The last time the Buffalo Bills were in playoffs, 18 years ago, there was a miracle. But what do you call a miracle when you’re on the wrong side of it?
After Bills kicker Steve Christie made a 41-yard field goal to put his team up 16-15 over the Tennessee Titans with 16 seconds remaining, the game appeared to be over. The Bills had stupidly gambled with their quarterback situation (sound familiar?) heading into the wild-card playoff game—starting backup Rob Johnson over Doug Flutie after the former played well during a meaningless Week 17 contest—but it looked like they would survive anyway. The Titans’ win probability stood at 0.3 percent. Before the kick, announcer Mike Patrick had proclaimed that the attempt was “for the game.”
Then came the ensuing kick return. Christie kicked the ball to Lorenzo Neal, who caught it and handed it off to Frank Wycheck; Wycheck took six steps to his right and then twirled around and chucked the ball back across the field like a shortstop to Kevin Dyson; Dyson started running down the sideline. A wall of Titans formed around him. He kept running down the sideline—and he crossed the goal line with three seconds left in the game.
“This is not a lateral!” one of the announcers cried, referring to Wycheck’s cross-field pass to Dyson. But replays were inconclusive, and the play stood. The Titans had won. It was a miracle. But what do you call a miracle when you’re on the wrong side of it?
Bills fans don’t need to be reminded of these details—we know them by heart. The Music City Miracle is a haunting memory burned into our minds; the names Wycheck and Dyson will never fade for us. I asked some friends who are fellow Bills fans what they remembered most about January 8, 2000.
“I actually missed most of the second half of that game because my indoor soccer team had a Saturday afternoon match,” one friend wrote to me in an email. “But once my match let out, sweaty 10-year-old boys and their parents formed a tight ring around the sole television mounted on the wall in the sports complex. We—complete strangers who were competing minutes before—were then cheering, high-fiving, and even hugging when Steve Christie hit the go-ahead field goal late in the fourth. Then, the ‘miracle’ happened.”
Added another friend: “I remember my dad yelling ‘That’s a forward pass!’ over and over again, and my sister throwing an apple core at the TV.”
I remember feeling like, at 10 years old, I had experienced true injustice for the first time. I remember hating the colors navy and powder blue. I remember just wanting to turn the TV off.
We all remember that day so viscerally because of the shocking way it unfolded, but also because nothing redeemable happened for our team after. The next year, Tom Brady became the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots. He’s 28-3 against the Bills in his career. The Bills’ Doug Flutie–Rob Johnson tandem of that 2000 season gave way to the back half of Drew Bledsoe’s career, and then to Kelly Holcomb, J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and EJ Manuel, with each QB injecting a forlorn fan base with a sense of pure but naive hope that would be obliterated within weeks by a backbreaking fourth-quarter interception. The coaches turned over just as frequently, from Gregg Williams to Mike Mularkey to Dick Jauron to Chan Gailey to Doug Marrone to [vomits] Rex Ryan, with each new hire convincing us that things would be different, because each new face briefly allowed us to believe that now was our time. But it never was. We drafted Mike Williams, Losman, Aaron Maybin, and Manuel in the first round—all busts. We traded our 2015 first-rounder to move up and pick Sammy Watkins in a draft that included Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, and Brandin Cooks. In 2004, we witnessed the Bills losing at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ backups in Week 17, knowing a win would have put us in the playoffs. We watched Marshawn Lynch turn into a superhero once he’d moved from Buffalo to Seattle. We watched fast starts—5-3 in 2002, 4-0 in 2008, 4-1 in 2011, 4-2 in 2016—fizzle out so many times we got used to it. It feels like the Bills have lost a million pivotal November games to the Kansas City Chiefs. And every time we looked at the calendar, Bills fans had to come to terms with the reality that another year had passed, and that the team had missed the playoffs once again.
