the process, even after a mid-season, three-game losing streak that included a 30-point loss in a game where the first-year head coach made a rookie mistake by replacing veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor with rookie Nathan Peterman.
McDermott, to his credit, went back to Taylor and the Bills won four of their final six games.
Sunday’s series of events, in which the football gods finally smiled on Buffalo, prompted a lot of cheers and tears in the joyous Bills locker room. No one was more emotional than Williams, the elder statesman who has remained a winner amid all the losing in his dozen seasons with the team. His perseverance was finally rewarded today. He scored his first touchdown and earned his first playoff berth. Pretty damn good day at the office. And well-deserved one, too, for a guy who has been the heart-and-soul of this team.
About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Bills was the ankle injury suffered by running back LeSean McCoy. He was having a tough go of it before leaving the game for good in the third quarter with just 10 yards on 11 carries. Early reports say the X-rays were negative, so there’s hope that Buffalo’s most dynamic playmaker will be ready to go next Sunday at 1 when the Bills play the AFC South champion Jaguars in Jacksonville.
There will be several juicy story lines for that game, including the one about former Bills head coach Doug Marrone helping the Jags snap their 10-season playoff drought. Buffalo fans still haven’t forgiven him for leaving the team after a 9-7 season three years ago. They called him a quitter. Another Bills connection with be Marcell Dareus, the former Buffalo Pro Bowl defensive tackle, who was traded to the Jags earlier this season after McDermott and Beane tired of his sense of entitlement and inconsistent effort.
But before looking ahead, Bills fans should take some time to savor the moment. It’s been a long-time coming.
On one of the more memorable days in recent history, their team finally removed that albatross from their necks.
The drought is history, thanks to an improbable series of events that have people BILL-lieving for the first time in a generation.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is in his seventh season as a Bills analyst for WROC-TV and in his 33rd season covering the team.