The drought felt like confirmation of what the rest of the world thought about the Bills, and to a further extent the city of Buffalo: It’s a team full of chokers; a city of sports misery. From 1990 to 1993, the Bills made—and lost—four straight Super Bowls. Strangers have made Scott Norwood jokes to my face, even though I was only a year old when his kick went wide right against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV. The city hasn’t celebrated a major championship, ever. The last time the hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, was in the Stanley Cup finals, in 1999, the Dallas Stars’ Brett Hull scored a triple-overtime series-clinching goal with his dumb foot in the crease. And the last time the Sabres were close, heading into the third period of an Eastern Conference final Game 7 with a one-goal lead, the team gave up three goals in the final frame to lose 4-2. Things don’t go Buffalo’s way, and the 18 years without a Bills playoff appearance were just more proof of that.
But fandom isn’t about winning. It’s not a results-based proposition. It’s not about the ends of seasons; it’s about the beginnings, those stretches of infinite possibility and unadulterated hope. The times when you talk yourself into your team trading away its no. 1 wide receiver weeks before the regular season, because why not? Why shouldn’t you peer into the future and believe that destiny will smile on you? It’s about the middles, the moments of pain and suffering that you willfully expose yourself to, because deep down you understand that pain is a partner to hope, and that one day—just one time—the heartache will be worth it.
Being a fan is about unconditionally loving a T-shirt and three major colors even though you know it’s illogical—because loving irrationally is the only way to experience sublimity.
Bills fans don’t pack in the lots surrounding Ralph Wilson Stadium (I know it’s called New Era Field, but c’mon) in the middle of winter because the team is winning. They didn’t stay during a literal blizzard when the Bills played the Colts this December because an undefeated season was on the line. We do those things because the Bills are ours—we’ve tied ourselves to this team, a union strengthened by bad times and built on the promise of better times. They represent us, all of Western New York, a collection of towns and cities filled with people who have spent their entire lives reminding the rest of the country that, yes, there is more to the state than New York City. And we jump on tables and douse an old man in ketchup and mustard because, well, it’s cold out, and when it’s cold out you have to drink a lot of Crown Royal and Labatt Blue Light to stay warm.
Last Sunday afternoon, everything was going according to a script Bills fans are used to, thanks to the aforementioned fourth-quarter interceptions. Of the four teams vying for two wild-card spots, the Bills needed the most to go right, and for two quarters of football, things did: The Bills were easily beating the Miami Dolphins, and the Cincinnati Bengals were somehow spanking the Baltimore Ravens, meaning that it didn’t even matter that both the Titans and Chargers were winning. But as the sun set on the last day of 2017, the hope began to fade. The Bills were barely holding on to a lead, and the Bengals—who at one point led the Ravens 24-10—hadn’t scored an offensive point in the second half of their game, and had given up the lead with under nine minutes to go. Inching toward the two-minute warning of that game, the Bills’ playoff chances had all but disappeared, even though they had held off the Dolphins to go 9-7 on the season.
Wearing an Andre Reed jersey from the Bills’ Super Bowl years, I stared listlessly at the floor of my apartment as I came to terms with missing the playoffs for another year.
And then, pass interference on the Ravens. A few plays later, defensive holding, and suddenly the Bengals were nearing field goal range down just three points. An illegal shift and a couple of incompletions later, and the hope of an entire fan base rested on one play—fourth-and-12 from the 49-yard line—and one quarterback, Andy Dalton. He took the snap, shimmied up in the pocket for a second, and whipped a bullet downfield to an open Tyler Boyd, who turned and started running. Ravens defenders flailed around him. Boyd kept running. He crossed the goal line with 45 seconds left in the game. It was a miracle.
It doesn’t matter what happens this weekend. It doesn’t matter that the Bills’ best player, LeSean McCoy, has an ankle injury and may not play. It doesn’t matter that the Bills are 7.5-point underdogs against the Jacksonville Jaguars. All that matters is that the drought is over. Now Bills fans get to make new memories.